Sunday, July 07, 2013

Strange gadget: Robert Oppenheimer

This is, in my opinion, the best biography yet of Oppenheimer. I think I have read all of the dozen or so major ones. See also The Christy gadget.

Oppenheimer's near breakdown while at Cambridge: the story that Oppenheimer attempted to poison his tutor Patrick Blackett (with a cyanide-laced apple) is well known; his erratic behavior in Paris and an attempt on the life of his Harvard friend Francis Fergusson are also described.
(p.102) [Oppenheimer's mother] insisted he see a Parisian psychiatrist. The diagnosis was sexual frustration and the prescription, accordingly, sex with a prostitute [However, this was unsuccessful, see footnote.]

... Fergusson went to see Oppenheimer in his Parisian hotel room and discovered him to be in "one of his ambiguous moods." He showed Oppenheimer some poetry written by his fiancee ... "I leaned over to pick up a book, and he jumped on me from behind with a trunk strap and wound it around my neck. I was quite scared for a little while. We must have made some noise. And then I managed to pull aside and he fell to the ground weeping."
Norris Bradbury (Oppenheimer's successor as Los Alamos director):
(p.419) Oppenheimer could understand everything, and there were some hard physics problems here to understand ... Don't forget what an extravagant collection of prima donnas we had here. By his own knowledge and personality he kept them inspired and going forward.
Robert Serber:
(p.419) He could understand anything ... One thing I noticed: he would show up at innumerable different meetings at Los Alamos, listen and summarize in such a way as to make amazing sense. Nobody else I ever knew could comprehend so quickly.
Schwinger on Oppenheimer losing touch with real research after too much time as an administrator:
(p.299) [Oppenheimer's grasp] became more and more superficial, which I regretted very much. It was a lesson to me, never to lose completely your touch with the subject, otherwise it's all over... He [Oppenheimer] did have a quick brain. There was no question about that, but I think the brain must be supplemented by long hours of practice that go into the fluidity and ease. Without the technical practice, sooner or later you get lost.

Here's an Edward R. Murrow interview with Oppenheimer mentioned in the book.

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