Robert Oppenheimer was the head of the Manhattan project that produced the atomic bomb. Something of a polymath, he was interested, amongst other things, in Hindu scripture and famously quoted the The Bhagavad Gita upon witnessing the first successful atomic explosion: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”.
Ray Monk is the biographer of Ludwig Wittgenstein, which entailed getting to grips – as would be expected – with Wittgenstein’s philosophy. Monk’s new biography of Oppenheimer (Robert Oppenheimer: Inside the Centre – or A Life Inside the Centre as the American edition has it) is, as others have pointed out, a whole new level of biography, perhaps in the league, although it is one volume, of Joseph Frank’s biography of Dostoyevsky or Robert Caro’s four-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. Monk’s book has necessitated understanding quantum physics and, in particular, the physics of nuclear fusion and fission (respectively, the squashing and splitting of atoms) that led to the development of the bomb (or, as it was codenamed during the Manhattan project, ‘the gadget’). Not to mention the history of the project, which has been documented almost endlessly elsewhere (for a start, there are the well-regarded books of Richard Rhodes.). Monk is, however, not afraid to challenge other historians.
Oppenheimer came from a fabulously wealthy Jewish immigrant family in New York City, and lived in an apartment filled with Impressionist paintings and the like, which created in him a certain detachment – he said he only became aware of the Great Depression when friends explained it to him. He also was not the most rigorous of theoreticians. Apparently his maths was pretty unreliable, and the notes he made on the blackboard during lectures were impossible to follow. He was not at the very forefront of developments in physics, as some of his contemporaries were, but somehow his determination to create an American centre of physics to rival Europe was successful, and he almost fell into heading the atomic bomb project. This was somewhat fortuitous (depending on how you look at it – if you think that the project’s success could in any way be thought of as a good thing), as he was particularly skilled at keeping detail in mind while overseeing a giant project, and at making the conceptual leaps and connections required.