Logo IMG
HOME > ON THE BOOKSHELF > Bookshelf Detail

Two Singular Men

EINSTEIN AND OPPENHEIMER: The Meaning of Genius. Silvan S. Schweber. xvi + 412 pp. Harvard University Press, 2008. $29.95.

Einstein%20relaxingClick to Enlarge ImageDozens of Einstein biographies have appeared since the 1979 centennial of his birth, including Walter Isaacson's well-received 2007 book, Einstein: His Life and Universe, and Abraham Pais's Subtle Is the Lord, which won the National Book Award for Science in 1983. And a dozen or so books on Oppenheimer have appeared since his centennial in 2004, including Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin's American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (which won a Pulitzer Prize), Charles Thorpe's Oppenheimer, and Abraham Pais's J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life, a book to which I contributed. Have we not heard enough of these two men?

Yet Silvan S. Schweber shows us in his new book, Einstein and Oppenheimer, that there is still more to say. What we know about these two giants of physics largely concerns their genius—their formidable mental powers—but this focus tends to foreground the individual at the expense of intellectual and scientific context. Schweber's aim is ambitious: to capture another quality that he calls the greatness of Einstein and Oppenheimer—to show how their actions altered humanity's "ideas concerning what human beings can be or do." We know much about the genius of these two men, Schweber implies, but little of their greatness.

Schweber, a science historian and professor of physics at Brandeis University, has the proper background for this task. His 1994 book QED and the Men Who Made It: Dyson, Feynman, Schwinger, and Tomonaga examines how quantum electrodynamics arose from the interactions of four very different individuals with their social milieus. And in his 2004 book In the Shadow of the Bomb, Schweber explored the performances of Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe on the ethical and moral stages as they coped with responsibility for the nuclear weapons their work had helped to produce.

Einstein and Oppenheimer were "off scale" in terms of their singularity, Schweber says. They changed the world in different ways, and not through science alone. To show how, he contrasts not their personalities but the relation of each man to his community and the resources that community provided.

Both men were charismatic. Einstein's charisma was personal, whereas Oppenheimer—who had the aura of a superannuated Wunderkind—exuded charisma onstage but was often unpleasant one-on-one, even to friends. Both men emphasized the role of creativity in science, but Einstein focused on the creativity of the solitary intellect and Oppenheimer on that of the collective. Einstein's life can be framed as the single-minded quest of someone with a firm sense of identity, Oppenheimer's as the experiences of someone living through a series of tensions in "the absence of a lifelong project that could have given coherence to the tasks he undertook."

Both men contributed to quantum mechanics despite being convinced that the theory was doomed to be replaced. For Einstein, quantum mechanics was essentially a sideshow that could be ignored in crafting a restoration of classical mechanics. But for Oppenheimer, quantum theory embodied essential new insights about nature, even though he believed that the theory would be superseded in another revolution. Einstein was a reductionist who saw the task of physics as aiming to discover the fundamental laws from which the rest of the world sprang. Oppenheimer, in contrast, was "almost postmodern" in his antireductionism. Each man was an intimate friend of Niels Bohr, but Bohr was a sparring partner to Einstein and a mentor to Oppenheimer.

Einstein and Oppenheimer were both children of nonobservant Jews, but they related to their Jewish roots differently. Einstein wrote of "the moral danger of the Jew who has lost touch with his own people," whereas Oppenheimer all but denied his heritage.

Schweber notes Einstein's distinction between "principle" theories, which arise from generalizations but are stipulated as the foundation for further work, and the "constructive" theories based on them, which apply more directly to phenomena. He observes that Einstein was suspicious of beginning with constructive theories prematurely, before establishing the appropriate principle theory. Schweber then uses this distinction to bring to light an interesting similarity between Einstein's approach to relativity and his approach to global politics: In both cases Einstein began with a set of axioms. Political axioms dealing with world government and a world court underlay all his various suggestions for concrete implementation. Oppenheimer, however, came to think that world government could not be achieved via a one-step process; he concluded that it required the progressive transformation of existing politics in a dialectic of tradition and novelty, through the actions of a new breed of scientist-statesmen.

