Wednesday, 25 August 2010

"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds"

I have been reading a biography of physicist Robert Oppenheimer called "American Prometheus", which is a thorough and captivating study of the man, his intellect and subsequent terrible downfall of the father of the atomic bomb.

I will not paraphrase this interesting account, but instead highlight a few poignant points about Oppie's (or Opje's) life.

He was born into a wealthy family of Jewish textile importers, his father Julius S. Oppenheimer had married the very proper and bourgeois painter Ella. The product of this marriage were two children: Julius Robert and Frank Oppenheimer. Robert was 8-years older than Frank, and the former's public fame seemed to overshadow the latter for most of their life. Both brothers became physicists.

Robert had a passionate affair with literature and read widely and with depth (from Baudelaire to the Bhagavad Gita). The victories and downfalls of his life were often succintly summed up with a quote from something he had read. Like many Western intellectuals enthralledwith Eastern philosophies, Oppenheimer found solace in Eastern mysticism. He knew that poets like W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot had both studied the Mahabharata. To his brother Frank he says about the nature of duty in Eastern philosophy: "I think that all things which evoke displine: Study, and our duties to men and to the commonwealth, and war, and personal hardship, and even the need for subsistence, ought to be greeted by us with profound gratitude; for only through them can we attain to the least detachment; and only so can we know peace".

As a Berkeley academic Robert became indirectly linked with the Communist Party in the 1930's. Oppenheimer's politics were driven by the personal: "Somehow one always knew he felt guilty about his gifts, about his inherited wealth, and about the distance that separated him from others". Never in his life did he have to worry about money, and while very generous with some friends people still envied him for what he had been born with. The communist association would later on in his life transmute into grounds for persecution by the much-hated Joseph McCarthy: Oppenheimer, the man who had unravelled the secret of the atom would become a martyr of the fear that crippled post-war America.

This "distance" that separated him from others derived from his almost non-existent childhood. Oppenheimer's precociousness had resulted in a staunch rejection from his peers: "I was an unctuous, repulsively good little boy". Later on in life this distance was felt by others. One episode that is highlighted in the book is the relationship with Oppenheimer's student Edward Condon, who struggled to support a wife and an infant child on a small postdoctoral fellowship: "It annoyed him that Oppenheimer spent money so casually on food and fine clothes while seeming blissfully unaware of his friend's familial responsibilities". One day, Oppenheimer invited Edward and Emilia Condon out for a walk, but Emilia explained that she had to stay with the baby. Oppenheimer replied: "All right, we'll leave you to your peasant tasks". Another episode highlighting his poisonous tongue occurred when, upon seeing physicist Karl Compton's 2-year-old daughter reading a book on the topic of birth control, Oppenheimer looked over at the pregnant Mrs. Compton and remarked "A little late".

After his much-secluded undergraduate education at Harvard he went to study at the Cavendish Laboratory, in Cambridge, under the experimental physicist J. J. Thomson (discoverer of the electron), but Robert suffered several breakdowns at Cambridge due to a combination of factors (sexual frustration, social ineptitude and inability to excel as an experimentalist) and was diagnosed as schizophrenic: "I am having a pretty bad time. The lab work is a terrible bore, and I am so bad at it that it is impossible to feel that I am learning anything ... the lectures are vile". His erratic attitude during his year at Cambridge culminated in a series of very strange behavior, including an episode in a train where he saw a couple kissing very wildly, and after the man left, Robert kissed the woman. Consumed by feelings of inadequacy and intense jealousy, he poisoned an apple and put it on the desk of his head tutor, Patrick Blackett. For this he was nearly sent down (read: expelled) but managed to avoid this by agreeing to undergo psychoanalytic treatment.

The defining event in Oppenheimer's life was his assignment as director of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Briefly, this project was the culmination of "three centuries of physics" as eloquently put by Isidor Rabi, in that it sought to build the first nuclear weapon in time for the war in Europe. As we now know, this never happened; Hitler committed suicide on 30. April 1945 and Germany capitulated a weak after. By the summer of 1945 the team at Los Alamos had finished their original design and were ready to test the bomb. Oppenheimer dubbed the test site "Trinity" after a John Donne poem that opens with the line "Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for, you":

BATTER my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o' erthrow mee,'and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to'another due,
Labour to'admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely'I love you,'and would be loved faine,
But am betroth'd unto your enemie:
Divorce mee,'untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you'enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

The name Trinity also suggests that Oppenheimer was once again referencing to the Hindu scriptures, the Bhagavad-Gita: Hinduism has its trinity in Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer.

One of the women Oppenheimer was closest to was the enigmatic mistress Jean Tatlock, daughter of noted Harvard philologist John Tatlock (a Chaucer expert). Jean introduced Robert to the poetry of John Donne (Trinity is said to be a tribute to Tatlock), was a Stanford-trained medic, an outspoken member of the Communist party and she tormented Robert with their on-going, 0ff-going relationship that became ever more distant with the years. Eventually, during the Manhattan Project they saw each other in secrecy once (we know of this because she was being wiretapped by the US army), but half a year later, in 1944, Tatlock committed suicide under suspicious circumstances. The autopsy report included findings of chloral hydrate (knockout drops) and concluded that the death was from asphyxiation (by drowning in the bathtub). Her suicide left Robert Oppenheimer with a recurring feeling of guilt and remorse.

The Trinity nuclear test forever changed the world in an irreversible way, from a pre-nuclear world into a post-nuclear world. It happened at dawn (5:30 am) on July 16. 1945, postponed due to poor weather (it was feared that performing the test in rainy weather would prove lethal to the surrounding team of scientists as well as carry the radioactive fallout much further than predicted). Chicago physicist Sam Allison read the countdown for the detonation.
Young physicist Richard Feynmann stood 20 miles from the Trinity site, and instead of wearing the black glasses he had been handed for protection against UV-radiation he hid behind a truck windshield to see the event with his naked eye. Feynmann explains that the detonation resulted in a white flash that changed colour into yellow and then orange: "A big ball of orange, the center that was so bright, becomes a ball of orange that starts to rise and billow". A bang was heard a whole minute after the explosion.

Oppenheimer was shocked by the event and famously recalled the Hindu scripture Bhagavad-Gita: Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form (as Shiva) and says: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of the worlds".

Much deliberation ensued regarding the bellic nature of the nuclear bomb: Should a bomb be used against Japan to ensure their full surrender, or should it suffice with a mere demonstration of the deadly power of the atom? Were the Japanese about to surrender at the commencement of the Russian invasion of the island? Would the Japanese fight until last man?
The bomb would be necessary, it was felt, if the Japanese would not surrender. The Americans would not tolerate the high casualties associated with fighting the Japanese man-by-man, house-by-house. The terrible irony of this story is that President Truman had very reliable information regarding the Japanese desire for voluntary surrender, so history tells us that the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, to some extent, cruel, inhuman and unnecessary: "Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands" Oppenheimer later explained, stressing the deep feeling of guilt that haunted him for the rest of his life.

"If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendour of the mighty one."

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