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“i Am Become Death…”
The Agony of J. Robert Oppenheimer
October 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 6
In the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer-the American physicist and scientiststatesman who directed the building of the first atomic bombs at Los Alamos, New Mexico, during World War II, whose government, discerning “fundamental defects” in his character, denied him security clearance in 1954, who died of throat cancer in 1967—some have professed to see embodied the moral ambiguities of twentieth-century science, science charging breakneck over human institutions, scientists waking compromised from Faustian dreams. These are tabloid notions, but Oppenheimer did live at the center of the century’s most disturbing contradictions, and struggled with them, and suffered for them, and if he is often taken as their protagonist, it is partly because he was a man of disturbing contradictions himself.
He was an authentic genius, the brightest of his generation, who never earned a Nobel Prize and to whose name no seminal scientific contributions today attach; a man of fierce, lively energy who brooded endlessly on death; a man of great personal warmth and devotion whose colleagues say they never knew him well; a man of gentleness who frequently lashed out with contemptuous sarcasm to cause others pain; a man of integrity who voluntarily sacrificed many of his students and friends to the Torquemadan mercies of Army Counter-intelligence and the FBI; a loyal patriot who was subjected to public humiliation at McCarthyesque hearings and whose security clearance, once denied, was never, to the end of his life, restored; a man dedicated more profoundly than most men to peace who helped inflict on the world its most terrifying instruments of war. Some of these contradictions have been, or can be, resolved. Others may never be, because he reserved his privacy as rigorously as did Thomas Jefferson, whose reach of mind his own resembled. But like all men—like Jefferson, too—J. Robert Oppenheimer left behind his tantalizing clues.
He was born to prosperity working up to wealth, in New York City, on April 22,1904. Three Van Goghs, a Picasso, a Renoir would decorate the living room of his family’s spacious apartment by the time he left for Harvard. According to his birth certificate, he was christened Julius Robert; he carried through life only the initial, insisting it stood for nothing at all, but Julius was his father’s name. Julius Oppenheimer, a vigorous and idealistic man, had emigrated from Germany in 1887 to join his uncle’s textile-importing firm and at age thirty, in 1900, became a partner. He married Ella Friedman in 1903.
Robert Oppenheimer’s mother was beautiful and a painter. She had studied impressionist technique in Paris and taught from her own studio in New York. She wore long sleeves always, and a chamois glove; her right hand was congenitally unformed. She was loving but severely disciplined, a descendant of a dignified Baltimore family; she engendered in her son, by the time he grew to be a man, a courtliness that even Europeans sometimes found extravagant; in her presence no one presumed to raise his voice. “I was an unctuous, repulsively good little boy,” Oppenheimer said later. “My childhood did not prepare me for the fact that the world is full of cruel and bitter things. It gave me no normal, healthy way to be a bastard.”
The Oppenheimers’ second child, Lewis, born in Robert’s infancy, died soon after birth, and horrified of germs and perhaps in retreat from that bereavement, they guarded Robert from companions and the street. He was a frail child, frequently ill, frequently lonely, precociously sensitive, precociously bright. When Robert was five, Julius took him to Germany to visit his Grandfather Ben; Ben praised Julius’ success and gave his blue-eyed grandson a rock collection. It was Robert’s first recorded glimpse of science: science at its most modest, classifying, and science at its most inanimate, rocks. He carried his collection home and enlarged it, his father indulgently supplying funds, until specimens lined the apartment halls. And that early in the involution of his aesthetics, or in his extreme isolation, he barricaded himself behind essences. He chose to specialize in crystals, atomic signatures cleaved to immutable geometries, certainties of rock that without genealogy, uncreatured, are born and perfect themselves and reproduce. He specialized so fervently that the curator of crystals at the New York Museum of Natural History took him as a pupil. A professional microscope that he tuned to the enormities of minutiae was his other childhood toy.
Once he learned to read, he lived in books, encountering there his peers. When he was old enough for classrooms he attended New York’s Ethical Culture School, the fine pedagogic extension of Felix Adler’s Society for Ethical Culture to which Julius Oppenheimer belonged, which declared that “man must assume responsibility for the direction of his life and destiny”: man, as opposed to God. Robert did: did laboratory experiments in the third grade, began keeping scientific notebooks in the fourth, began studying physics in the fifth, lectured to the surprised and then delighted members of the New York Mineralogical Club when he was twelve.