Schweber seeks to restore our appreciation for contingency in scientific achievement. Had the 17-year-old Oppenheimer not contracted dysentery while hunting rock samples in Germany, he would probably have entered Harvard a year earlier, which would have allowed him to graduate in time to help formulate the basic concepts of quantum mechanics—but the young European physicists Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, Max Born, Pascual Jordan, Paul Dirac and Wolfgang Pauli had essentially completed that task by the time Oppenheimer went to Göttingen to study with Born in 1926. But if Oppenheimer had arrived on the scene a year earlier, Schweber asks, wouldn't he have been able to make a significant contribution to theory in that field, thereby securing for himself the "force d'âme, the self-confidence and backbone" whose absence would haunt him the rest of his life?

Oppenheimer benefited from contingency by being in the right place at the right time to be selected head of the Los Alamos laboratory. There, Schweber says, his greatness was like that of an outstanding conductor whose consistently brilliant performances are achieved thanks to "excellent instrumentalists and an outstanding musical score." Oppenheimer had the misfortune to lack that sort of staff and mission during his unhappy tenure as director of the Institute for Advanced Study.

Schweber essentially argues that we should honor scientific accomplishment in much the same way that we honor military heroism, knowing full well that the honor derives partly from the hero's ability but also because he or she faced those battles in that war. In this context, Schweber's statement that "there are always people like Einstein about" is less provocative—less constructivist—than it might otherwise seem.

The book, which is based in part on lectures Schweber gave during the 2005 Einstein celebrations, is organized episodically. The first two chapters focus on events in Einstein's life and the next two on events in Oppenheimer's; in the final two, Schweber explicitly compares the two scientists. This structure inevitably results in some repetition. Also, a few tiny mistakes have eluded the usually careful author, including the misspelling of the name of eminent historian Daniel Kennefick, who is referred to as "Dennefink" in the text, footnotes and bibliography. Schweber makes profitable use of a wide range of scholarly writings, including those of Isaiah Berlin on greatness, Michel Foucault on discipline, William James on saintliness, Charles Taylor on identity, and Arthur Schopenhauer on the difference between channeling one's abilities into works (as Einstein did) and channeling them into deeds (as Oppenheimer did).

The book's subtitle is "The Meaning of Genius," but Schweber comes to bury genius, not to praise it. The word is often used to describe Einstein or Oppenheimer but is applied differently to them: Einstein represents "lonely genius" and Oppenheimer unfulfilled genius. One anecdote illustrating the latter point has it that during an oral exam at the University of Wisconsin in the 1950s, a Ph.D. candidate in physics was asked what Oppenheimer had contributed to the field. Flustered, the student stammered, "I don't know"—and was informed that this was the right answer. That remark, although wicked and somewhat unfair, does accurately convey that Oppenheimer's scientific accomplishments did not live up to what his capacity seemed to promise or to what he doubtless would have achieved in other circumstances. As Pais once remarked, Oppenheimer's tragedy "is that he was almost a genius."

The matches and mismatches between ability and accomplishment, the fulfillment and lack of fulfillment of promise through accident of circumstance, are indeed what fascinate Schweber throughout this book. Scientific greatness is a function not of a scientist's mind alone, but of the interaction between that mind and the particular historical moment—a specific set of freedoms, opportunities and resources—in which that mind operates. In their contrasting interactions with their moments, both Einstein and Oppenheimer altered our notions of what a person "can be or do," as a scientist and as a statesman.

Robert P. Crease is professor and chair of the department of philosophy at Stony Brook University. His recent books include The Great Equations: Breakthroughs in Science from Pythagoras to Heisenberg (forthcoming from W. W. Norton in 2009); J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life, by Abraham Pais, with supplemental material by Robert P. Crease (Oxford University Press, 2006); and The Prism and the Pendulum: The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments in Science (Random House, 2003).

comments powered by Disqus

Connect With Us:

Facebook Icon Sm Twitter Icon Google+ Icon Pinterest Icon RSS Feed Instagram Icon

Sigma Xi/Amazon Smile (SciNight)

Subscribe to Free eNewsletters!

RSS Feed Subscription

Receive notification when new content is posted from the entire website, or choose from the customized feeds available.

Read Past Issues on JSTOR

JSTOR, the online academic archive, contains complete back issues of American Scientist from 1913 (known then as the Sigma Xi Quarterly) through 2005.

The table of contents for each issue is freely available to all users; those with institutional access can read each complete issue.

View the full collection here.


Subscribe to American Scientist