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“i Am Become Death…”
The Agony of J. Robert Oppenheimer
October 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 6
At fourteen, to get him out of doors and perhaps to help him find friends, his parents sent him to camp. He walked the trails of Camp Koenig looking for rocks and, with the only friend he found, discoursing on George Eliot, emboldened by her conviction that cause and effect ruled human affairs. The other boys labeled him “Cutie,” and when casual bullying elicited no response hauled him off one night to the icehouse, stripped him bare, beat him up—“tortured him,” his friend said—and painted his genitals and buttocks green. Responsibly he stuck it out until camp ended, never went back, never mentioned the place or the humiliation again. But, not yet fifteen, he told a teacher at Ethical that fall, “I’m the loneliest man in the world.”
The loneliest man in the world graduated as Ethical’s valedictorian in February, 1921. In late April, waiting for his younger brother, Frank, born in 1912, to finish school so that the Oppenheimer family could summer in Europe, he underwent surgery for appendicitis. Recovered from that, while rock hunting in the Harz Mountains he contracted severe colitis. It laid him up for months, too ill to enter Harvard with his class; determined to toughen him, his father sent him off shortly after Christmas with a sturdy Ethical English teacher for a tour of the West. At the Los Pinos dude ranch, in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains northeast of Santa Fe, he learned to ride horses and live in rain and weather.
Like Eastern semi-invalids in the frontier days, Oppenheimer’s encounter with wilderness, freeing him from civilized restraints, was decisive, a healing of faith. In the years to come he would lease a ranch in the Sangre de Cristos up near ten thousand feet, and he and Frank would ride a thousand miles on horseback in a summer, sometimes ranging as far away as Colorado, living on raisin chocolate and whiskey and Vienna sausages and cheese. “My two great loves,” he wrote a friend in 1929, “are physics and the desert. It’s a pity they can’t be combined.” Eventually he contrived to combine them, siting the bomb laboratory, the ethical Erewhon, across the Rio Grande from the mountains, on Los Alamos, a desert mesa extended from below the rim of an ancient and exemplary caldera, a narrow, canyon-cut plateau eroded from the throe of the most violent extinct volcano in the world.
He came back tanned to Harvard, he said, like a Goth coming into Rome, and ravished it. He carried six courses at a time—the requirement was five—and audited four more. He read The Waste Land , just published, and saw himself reflected, and began to seek the stern consolation of Hindu mysticism; in his later years he would list Eliot’s poem along with the Bhagavad-Gita among the ten books that had shaped his philosophy of life. He realized during his sophomore year, 1923—looking to essences again—that in chemistry he had chosen the wrong major; he submitted himself to the distinguished physicist Percy Bridgman and switched to physics. Alfred North Whitehead arrived at Harvard the same year, and Oppenheimer submitted also to him. Nobel laureate Hans Bethe, who reported to Oppenheimer at Los Alamos and admired him warmly, exhumed the connection. Oppenheimer “worked at physics,” Bethe told a biographer, “mainly because he found physics the best way to do philosophy.” He graduated in three years, summa cum laude and first in his class, with the highest grade average Harvard ever recorded, but not yet, in his own severe judgment, a human being. Harvard, he would say, was “the most exciting time I’ve ever had in my life. I really had a chance to learn. I loved it. I almost came alive.” Noting the prodigious intake, Bridgman warned him not to consider himself a physicist until he’d done original work. He faced that sentence next.
At the Cavendish, Cambridge University’s celebrated laboratory, he struggled for the first time to do physics originally and alone. Before he succeeded, the self-doubt the effort exposed almost destroyed him. “My feeling about myself,” he said of this period, “was always one of extreme discontent.” A Cambridge friend remembered finding him groaning, rolling on the floor. He went into treatment with a London psychiatrist. “I was on the point of bumping myself off. This was chronic.” The psychiatrist diagnosed dementia praecox—schizophrenia—and refused to continue treatment. Oppenheimer went off to Corsica on spring holiday with friends, to whom he announced that his ideal man would be widely talented but would look at the world with a “tear-stained countenance.”