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Einstein and OppenheimerReview - Einstein and Oppenheimer
The Meaning of Genius
by Silvan S. Schweber
Harvard University Press, 2008
Review by Bob Lane, MA
Sep 23rd 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 39)

We all know Albert Einstein as the foremost scientist of the twentieth century for his articulation of the special and general theories of relativity, and as a co-founder of quantum theory. He also contributed to statistical physics and the theory of radiation, and argued famously with Niels Bohr about God and dice. Einstein's theory of general relativity appeared in 1916. It introduced the concept of four-dimensional space-time, and showed how gravity could be conceived as the 'curvature' of space-time created by the presence of matter. Einstein insisted that the curvature of space-time must be distinguished from everything else that exists, such as electromagnetic fields and atomic particles. This vital, but problematic, distinction plagues us today in the unsuccessful efforts to combine general relativity and quantum mechanics into a single theory. He is recognized as a giant in physics, right up there with Isaac Newton, whose theories he expanded and amended. We also know from Walter Isaacson's book, Einstein: His Life and Universe (Metapsychology review here) that he was born on 14 March 1879, in Ulm, Germany, to Jewish parents and was quite religious until the age of 12, when his readings in popular science convinced him the stories in the Bible were flawed. This was the beginning of Einstein's reputation as a stubbornly independent thinker, for whom schools were too rigid, and examinations too arbitrary. Several recent biographies have filled in the details of the life of this scientific genius. Hence we know that his left-leaning political views, fueled by his concern for social justice, led to a large FBI file filled with letters from his critics.

In 1939, Einstein and Leo Szilard sent a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt about work in nuclear physics which could lead to the creation of a powerful explosive device, and Roosevelt took the letter seriously. That letter led directly to American atomic research. Earlier Einstein had written, 'we are led to the more general conclusion that the mass of a body is a measure of its energy content.' This sentence is in effect the famous equation, E = MC2. The American effort to develop this powerful explosive device will be headed up by the second scientist discussed in this book: J. Robert Oppenhemier.

Julius Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York City on April 22, 1904. His parents, Julius S. Oppenheimer, a wealthy German textile merchant, and Ella Friedman, an artist, were of Jewish descent but did not observe the religious traditions. He studied at the Ethical Culture Society School, whose physics laboratory has since been named for him, and entered Harvard in 1922, intending to become a chemist, but soon switching to physics. He graduated summa cum laude in 1925 and went to England to conduct research at Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory, working under J.J. Thomson.

While Einstein was stubbornly independent, Oppenheimer was not. He exhibited a different trait: "the need for and deference to, authority" which is described in a letter from Wolfgang Pauli for whom Oppenheimer is working in Zurich to Paul Ohrenfest in Leyden as "a very Bad characteristic: he comes to me with a rather unconditional belief in authority..."(18)

Einstein, we are told, was convinced that the best minds' work was carried out in solitude while one of Oppenheimer's great strengths was his ability to bring together and build a team of experts and inspire them to work creatively and harmoniously together. Thus, he was perfectly equipped to establish a first-rate physics department at UC Berkeley ("Starting with a single graduate student in my first year in Berkeley, we gradually began to build up what was to become the largest school in the country of graduate and postdoctoral study in theoretical physics, so that as time went on, we came to have between a dozen and twenty people learning and adding to quantum theory, nuclear physics, relativity, and other modern physics. As the number of students increased, so in general did their quality. The men who worked with me during those years hold chairs in many of the great centers of physics in the United States; they have made important contributions to science.") [Source], to lead the project to develop the atomic bomb, and to administer the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton.

Schweber explores these differences between these two twentieth century giants of science in six chapters. The first chapter relates Einstein's position on nuclear weapons, world government, and individual versus collective stands on important issues. In the second chapter Schweber tells the interesting story of Einstein and the founding of Brandeis University. Anyone who has attended faculty meetings will find the politics and the conflicts among these founders delicious.

The next two chapters present an intellectual history of Oppenheimer from the early formative years of his education, to Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory to Los Alamos, to the postwar years, and to his articulation of his mature philosophy in the William James Lectures at Harvard.

The last two chapters bring the two together for a comparative analysis of  the positions that they agreed on as well as the differences that so clearly delineate two unique human beings. We see here Einstein the European Romantic and Oppenheimer the American Pragmatist. The book is well documented with copious notes, an index and bibliography, preface, introduction and reprints the Russell-Einstein manifesto of 1955. In several photographs Schweber points out how Einstein is usually seen with thumb and forefinger joined "in what is called the vitarka gesture, the sign for compassionate teaching. (288) In fact Buddhism is one of the places where these two scientists come together.

If you have an interest in science, in 20th century culture and history, in genius and the community of scholars, then Schweber's book is for you. More than a biography of two towering physicists, more than a history of the building of the atomic bomb, more than a review of the formative forces in the lives of these two scientists, this book argues that the story of science can be understood properly by focusing not merely on outstanding individuals but also on the scientific communities to which they belonged.

© Bob Lane 2008

Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.


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