Notes: American Prometheus by Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin


*American Prometheus* is a tale of a modern Galileo, “a scientist-hero martyred by the authorities in America’s anticommunist witch-hunt.” A sordid read full of science and sarcasm, dialogue and drama, love and war.


“I was an unctuous, repulsively good little boy. My life as a child did not prepare me for the fact that the world is full of cruel and bitter things.” – Oppie

While at a summer camp, Oppie made the mistake of telling his parents that the boys were teaching him “the facts of life.” This prompted a quick visit from his parents and soon, the counselor banned the telling of salacious stories. The boys knew Robert was responsible, so one night, “he was carried off to the camp icehouse, stripped and knocked about. As a final humiliation, the boys doused his buttocks and genitals with green paint. Robert was then left naked and locked inside the icehouse for the night.” Robert, amazingly, never said a word. He stuck it out the remaining weeks; “Robert suffered this gross degradation in stoic silence.” “I don’t know how Robert stuck out those remaining weeks,” a friend said. “Not many boys would have–or could have–but Robert did. It must have been hell for him.” The author writes, “Robert’s seemingly brittle and delicate shell actually disguised a stoic personality built of stubborn pride and determination, a characteristic that would reappear throughout his life.”

A teacher said Robert “received every new idea as perfectly beautiful.” I think that is a wonderful goal to aspire towards. This led him to be brilliant. When he was nine, the author writes, “he was once overheard telling an older girl cousin, ‘Ask me a question in Latin and I will answer you in Greek.’”

Oppenheimer’s head tutor at Cambridge, Patrick Blackett, was a genius experimental physicist and Oppie sought his approval greatly, yet often failed to attain it. Blackett pushed Robert to do what he wasn’t good at: experiments. This irritated Oppenheimer. “Consumed by feelings of intense jealousy,” the author writes, Oppenheimer poisoned an apple on Blackett’s desk. Julius, Robert’s father, pleaded with the school not to press charges. Some months later, he would attack his friend. After the apple incident, Oppie went to see a psychiatrist, but that never ended well. Herbert Smith explained why, “The trouble is, you’ve got to have a psychiatrist who is abler than the person who is being analyzed. They don’t have anybody.”

Robert would declare, “The kind of person that I admire most would be one who becomes extraordinarily good at doing a lot of things but still maintains a tear-stained countenance.”

One day, when Oppenheimer sought to gift Paul Dirac some books, Dirac declined: “reading books interfered with thought.” Later, Dirac was perplexed by Oppenheimer’s intellectual range. “They tell me you write poetry as well as working at physics,” Dirac said to Oppie. “How can you do both? In physics, we try to tell people in such a way that they understand something that nobody knew before. In the case of poetry, it’s the exact opposite.” “Flattered,” the author writes, “Robert just laughed. He knew that for Dirac life was physics was nothing else; by contrast, his own interests were extravagantly catholic.

During the Spring of 1926, Oppenheimer was in the midst of working on his first major paper in theoretical physics. It was a hard, new type of work. One day, he walked into Ernest Rutherford’s office and saw Niels Bohr sitting in a chair. Rutherford introduced the two. “How’s it going?” Bohr asked. “I’m in difficulties,” Robert replied starkly. “Are the difficulties mathematical of physical?” “I don’t know,” Oppie said. Bohr: “That’s bad.” Years later, Oppie reflected on Bohr’s profound question, “I thought it put a rather useful glare on the extent to which I became embroiled in formal questions without stepping back to see what they really had to do with the physics of the problem.”

Lesson: Know what problem you’re dealing with.

Oppenheimer was smart, and he knew it. During lectures from Max Born at Gottingen, he constantly interrupted with questions and corrections, chalk in hand. He’d declare, “This can be done much better in the following manner…” Naturally, other students complained, but Robert was oblivious to the politeness of Born’s nudges. One day, Maria Göppert, a future Nobelist, “presented Born with a petition written on thick parchment and signed by her and most of the other members of the seminar: Unless the “child prodigy” was reined in, his fellow students would boycott the class. Still unwilling to confront Oppenheimer, Born decided to leave the document on his desk in a place where Robert could not help but see it when he next came to discuss his thesis. ‘To make this more certain,’ Born later wrote, ‘I arranged to be called out of the room for a few minutes. This plot worked. When I returned I found him rather pale and not so voluble as usual.’ Thereafter the interruptions ceased altogether.

Robert was also wealthy, and spent money casually on food and clothes. Edward Condon, who just earned a PhD didn’t understand this. Robert didn’t understand Edward’s familial responsibilities. One day, Robert invited Edward and his wife out for a walk, but Emilie explained she had to stay with the baby. Robert replied, “All right, we’ll leave you to your peasant tasks.” After seeing Karl Compton’s two-year-old daughter pretending to read a small red book, which on the topic of birth control. Robert looked at the very pregnant Mrs. Compton and quipped, “A little late.”

Becoming a scientist, Oppenheimer said, “is like climbing a mountain in a tunnel: you wouldn’t know whether you were coming out above the valley or whether you were ever coming out at all.”

Robert spent a lot of young adulthood in Los Almos. “After a particularly grueling day on horseback, Robert wrote a friend wistfully, ‘My two great loves are physics and New Mexico. It’s a pity they can’t be combined.”

Oppie to Frank: “The reason why a bad philosophy leads to such hell is that it is what you think and want and treasure and foster in times of preparation that determine what you do in a pinch, and that it takes an error to father a sin.”

