Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Atom and void: the greek tragedy of the modern world

It is hard not to be fascinated by the figure of J.Robert Oppenheimer, despite the facts that rivers of ink, a huge number of popular books, several movies and recently a splendid opera have been dedicated to various aspects of his life. Mostly these recollections focus, of course, on his role as the head of the Manhattan project that ushered the world into the atomic era while causing about 250,000 Japanese civilians to either disappear into instant oblivion or else to undergo a slower death in the agony of radiation burns. Certainly the enormity of the impact of the atomic bomb on human civilization ("the gadget and its impact on civilization" was the title of a seminar that took place at Los Alamos shortly before the Trinity test), combined with the remarkable parabola of ascent to power and later descent into disgrace of Oppenheimer, make his personal story comparable to that of the tragic figures of the classic past: Oedipus Rex, Antigone, an apt comparison for a person who was a fine scholar of the classics in addition to a brilliant physicist. It is also the many contradictions implicit in the figure of Oppenheimer that make him so interesting: the Communist leaning, poet loving, dreamer, as well as the practical, almost cynical and immensely efficient administrator of the biggest Army sponsored weapons project in history. How can these so different aspects coexist in seeming harmony inside the same mind? They obviously can, to some extent, in many people: we can be poetic and cynical at the same time, compassionate and cruel, sensitive and tough. Yet in Oppenheimer's story this all happened in extreme degrees. He guided the project leading to the use of the atomic bomb, during and beyond the supposed race against German scientists, and yet he was later an advocate of disarmament and transparency in matters related to atomic weapons: "Follies can occur... whenever the men who know the facts can find no one to talk to about them, when the facts are too secret for discussion, and thus for thought". Yet, in 1953, shortly before his clearance was rescinded and his downfall began (courtesy of hard-core nuclear blaster Edward Teller), when Oppenheimer delivered his long awaited public lectures in England, he carefully chose not to speak about atomic weapons, the politics of disarmament and the Cold War. He delivered instead a set of scholarly lectures on the history of ideas in modern physics, fully displays his power of intellect, and consciously steering clear of the tragedy of life and history that was engulfing him. Passion and detachment, sensitivity joined with practical realism. He knew how to be cruel, as physicists attempting to give talks in his presence could often experience, and yet he knew how to be sensitive and kind. It is again a quality that many other people can exhibit, but it reached in this case some kind of essential form. Learning Sanskrit for the sole purpose of enjoying the reading of the Bhagavad-Gita in its original form and handling the task of assigning roles and coordinating efficiently the work of a large crowd of egocentric, individualistic, and generally megalomaniac scientists involved in the Manhattan project may seem like completely incompatible occupations and yet they do show a common trait that can make them coexist in a single mind: they both need an enormous drive and capacity to attain one's goals at the cost of an enormous investment of skills and energy. Oppenheimer lacked neither. This is all that concurs to make the figure of Oppenheimer the tragic figure par excellence of the modern world. It is instructive to read the text of those 1953 lectures, available together with another later series of lectures delivered in Canada in 1962. They are collected in the volume "Atom and Void" published by Princeton University Press in 1989, now out of print, but still available in second hand bookstore (I just got a copy from a Berkeley bookstore) or else one may be able to find it in some other language translation (for instance, I believe the French edition, published with the title "La science et le bon sens" is still in print), though not reading it in the original language might spoil the main feature of the book. There is in fact nothing really in the lectures themselves that will surprise anyone as far as the discussion of the history of science goes, but the writing style is very remarkable: it is the writing of a humanist who knows his way with language like scientists normally do not possess. I don't want to fall into the cheap "two cultures" trap here, but it is a sad state of affairs that the capacity to express oneself beautifully with the written language fails so often there where it would be most necessary, namely in writing about the nature of the universe and in a setting where clarity of expression can make the whole difference. I think one should read the Oppenheimer lectures to learn how to write about science in a way that fully takes advantage of the beautiful sophistication of the written language and of its subtleties of meaning.