Saturday, July 27, 2013

The life of the mind

From Sam Schweber's In the Shadow of the Bomb:
It was part of Oppenheimer's tragedy that, after World War II, he felt that he no longer was a creative scientist and that he therefore had lost part of his "anchor in honesty," and hence integrity. George Kennan, who got to know Oppenheimer after the war and became his colleague at the Institute in 1951, made some of the most insightful observations of Oppenheimer's personality. Kennan described Oppenheimer
as in some ways very young, in others very old; part scientist, part poet; sometimes proud, sometimes humble; in some ways formidably competent in practical matters, in other ways woefully helpless: . . . a bundle of marvelous contradictions . . . His mind was one of wholly exceptional power, subtlety, and speed of reaction . . . The shattering quickness and critical power of his own mind made him . . . impatient of the ponderous, the obvious, and the platidinous, in the discourse of others. But underneath this edgy impatience there lay one of the most sentimental of natures, an enormous thirst for friendship and affection, and a touching belief . . . in what he thought should be the fraternity of advanced scholarship . . . [a belief that] intellectual friendship was the deepest and finest form of friendship among men; and his attitude towards those whose intellectual qualities he most admired . . . was one of deep, humble devotion and solicitude.
The greatest tragedy of Oppenheimer's life was not the ordeal he went through over the issue of his loyalty, but his failure to make the Institute for Advanced Study a true intellectual community. As Kennan noted, Oppenheimer was often discouraged, and in the end deeply disillusioned, by the fact that
the members of the faculty of the Institute were often not able to bring to each other, as a concomitant of the respect they entertained for each other's scholarly attainments, the sort of affection, and almost reverence, which he himself thought these qualities ought naturally to command. His fondest dream had been [Kennnan thought] one of a certain rich and harmonious fellowship of the mind. He had hoped to create this at the Institute for Advanced Study; and it did come into being, to a certain extent, within the individual disciplines. But very little could be created from discipline to discipline; and the fact that this was so--the fact that mathematicians and historians continued to seek their own tables in the cafeteria, and that he himself remained so largely alone in his ability to bridge in a single inner world those wholly disparate workings of the human intellect--this was for him [Kennan was sure] a source of profound bewilderment and disappointment.
G.H. Hardy, A Mathematician's Apology:
I still say to myself when I am depressed and find myself forced to listen to pompous and tiresome people "Well, I have done one thing you could never have done, and that is to have collaborated with Littlewood and Ramanujan on something like equal terms."


LondonYoung said...

AFAIK, Oppenheimer was unique among the Jewish-American scientists of the war in that he never seems to have publicly reflected on American exceptionalism. He seems to have been spoiled by his family's wealth, and to have taken it for granted throughout his life. A scary smart guy, but bizarrely politically naive ...

oregonlocal said...

What is at all surprising about questions of Oppenheimer's loyalty given that he was a New York Jew, a Communist, a known fellow traveler with other Communists, and that he was recruited from Berkeley of all places? I'm surprised he got the job in the first place. It would have been better if he had been arrested for sedition in the 1930's.

dxie48 said...

Compare that for von Newmann,

... his mind, the amulet on which he had always been able to rely,
was becoming less dependable. Then came complete psychological
breakdown; panic, screams of uncontrollable terror every night. His
friend Edward Teller said, "I think that von Neumann suffered more when
his mind would no longer function, than I have ever seen any human being

5371 said...

What do you mean by "American exceptionalism"?

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