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Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy - page 3 / 3

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read and reread the proceedings many times, and I am confident that Sherwin and Bird did the same

thing.A captivating sidelight of them is that they contain what I believe is the only “autobiography” of

Oppenheimer in existence, a thirteen-page history (in the book’s tiny print) of his life as described by

himself.

Throughout this book a number of principal actors – the great physics colleagues of Oppenheimer

– surface and resurface from time to time. Of all these, the one who stands out, the hero of the book in

my opinion, is Isidor I. Rabi1.

Rabi was a dauntless defender of Oppenheimer. He clashed dramatically on the witness stand with

the adversarial counsel. He was unyielding in his opposition to the hearings. He criticized Oppenheimer

to his face for his occasional failings but stood by him unflinchingly throughout the hearing

and post-hearing periods. He occasionally made some pithy, characteristic observations, the most

famous of which was his statement on the witness stand, “…what do you want, mermaids?” My

favorite of his observations was when he stated that Oppenheimer would have been a better physicist

had he studied the Old Testament and the Torah, rather than the Bhagavad-Gita. Rabi’s refusal to

shake hands with Edward Teller was one of those indelible non-events that crystallized the feelings of

the physics community with regard to Teller’s statement that he would feel more comfortable without

Oppenheimer’s having security clearance. (To be fair to Teller, it should be remarked that he was told

the substance of the Chevalier affair by the prosecuting attorney while Teller was on the witness stand,

although this is explicitly forbidden in normal courtroom hearings. This apparently caused him to

change his mind right then, and not support Oppenheimer, although he has stated that he originally

planned to do so.)

Because of the copious literature on Oppenheimer already in existence before this book appeared,

one encounters the same anecdotes with which even a casual Oppenheimer groupy is already familiar.

An example is the retelling of the story of his traveling to Boston at the end of the famous Shelter

Island Conference in June 1947 by chartered seaplane.The same incident in very similar words already

appeared in Silvan S. Schweber’s book, QED and the Men Who Made It (Princeton: Princeton University

Press, 1994), p. 174. Also, I found some small discrepancies in the retelling of some Oppenheimer

stories. An example, again, concerns the Shelter Island Conference. Its official title was “The Foundations

of Quantum Physics.” Sherwin and Bird state that Oppenheimer had taken the lead in organizing

the conference. In fact, Schweber, who devotes thirty-five pages to it, goes to great pains to show that

K. K. Darrow, the perennial secretary of the American Physical Society, Duncan MacInnes, a member

of the National Academy of Sciences, and Frank Jewett, its president, were primarily responsible for its

creation. To be sure, Oppenheimer, one of the key speakers, tended to dominate the discussions by

sheer dint of his personality and vivid imagination. But one should read Schweber’s version to obtain

a full understanding of what transpired there, and of Oppenheimer’s role in it.

In sum, this volume belongs among the best of the Oppenheimer biographies, bearing in mind its

goal of presenting a full picture of his contradictory character, without too much detail concerning his

science. I end with a paraphrase of yet another quote from I.I. Rabi: “I’m pretty complicated, but compared

to him I’m simple.”

1 I note, interestingly, that Oppenheimer never used his true first name, Julius, while Rabi always

used his, and at the hearing Oppie was always referred to as Julius R. Oppenheimer by the AEC.

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