J. Robert Oppenheimer was a puzzle to everyone. The nuclear physicist most responsible for the creation of the atomic bomb, he was a genius both scientifically and otherwise. His standards were impossibly high. He read widely in many languages, wrote poetry, and did superb science. Yet Oppenheimer was a man unsure of his identity and scarred by the now-famous Atomic Energy Commission hearing in which he lost his security clearance—one of the most spectacular attacks of the McCarthy era. Despite it, most everyone in the scientific community and in government agreed that without Oppenheimer’s totally remarkable leadership at Los Alamos, the atomic bomb would not have happened, and the Second World War would have ended very differently.
In this compelling essay from Now and Then Reader, Jeremy Bernstein, himself a physicist and once a colleague of Oppenheimer’s, remembers the man who was so difficult to decipher.
For nearly three decades Jeremy Bernstein wrote profiles of scientists for The New Yorker. Many were prizewinners, and his book Einstein was nominated for the National Book Award. Mr. Bernstein, a theoretical physicist, has also written Hitler’s Uranium Club; Three Degrees Above Zero; Cranks, Quarks, and the Cosmos; The Merely Personal; The Dawning of the Raj; and Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma. He lives in New York City and Aspen, Colorado.