- Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center by Ray Monk
By Ray Monk. New York: Doubleday Press. 2013. Pp. 848. $37.50.
J. Robert Oppenheimer has managed to capture the attention of the American people since the first public acclamation of his directorship of Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. The rise, fall, and rehabilitation of his name mirrors the political turmoil experienced in both scientific circles and the nation during the first decades of the cold war era. Scholars continue to be fascinated and drawn to the complexly layered story that is Oppenheimer’s life. Some, like Nuel Davis Pharr (Lawrence and Oppenheimer, 1968) or Gregg Herken (Brotherhood of the Bomb, 2002), attempted to understand the Oppenheimer mystique through comparisons with his contemporaries. Others, such as S. S. Schweber, followed a more direct path, focusing on the moral ambiguities that characterized Oppenheimer’s personal life (In the Shadow of the Bomb, 2007). Several contextualized the Greek-like tragedy that became Oppenheimer’s later life and career within the often fractious relationship between science and the state.
Ray Monk’s Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center proposes a new perspective, one which places the so-called father of the atomic bomb in the middle of a series of breakthrough developments. Monk, a professor of philosophy at the University of Southampton, argues that from an early age, Oppenheimer yearned to be in the center of action if not the actual focal point of attention. He uses this literary device as a mechanism to trace Oppenheimer’s need to be in the middle of events, from his German Jewish family’s assimilation in America to his successive moves from one hub of physics research to another. His desire to be at the center is reflected as well in his research pursuits, which many times put him at the cutting edge of theoretical physics. The quest to attain position in the center, according to Monk, also motivated Oppenheimer’s drive to establish centers of theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkley. While director of Los Alamos, Oppenheimer stood near the apex of bomb development and oversaw a constellation of famous or soon-to-be-famous scientific minds. He maintained a central role in early postwar nuclear weapons policy through his General Advisory Committee chairmanship. Even his brutally orchestrated 1954 security hearing and public humiliation still placed him, for a time, in the center of action. Oppenheimer’s final years as director of the Institute for Advanced Study, public speaker, and scientific pundit not only resulted in his rehabilitation but kept attention on him.
Monk writes a readable, if sometimes dense, guide to Oppenheimer’s life. The first two parts of his book perhaps best illustrate Monk’s use of the center metaphor. The chapters in these sections carry the reader from [End Page 774] Oppenheimer’s childhood through his early professional career and efforts to establish new theoretical physics research centers in California. The third part focuses entirely on the Manhattan Project and unfortunately is the least satisfying of the four sections. The Los Alamos years, the race to build the bomb, and the intrigues enwrapping Oppenheimer as director should have been the pinnacle of Monk’s work. The author instead embarks on a series of tangents concerning the wartime security investigations into Oppenheimer and his associates and students, and their implications. These side stories are interesting, but have been told by others before. They serve to reinforce the argument that Oppenheimer always sought to be in the center, but Monk would have accomplished that same goal by focusing more on Oppenheimer’s directorship of the laboratory.
The final section considers Oppenheimer’s rise and fall from prominence in the postwar years. Monk highlights the irony of the later years. Fiercely patriotic, despite an earlier flirtation with communism, Oppenheimer preferred further development of tactical nuclear weapons over the hydrogen bomb that had questionable military usefulness. Although guilty of arrogance generated by a combination of privilege, intellect, public exposure, and strong opinions, he never acted detrimentally against his nation.
Monk offers an exhaustive portrait...