By Margaret Harris
The American physicist J Robert Oppenheimer has been the subject of many biographies. It’s easy to see why. As the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer presided over one of the most important events of the 20th century: the development of the first atomic weapons during the Second World War. Not long afterwards, he became a prominent victim of another key moment in history: the anti-communist “red scare” that swept the US during the 1950s. And on a personal level, he was a learned and cultured man – one who quoted his own translation of the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita (“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”) when asked how he felt after the first test of the atomic bomb.
So, basically, Oppenheimer is catnip for biographers – but as Ray Monk discovered, writing about him also poses some challenges. Monk, a philosopher at the University of Southampton in the UK, has recently written a book called Inside the Centre: A Life of J Robert Oppenheimer. In this new edition of the Physics World books podcast, you’ll hear him talking about the book, about Oppenheimer, and about the 11 years he spent trying get to grips with Oppenheimer’s complex physics and no less complex personality. Amazingly, even after all that time, Monk says that he still finds Oppenheimer absolutely fascinating – and if you listen to the podcast, I think you’ll understand why.