Monday, August 12, 2013


Freeman Dyson reviews the new biography of Oppenheimer by Ray Monk. I discussed the book already here.
NYBooks: ... The subtitle, “A Life Inside the Center,” calls attention to a rarer skill in which Oppenheimer excelled. He had a unique ability to put himself at the places and times at which important things were happening. Four times in his life, he was at the center of important events. In 1926 he was at Göttingen, where his teacher Max Born was one of the leaders of the quantum revolution that transformed our view of the subatomic world. In 1929 he was at Berkeley, where his friend Ernest Lawrence was building the first cyclotron, and with Lawrence he created in Berkeley an American school of sub-atomic physics that took the leadership away from Europe. In 1943 he was at Los Alamos building the first nuclear weapons. In 1947 he was in Washington as chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, giving advice to political and military leaders at the highest levels of government. He was driven by an irresistible ambition to play a leading part in historic events. In each case, when he was present at the center of action, he rose to the occasion and took charge of the situation with unexpected competence.

... In 1939 Oppenheimer published with his student Hartland Snyder a paper, “On Continued Gravitational Contraction,” only four pages long, which is in my opinion Oppenheimer’s one and only revolutionary contribution to science. In that paper, Oppenheimer and Snyder invented the concept of black holes; they proved that every star significantly more massive than the sun must end its life as a black hole, and deduced that black holes must exist as real objects in the sky around us. They showed that Einstein’s theory of general relativity compels any massive star that has exhausted its supply of nuclear fuel to enter a state of permanent free fall. Permanent free fall was a new idea, counterintuitive and profoundly important. It allows a massive star to keep falling permanently into a black hole without ever reaching the bottom.

Einstein never imagined and never accepted this consequence of his theory. Oppenheimer imagined it and accepted it. As a direct result of Oppenheimer’s work, we now know that black holes have played and are playing a decisive part in the evolution of the universe. That is the historical fact. The mystery is Oppenheimer’s failure to grasp the importance of his own discovery. He lived for twenty-seven years after the discovery, never spoke about it, and never came back to work on it. Several times, I asked him why he did not come back to it. He never answered my question, but always changed the conversation to some other subject.

It is true, as Monk demonstrates, that Oppenheimer’s ruling passion was to be a leader in pure science. He considered his excursions into bomb-making and nuclear politics to be temporary interruptions. My interactions with Oppenheimer confirm Monk’s picture of him. I worked at the Institute for Advanced Study for almost twenty years while Oppenheimer was director. He rarely talked about politics and almost never about bombs, but talked incessantly about the latest discoveries and puzzles in pure science.

... Oppenheimer continued for the rest of his life to be proud of his achievement at Los Alamos. ... Monk expresses his opinion, with which I agree, that Oppenheimer’s anger arose from his deep loyalty to America. For him, expressing regret for what he had done for his country would have meant joining his country’s enemies.

... Oppenheimer was above all a good soldier. That is why he worked so well with General Groves, and that is why Groves trusted him. I have a vivid memory of the ice-cold February day in 1967 when we held a memorial service for Oppenheimer at Princeton. Because of the extreme cold, attendance at the service was sparse. But General Groves, old and frail, came all the way from his home to pay his respects to his friend. ...

The real tragedy of Oppenheimer’s life was not the loss of his security clearance but his failure to be a great scientist. For forty years he put his heart and soul into thinking about deep scientific problems. With the single exception of the collapse of massive stars at the end of their lives, he did not solve any of these problems. Why did he not succeed in scientific research as brilliantly as he succeeded in soldiering and administration? I believe the main reason why he failed was a lack of Sitzfleisch. Sitzfleisch is a German word with no equivalent in English. The literal translation is “Sitflesh.” It means the ability to sit still and work quietly. He could never sit still long enough to do a difficult calculation. His calculations were always done hastily and often full of mistakes. In a letter to my parents quoted by Monk, I described Oppenheimer as I saw him in seminars:
He is moving around nervously all the time, never stops smoking, and I believe that his impatience is largely beyond his control.
In addition to his restlessness, Oppenheimer had another quality, emphasized by Monk in the subtitle of his book. He always wanted to be at the center. This quality is good for soldiers and politicians but bad for original thinkers. ...
I have to admit that my own Sitzfleisch, while well above average for a normal person, is probably less than required for true excellence in theoretical physics. (This might have something to do with my being less aspie than the typical theorist ;-)


Diogenes said...

