“i Am Become Death…”


Despite the baleful finalities, his vision was guardedly optimistic and far from Faustian. He thought that the community of scientists throughout the world, a community protected from too grievous error by the necessary and inherent openness of its work, might serve as a modest model for a peaceful, open world. Proposing such a model, he cautioned humility:

“This is a world in which each of us, knowing his limitations, knowing the evils of superficiality and the terrors of fatigue, will have to cling to what is close to him, to what he knows, to what he can do, to his friends and his tradition and his love, lest he be dissolved in a universal confusion and know nothing and love nothing. It is at the same time a world in which none of us can find hieratic prescription or general sanction for any ignorance, any insensitivity, any indifference. When a friend tells us of a new discovery we may not understand, we may not be able to listen without jeopardizing the work that is ours and closer to us; but we cannot find in a book or canon—and we should not seek—grounds for hallowing our ignorance. If a man tells us that he sees differently than we, or that he finds beautiful what we find ugly, we may have to leave the room, from fatigue or trouble; but that is our weakness and our default. If we must live with a perpetual sense that the world and the men in it are greater than we and too much for us, let it be the measure of our virtue that we know this and seek no comfort. Above all, let us not proclaim that the limits of our powers correspond to some special wisdom in our choice of life, of learning, or of beauty.”

Yet he knew the futility of words to change the world. He believed in Bohr’s principle of complementarity; he believed there are manifold ways of observation and manifold forms of action; he did not content himself with words. Out of physics, in concert with others from that community of scientists that was his model for utopia, he drew a simple and fundamental fact, that matter is only another form of energy and may be converted back to energy at will: that E=mc 2 . With that incontrovertible certainty, he made his argument secure, and assembled the bomb for us as a puzzle, a puzzle as Gordian and tangled as he was himself, knowing, this mystical man, that we would either learn in time to unravel it or explosively abrogate our claim to mastery of the earth.

J. Robert Oppenheimer died on February 18,1967, at the age of sixty-two. His ashes were scattered on the ocean off the Virgin Islands—the ocean with its vast reserves of nuclear fuel, the ocean with its depths. Among his last published words were these: “Science is not everything, but science is very beautiful.” And, the child and the man within the scientist: “No one should say there is no hope.”

Since he was buried in the sea, no epitaph marks his grave. A stanza from the Bhagavad-Gita might serve, though he would be the first to say it is not the whole story, is only one of several complementary and mutually exclusive points of view. He deserves it, if anyone among those who devised the machinery of nuclear holocaust does, in mitigation of the guilt he carried to his death for serving as loyally and as intelligently as he knew:

But he who is without thought of “I,” Whose understanding is pure Even though he should slay whole worlds He does not slay, nor is he bound.