ROBERT OPPENHEIMER: A Life Inside the Center. By Ray Monk. Doubleday. 825 pages. $37.50.
An 800 page, in-depth biography of a nuclear physicist ... now there’s a reading challenge. While not the easiest of reading efforts, this is a fascinating tale about one of the most extraordinarily complex, enigmatic and accomplished citizens of this country in the last century. It is a story of such world-shaking proportions and so thoroughly researched and documented as to rightly be called “epic.”
The son of German Jews who had migrated to New York City, Oppenheimer grew up in a very privileged household. He possessed one of the most colossal intellects of his time (or any other). He was described by a good friend as “a man who was put together of many bright shining splinters who never got to be an integrated personality.” He was not only the leader of the small cluster of particle physicists in the years leading up to and including World War II, he was fluent in six languages, including Sanskrit; and he was well-read in philosophy and a writer of French poetry.
He is correctly known as the father of the atomic bomb because of his accomplished leadership at Los Alamos in the early 1940s, but there was more than one blot on his escutcheon. In the years before the war he belonged to several Communist front groups, though he was never a member of the Communist Party. As a result, his loyalty during the McCarthy years was often questioned. The irony was that one would be hard pressed to find a more patriotic, loyal citizen. In his lifetime of accomplishments he experienced both the highest of accolades and the most demeaning of personal attacks.
Author Ray Monk delves deeply into Oppenheimer’s psyche and all the many complex factors that influenced its development. He succeeds in capturing the convoluted corners of the physicist’s character and the environment’s contributing factors. While he drags the reader deeply into the arcane science at the heart of the story, he also humanizes a man who might easily be portrayed as a caricature.
If Monk were not such an accomplished storyteller, this book would be become the dustiest of historical tomes. Of course the intricacies of Oppenheimer’s personality, the sheer magnitude of his accomplishments and the global turmoil of his era gave Monk some rich material with which to work.
This book will consume days instead of hours, but the effort will be well spent for its contributions to the reader’s entertainment as well as his or her education.
Reviewer Frank L. Cloutier is a retired engineer from Hanahan, currently living in Maine.