Inside the Centre: The Life of J Robert Oppenheimer

From The Telegraph:

Carter_main_2385878bIt’s 11 years since Ray Monk’s biography of Bertrand Russell, a book which, like his earlier one of Ludwig Wittgenstein, pulled off the impressive feat of explaining the philosophy while rivetingly portraying the life. The subject of his new 780-page book, Inside the Centre: the Life of J Robert Oppenheimer, would seem to be an excellent fit: Oppenheimer was intellectually brilliant, his work arcane and personally he was a disaster – an “unintegrated” personality made up, his friend Isidor Rabi said, of “many bright, shining splinters”. Monk has called his book Inside the Centre because Oppenheimer, the son of rich, assimilated German Jewish parents – the classic insider-outsider – had a talent for putting himself at the centre of things: at the birth of particle physics at the University of Göttingen in the Twenties, at the creation of the atom bomb, and as director of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study where he gathered about him the likes of Einstein and T S Eliot. He was also fascinated, throughout his adult life, by what lay within the centre of the atom.

Born in 1904 in New York into a tight-knit cultured, liberal, philanthropic, Jewish social circle, Oppenheimer was an exceptionally bright child. His parents were suffocatingly attentive. Monk describes an atmosphere of melancholy, overprotective and short on “fun”. With a voracious appetite for, among other things, chemistry, French literature, modernist poetry, Hinduism and Sanskrit (which he taught himself), he didn’t discover physics until his second year at Harvard, blagging his way onto a postgraduate course in thermodynamics. He went onto the Rutherford laboratory in Cambridge and, aged 22, so impressed Max Born – orchestrator of the amazing advances in quantum mechanics taking place at the University of Göttingen in Germany – that the latter invited him there to collaborate. He returned to the United States from the cutting edge of theoretical physics in 1929 with the deliberate intention of building a school of physics in America to rival that in Europe. Within five years he had pretty much succeeded. In the late Thirties he made his most original scientific contribution: three articles, ignored at the time, in which he described what happened to collapsing stars and predicted the existence of black holes. Had he lived another three years – when the existence of neutron stars were confirmed – he would probably have received a Nobel Prize.

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