I thought Sitzfleisch was Yiddish.

One guy had such Sitzfleisch he was known as "iron pants" in law school.

Milton Friedman said of this same man, "In terms of pure IQ, he was the smartest man I've ever met."

That man was...Richard Nixon.

thdurham said...

Perhaps amphetamines would have helped with the Sitzfliesch. O. should have had a conversation with Erdos.

Norkuat said...

Maybe too extroverted and/or ego driven? or other factors?
I suspect Oppenheimer cognitive profile was lopsided or at least there was a gap of >1 S.D. between his verbal iq and math iq.(Don´t know about spatial). This can be easily seen from the commentaries of people i.e. profound facility to understand topics, a trait that characterizes high verbal iq, not a very good calculator etc. He is the only one great theoretical physicist I know that wasn´t extremely mathematically gifted (relative to the theoretical physicist population, naturally).
I think there is a high order pleasure preference in cognitive abilities where people tend to gravitate towards activities where they are most natural (this is obvious). The effort in doing non natural activities would seem to be very high since you are losing the pleasure of doing natural activities and the fact that doing non natural stuff seem so difficult(higher perceived effort) in respect to the natural ones. This diminished substantially your "average" Sitzfleisch. The bigger the iq gap the bigger the reduction. So what is quoted by Dyson is just the result of this pattern of behaviors in Oppenheimer. Maybe some kind of abstract math would have suited him better given his cognitive characteristics (but not his personality)i.e. topos theory, schemes, where it seems that having a very high verbal IQ helps in the abstractions/definitions and there are very few difficult calculations.
Maybe Feynman would also suit and "inverse" profile.

steve hsu said...

I agree, O was probably V > M whereas F was M > V. I doubt Bohr was extremely gifted mathematically, but perhaps you don't consider him great ;-)

FAW said...

Tangential link:

A part of one of the conversations that "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" was based on, concerning Feynman's early problem-solving endeavors.

5371 said...

Einstein was like Oppenheimer in that respect, surely?

5371 said...

I mean that mathematics was not his strong point, compared with peers - but can that be described as a verbal gift?!

Rastus Odinga-Odinga said...

Actually, Prof Hsu, I always look forward to your papers because I know that they will be clear....and short. Sitzfleisch nearly always just means long papers about incredibly boring or pointless "questions". The main problem these days is people doing vast amounts of work on extremely poorly motivated things like massive gravity and Galileons. Sitzfleisch only makes bad papers longer and more numerous.

As for true excellence... well, when was the last time you saw a truly excellent paper on the arXiv? I don't ask for that any more -- if people don't bore or annoy me to death, that is good enough for me. And your papers never do that!

Norkuat said...

Well of course Bohr is one of the greatest! Maybe Bohr wasn´t extremely gifted mathematically but in those days you didn´t need fancy math to do cutting edge physics so it´s a bit hard to say. On the other hand, I don´t find any counterexample after the 1930´s

Norkuat said...

No. Einstein was extremely spatially gifted. His verbal profile was his weakest point but not that much because he apparently read Kant´s "Critique of pure reason" at age 13. But then, he failed French .. I think.
The math he used to developed General Relativity (Tensor Calculus) was not usually taught to physicist and was not completely formalized (in contrast with all the fancy differential equations of quantum mechanics, that were discovered and formalized in the 800s)so he had to learn/develop the math by himself. That was a very difficult obstacle he did overcome(with help from Levi Civita). I think he is near other top physicist in mathematical abilities.

Diogenes said...

And I read the Tractatus and large parts of the Summa at 13. But:

5371 said...

I thought he got the technical knowledge he needed from Marcel Grossmann, rather than developing it himself. Not sure that "spatial" is the right word for his gifts, he wasn't Coxeter.

Diogenes said...

My advice to underachieving goyim (I'm one). Stop drinking. Start reading. Start taking amphetamines.

Oh...and that won't be enough. The commanding heights have been seized in the US. The US is still waiting for its Dzhugashvili.

Norkuat said...

He surely developed the physical formalism by himself since he was the only physicist in his gang. I´m not really sure about his pure mathematical contributions (I think there is none). Levi Civita helped at the end.

I would insist in saying that his top abilities were spatial since the way he though about the equivalence principle and other physical discoveries was through gendaken experiments ergo using his powerful visualization skills.

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