“The work is fine, not in the fruits but the doing..” Oppenheimer wrote to his brother Frank in the autumn of 1932. “Everyone wants rather to be pleasing to women,” he also wrote to Frank in 1929, “and that desire is not altogether, though it is very largely, a manifestation of vanity. But one cannot aim to be pleasing to women, any ore than one can aim to have taste, or beauty of expression, or happiness; for these things are not specific aims which one may learn to attain; they are descriptions of the adequacy of one’s living. To try to be happy is to try to build a machine with no other specification than that it shall run noiselessly.”

One night on a date in the San Fransisco Bay, Robert wrapped a blanket around his date and then said he was going for a walk. He came back shortly after and told said, “Melba, I think I’ll walk down to the house, why don’t you bring the car down?” But Melba had gone to sleep and didn’t hear him. Hours later, she woke up and waited for his return. Upon not coming, she flagged the police down. After searching the bushes for his body, Melba returned home with the police and they found a sleeping Oppie. Apoligizing, Oppie said he is awfully erratic and just “walked and walked–and I was home and went to bed.”

Since his emotional depression in 1926, Oppenheimer relied on discipline and work as his guiding principles. In the spring of 1932, those principles were elevated to a philosophy of life. He argued discipline “is good for the soul is more fundamental than any of the grounds given for its goodness. I believe that through discipline, though not through discipline alone, we can achieve serenity, and a certain small but precious measure of freedom from the accidents of incarnation…and that detachment which preserves the world which it renounces. I believe that through discipline we learn to preserve what is essential to our happiness in more and more adverse circumstances, and to abandon with simplicity what would else have seemed to us indispensable.”

Oppenheimer didn’t intend to create the hub of theoretical physics at Berkley when he started teaching there, it just kind of happened. “I didn’t start to make a school.” Oppenheimer later said, “I didn’t start to look for students. I started really as a propagator of the theory which I loved. about which I continued to learn more, and which was not well understood but which was very rich.”

Lesson: The odds of you building something great are slim, by definition, they have got to be even more so if you approach that which you do with the intention to “build something great.” But if you follow what you’re curious about, and what you know, you never know who you might bring along with you.

One day, Joseph Weinberg met with Oppenheimer to discuss his course of study. After Oppie asked what he had done, not expecting an answer, Weinberg told him he had been working on a theoretical problem. “You have this written up of course,” Oppie asked. He didn’t, but said he would. Two days later, Oppie returned the paper, impressed, and had the student present the paper in place of a seminar. Afterwards, Oppie said what he had presented was “kid stuff” and that there was a “grown-up way to do this kind of problem.” Weinberg spent the next three months working on a complicated calculation, but to no avail. “Now you have learned a lesson,” Oppie said. “Sometimes the elaborate, the learned method, the grown-up method is not as good as the simple and childishly naive method.”

Leslie Groves, the Army man who ran point on the Manhattan project, had picked Oppie for the lead man, but he faced a good deal of opposition. When he proposed his name to the Military Policy Committee, he said, “I asked each member to give me the name of a man who would be a better choice. In a few weeks it became clear that we were not going to find a better man.”

Lesson: When facing opposition to an idea, ask for a better solution, if there isn’t one, you win!

When Oppie first met Richard Feynman, he knew he wanted him at Los Almos. But his wife, Arline, had tuberculosis and Feynman wouldn’t leave without her. One day in the winter of 1943, Feynman received a call from Oppenheimer. Oppie let Feynman know he had located a tuberculosis sanatorium in Albuquerque. Feynamn was touched, and persuaded to move.

“Knowledge is itself the basis of civilization., any widening of the borders of our knowledge imposes and increased responsibility on individuals and nations through the possibilities it gives for shaping the conditions of human life.”

– Niels Bohr

Many scientists didn’t agree with the use of an atomic bomb. One group in Chicago organized an informal committee to discuss the social and political implications of using one. In June 1945, several members presented a 12-page reported that outline that, “It may be very difficult to persuade the world that a nation which was capable of secretly preparing and suddenly releasing a weapon as indiscriminate as the V2 rocket bomb and a million times more destructive, is to be trusted in its proclaimed desire of having such weapons abolished by international agreement.” For peace as the result of destruction was no peace at all.

Einstein described Oppie as an “unusually capable man of many-sided education.”

One day when Peter, Robert’s son, Kitty, Robert’s wife, helped him build an electrical toy, “a square box filled with various lights, buzzers, fuses, and switches.” He called this toy his “gimmick.” Two years later, David Lilienthal was visiting the Oppenheimers. While there, Kitty was trying to fix the “gimmick.” After fiddling with it for over an hour but to no avail, she had to stop to cook dinner. Robert took Kitty’s spot and began working on the “gimmick.” As Robert sat on the floor, the author writes, “Peter ran to the kitchen and whispered loudly to Kitty, ‘Mama, is it all right to let Daddy work with the gimmick?’ Everyone laughed at the notion that the man who directed the construction of the ultimate “gimmick” might not be qualified to fiddle with his child’s electrical toy.

Lesson: Your kids are not impressed, nor care, what you do.

Frank Oppenheimer said, “The whole point of the Exploratorium is to make it possible for people to believe they can understand the world around them. I think a lot of people have given up trying to comprehend things, and when they give up with the physical world, they give up with the social and political world as well. If we give up trying to understand things, I think we’ll all be sunk.”


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