J. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER: Shatterer of Worlds by Peter Goodchild

J. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER: Shatterer of Worlds

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A somber biography of Oppenheimer--despite its large, pictorial format-whose author also produced the BBC-TV series, scheduled for fall PBS showing, based upon it. The tragedy especially permeates the security-clearance hearings, of course. ""I think that any incident in a man's life of something of that sort you have to take it in sum,"" (non-native-speaker) Isidor Rabi told the security board. ""That is what novels are about. There is a dramatic moment in the history of man, what made him act, what he did, and what sort of person he was. That is what you are really doing here. You are writing a man's life."" Or wronging it, one wants to add. Rabi's was one of the more eloquent testimonies for the defense, but to no avail. The mood is heavy and sad throughout, however, as though the author envisions the inevitability of downfall. In spite of pro-Oppenheimer sympathies, the air is also judgmental: Oppenheimer was cold, we are told, a snob, an insufferable intellect whose tongue could be as sharp as his wits. The sections on the early years, which reflect the recently published letters, point up the image of anguished youth, the bouts of depression and irritability, the loneliness, and the relatively late encounters with women. Yet the letters revealed, as well, great affection for brother Frank and for friends, much enthusiasm for sailing and the New Mexico life, while accounts of the Los Alamos years by others also show a more ebullient Oppenheimer--the reckless driving, the jokes and wordplay that tempered the ""I am become death, the shatterer of worlds"" image. As the book moves through the war and postwar years, the doom magnifies. There is old-girlfriend Jean Tatlock's suicide, the heavy drinking by both Kitty and Robert Oppenheimer, the difficulties with the children. There is so much unrelieved gloom, indeed, that the restoration of status and respect with the Fermi award in 1963 seems an anticlimax. Too selective a portrait, then, but still a useful one, benefiting from documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and profusely illustrated with photos.

Pub Date: May 21st, 1981
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin