- Storytelling and Science: Rewriting Oppenheimer in the Nuclear Age by David Hecht
David Hecht begins Storytelling and Science with the assertion that there has long been a public appetite for details about the nonscientific attributes of scientists. The public craves the details of scientists’ lives that biographers often present as distinct from their scientific work, and so the modern era has produced a roster of scientific celebrities: Linus Pauling, Rachel Carson, Jane Goodall, Stephen Hawking, among others. However, this raises crucial questions for life writing scholars and biographers alike. Can the scientific and nonscientific attributes of the scientist’s life narrative be separated? Is there such a category as “science” that is separate from the rest of society? The complex relationships between biography, science, celebrity, and modernity shape Hecht’s highly readable and well-researched study of the reception history of life narratives about Robert Oppenheimer, the “father” of the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer has been the subject of many biographies, scholarly studies, and popular culture representations. However, Hecht is right to assert, “No one has yet told Oppenheimer’s story entirely from the perspective of his various interpreters and their audiences” (3). Storytelling and Science is divided into five chapters that discuss different historical stages in the reception of Oppenheimer’s life narratives. It charts Oppenheimer’s oscillating investments, “from science to politics, then back to science,” and maps his life narratives according to two dominant versions of the subject: “the nuclear Oppenheimer and the Cold War Oppenheimer” (11). Some of this work appeared in two earlier journal articles (including a 2010 article in Biography); here, the author’s lengthy engagement with the topic pays off in a rigorous, sustained consideration of wide-ranging source material.
Chapter One, “The Atomic Hero,” explains that Oppenheimer first emerged into public view in the 1940s as the icon of the new nuclear age. It begins with a brief overview of Oppenheimer’s life story, from his 1904 birth [End Page 704] into a wealthy, cultured, secular New York Jewish family to his late life role as a statesman of science (he died in 1967). As much as Oppenheimer may seem to have arrived on the scene as an extraordinary individual possessing unique and admirable qualities that pushed him into the public eye, Hecht demonstrates that, in fact, “he became a scientific icon simply because a variety of historical actors found rhetorical and political uses for him” (16). These actors included politicians, but also reporters and editors, especially of the major American wartime newspapers and postwar popular magazines.
Oppenheimer first gained public notice when he was identified in the official War Department statements about the Manhattan Project released on August 6, 1945. This coincided with President Truman’s announcement of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Hecht reads these statements and others for their “literary qualities,” including tropes of the scientist physically altered by his own discoveries—in Oppenheimer’s case he was notoriously breathless upon seeing the first atomic bomb detonated at Los Alamos (19). The War Department also used Oppenheimer’s technical expertise to try and calm the American public’s concerns about radiation, and in so doing constructed him as a rational authority. The national media picked up these official statements, but it did not take long for writers to start using Oppenheimer for the different purpose of supporting the postwar control of atomic energy. Hecht shows how quickly Oppenheimer began to argue for a political rather than scientific solution to nuclear escalation, and how his nonscientific attributes became crucial to this role.
The second chapter, “Coming of Age in Science,” focuses on the 1954 media scandal of the Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC) investigation of Oppenheimer over accusations of Communist sympathies. The three-week hearing ended with the suspension of Oppenheimer’s security clearance, which was devastating to him, but Hecht shows how the public discussion of Oppenheimer continued for much longer. The breathless excitement of his 1940s image gave way to the equally dramatic image of a reformed...