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In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist
Silvan S. Schweber, In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000. 260 pp. $24.95.
Theoretical physics entered a revolutionary period in the 1930s. Fundamental discoveries about the nature of the material world were achieved at a breathtaking pace. Yet although this rather esoteric knowledge was pursued for its own sake, it quickly led to the creation of weapons of unprecedented destructive power.
Robert Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe were protagonists in this real-life mythological drama. Each made important contributions to the development of theoretical physics as well as to the creation of nuclear weapons. Subsequently, both sought to come to terms with what they had done and to address the moral and political challenges that ensued.
Silvan S. Schweber has written not a biography of these two brilliant men, but a wide-ranging interpretation of their lives. How did they become who they were? What do their responses to the challenges of their times tell us about the role of the scientist and about the range of human possibilities? On the scaffold of such questions, Schweber hangs an engaging tale that crosses many disciplines and sheds light on some forgotten corners of modernity.
The book progresses through a series of parallel investigations of Oppenheimer and Bethe, noting their commonalities and illuminating their differences. Schweber traces the development of Oppenheimer's moral outlook to his schooling in the Ethical Culture movement, a highly distilled form of Reform Judaism that once served as the last stop on the way to assimilation for some American Jews. Schweber locates [End Page 95] Bethe's cultural roots in the traditional German ideal of Bildung, or self-realization. In a brief but interesting discussion, Schweber helps the reader understand these now obscure conceptions of educating the whole person.
Schweber finds a particularly painful contrast between the two scientists in the way each responded to McCarthyism and, in particular, to allegations of disloyalty directed against a fellow scientist. In a 1949 appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Oppenheimer provided derogatory testimony about a former student, Bernard Peters, thereby placing Peters's career in jeopardy. Schweber juxtaposes this unhappy incident with Bethe's steadfast defense of Philip Morrison, the distinguished physicist and Manhattan Project veteran whose prior affiliation with the Communist Party and unabashed leftism threatened his position at Cornell Uni- versity.
Schweber acknowledges that for various reasons a comparison between the two cases is "somewhat unfair" (p. 146). Still, he finds evidence in these episodes for his portrayals of Oppenheimer as a flawed, increasingly isolated figure with a fragmented personality, and of Bethe as a person of seemingly flawless integrity and a master of physics, with strong ties to a community of fellow scholars.
The importance of community, referring to the social aspects of scientific practice that transcend nationality and other social barriers, is a recurring theme and one of the larger lessons that Schweber draws from his study. The community of fellow scientists is a source of personal strength and, in its potential universality, a model for humanity. According to Schweber, the community that Bethe helped to create at Cornell, together with his continuing scientific productivity, increased his willingness to assert himself as a moral force in public debates over nuclear explosives testing, strategic defense, nuclear disarmament, and other issues. Meanwhile, "the greatest tragedy of Oppenheimer's life was not the ordeal he went through over the issue of his loyalty," which is not discussed here, "but his failure to make the Institute for Advanced Study [of which he became director in 1947] a true intellectual community" (p. 40).
The book was initially envisioned as a single chapter of a full-scale biography of Bethe, based on access to his papers in the Cornell University archives. But with the remainder of that work yet...