Oppenheimer II: “Work…frantic, bad and graded A”

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

This is the second in a series of posts about J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life and times. The first one can be found here.

In the fall of 1922, after the New Mexico sojourn had strengthened his body and mind, Oppenheimer entered Harvard with an insatiable appetite for knowledge; in the words of a friend, “like a Goth looting Rome”. He wore his clothes on a spare frame – he weighed no more than 120 pounds at any time during his life – and had striking blue eyes. Harvard required its students to take four classes every semester for a standard graduation schedule. Robert would routinely take six classes every semester and audit a few more. Nor were these easy classes; a typical semester might include, in addition to classes in mathematics, chemistry and physics, ones in French literature and poetry, English history and moral philosophy.

The best window we have into Oppenheimer’s personality during his time at Harvard comes from the collection of his letters during this time edited by Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner. They are mostly addressed to his Ethical Culture School teacher, Herbert Smith, and to his friends Paul Horgan and Francis Fergusson. Fergusson and Horgan were both from New Mexico where Robert had met them during his earlier trip. Horgan was to become an eminent historian and novelist who would win the Pulitzer Prize twice; Fergusson who departed Harvard soon as a Rhodes Scholar became an important literary and theater critic. They were to be Oppenheimer’s best friends at Harvard.

The letters to Fergusson, Horgan and Smith are fascinating and provide penetrating insights into the young scholar’s scientific, literary and emotional development. In them Oppenheimer exhibits some of the traits that he was to become well known for later; these include a prodigious diversity of reading and knowledge and a tendency to dramatize things. Also, most of the letters are about literature rather than science, which indicates that Oppenheimer had still not set his heart on becoming a scientist. He also regularly wrote poetry that he tried to get published in various sources. Read more »