After three years at Harvard, capped by graduation summa cum laudem in chemistry, J. Robert Oppenheimer left America for Cambridge University in England, there to do postgraduate work in experimental physics. A letter from Percy Bridgman, his undergraduate mentor, preceded him. "It seems to me," Bridgman wrote to Ernest Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory, "that it is a bit of a gamble as to whether Oppenheimer will ever make any real contributions of an important character, but if he does make any at all, I believe that he will be an unusual success."
Twenty years later, as director of the Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory, Oppenheimer watched the successful test of the first atomic bomb. "A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent," he has said. "There floated through my mind a line from the 'Bhagavad-Ghita' in which Krishna is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty: 'I am become death, the shatterer of worlds.'"
Oppenheimer continued to serve his country after the war, most notably as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission's General Advisory Committee, until 1953, when the AEC, acting upon instructions of a President unwilling to resist the pressure of McCarthyism, revoked his security clearance. Publicly disgraced , Oppenheimer returned to academic life as director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, remaining there until his death in 1967.
Peter Goodchild tells this fascinating story very well. The complexity of Oppenheimer is unmuted, and the inconsistencies and controversies filling the years between these events are well researched and described. Along with many interviews of Oppenheimer's surviving friends and colleagues -- both admirers and critics -- Goodchild has made use of information newly available under the Freedom of Information Act.
Goodchild is not a scientist; he is the producer of a BBC television series based on this book that will be shown soon in the United States. Consequently, more emphasis is placed on Oppenheimer as "radicalized" young professor in California, Los Alamos administrator, and nuclear policy adviser to the government, than as brilliant physicist.
Of particular interest is Oppenheimer's political activity, not simply because of the shadow it casts over his scientific achievements, but also because it strongly influenced all of his adult life, being interrupted only by the war years at Los Alamos.
Both his wife and his brother, Frank, were members of the Communist Party in the 1930s, a time when it seemed to a great number of people that communism offered the only viable alternative to the fascism sweeping Europe. It is clear that this period awakened Oppenheimer's social conscience. Goodchild quotes him as saying at that time: "I began to understand how deeply political and economic events could affect men's lives. I began to feel the need to participate more fully in the life of the community."
After his success at Los Alamos, Oppenheimer served on various government advisory committees to direct development of peaceful and military uses of nuclear energy. He attempted to use his considerable prestige as the "father of the atomic bomb" to promote international control of nuclear weapons, believing that the nuclear monopoly then enjoyed by the United States could not last.
Goodchild devotes a considerable portion of the book to this postwar period, in particualr to the AEC inquiry that stripped Oppenheimer of his security clearance and thus effectively banished him from government service. The author points out that no evidence has ever surfaced that Oppenheimer's connections with the Communist party survived beyond the early months of 1942. Goodchild concludes that ". . . the Board was making a political assessment of Oppenheimer's negative attitude towards a particular weapon's strategy, which by inference, they supported, and then found against him because of his effectiveness in making his opinions felt.