Now I Am Become Death, the Shatterer of Worlds

William Lanouette reviews Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma by Jeremy Bernstein, in Issues in Science and Technology:

Oppie_1Imagine spending half a century to write a short book. That’s what Jeremy Bernstein has done, and the wait was worth it. A physics professor and New Yorker writer, Bernstein has watched and studied J. Robert Oppenheimer since the1950s: sitting in his lectures and seminars, riding with him on trains, partying, and picnicking. Bernstein calls this book “the New Yorker profile I never wrote,” and it has that chatty personal style. But it also brims with new stories and scientific explanations, making it an ideal layman’s introduction to this elusive and conflicted 20thcentury giant.

Born in New York in 1904, Oppenheimer grew up in an assimilated Jewish family under the sway of the Ethical Culture Society and its rigorous school. There, nurturing teachers guided him to love literature and poetry but also to discover chemistry and physics, enjoying “the bumpy contingent nature of the way in which you actually find out about something.” He studied chemistry at Harvard, then sailed for England. At Cambridge, Oppenheimer found himself among the pioneers of nuclear physics (including Ernest Rutherford and J. J. Thomson), but without guidance he foundered, missed his supportive family, and suffered an acute nervous breakdown.

More of the book review here.

I have taken the title of this post, of course, from Oppenheimer’s famous quoting of the Baghavad-Gita upon witnessing the first atomic explosion due to mankind, at the Trinity site in the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Here, for the poetic, is the full quote (referring to the god Shiva):

If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once into the sky
That would be like the splendor of the Mighty one…
I am become Death,
The shatterer of Worlds.