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  • J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life
  • Gregg Herken (bio)
J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life. By Abraham Pais and Robert P. Crease . New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Pp. xxii+353. $30.

Abraham Pais was a distinguished theoretical physicist, well-known science writer, and author of a prizewinning biography of Albert Einstein, Subtle Is the Lord (1982). As Pais recounts in this new volume, he had been urged by friends, shortly after his book on Einstein came out, to tackle the life of another famous and famously irascible physicist—Robert Oppenheimer. Pais [End Page 889] declared that "a worthwhile idea"—indeed, he had considered writing a biography of "Oppie" shortly after the latter's death in 1967. But then, as later, Pais demurred. "[P]revious experience had not yet taught me how to cope with the life story of a man for whom my feelings were ambivalent," he writes (p. xx).

It is a pity. Pais not only got to know Oppenheimer well when the two were at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton—both arrived in 1947, when Oppenheimer became the institute's director—but he was also close to many scientists who were good friends of Oppenheimer's, and he spoke to them at length about the man they all knew. "At that time I was still immersed in physics research, however, and was not yet prepared to devote efforts at historical writing" (p. xix).

Pais finally began his Oppenheimer biography in the late 1990s. He died in August 2000. Shortly after Pais's death, his widow and his editor picked Robert Crease, a philosophy professor and historian of science, to complete the unfinished book, while "keeping [his] own contributions to a minimum and leaving Pais's manuscript intact" (p. xvii). The result is a book that offers a glimpse into what might have been a unique contribution to our knowledge of Oppenheimer, but that, sadly, falls short and offers little that is new regarding the life, the times, or the man. What is new comes not from Pais but from Crease.

Ironically, Pais's manuscript ends abruptly on the morning of the first day of Oppenheimer's notorious personnel security hearing in the spring of 1954, an extrajudicial proceeding that has elsewhere been likened—properly—to a political show trial. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission's decision not to renew Oppenheimer's security clearance cast the man who, until then, had been the most politically influential scientist in Washington into a kind of advisory limbo, and academic exile, at the institute outside Princeton.

Unlike many of those who came into Oppenheimer's orbit, Pais successfully resisted either being drawn too close or repelled too quickly by Oppie's persona. Perhaps because he was, as an eminent theoretical physicist himself, one of the few best able to judge, Pais is unsparing in pointing out the "many errors [Oppenheimer] made in his calculations," and he even quotes approvingly the summary judgment of one of Oppie's early students: "His physics was good, but his arithmetic awful" (p. 25).

Inevitably, most of what Pais writes concerns Oppenheimer's tenure at the institute. Regrettably, we will never know what Pais thought about the security hearing, or Oppenheimer's behavior during his ordeal, beyond Pais's earlier admission of ambivalence toward his subject. The feelings might have been mutual—concerning Oppenheimer's attitude toward the institute, if not toward Pais. Following a visit in 1935, Robert had described it in a letter to his brother Frank as a "madhouse . . . its luminaries shining [End Page 890] in separate and helpless isolation." Oppenheimer's efforts to end that isolation, by bringing other sorts of scholars to the institute—including diplomat-historians like George Kennan—were heartily resisted by the luminaries already there, Pais sometimes included. Remarkably, Pais considered it "a token of [Oppenheimer's] arrogance" (p. 90) that the director did not clear an interview for the New York Times with the institute's scholars before its publication.

Because too much of the book is simply a compilation by Pais of Oppenheimer's essays and speeches, rendered in some cases verbatim, Crease's contribution, about one-quarter of the manuscript, is perhaps...


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