Review: One smart book – but not genius

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By Kelly LeVan

What does it mean to be a genius? Is it a genetic gift a person’s born with, or is it a fortunate collection of post-birth circumstances?

Social psychologists talk about something they call the “actor-observer effect:” people’s tendency to attribute their own behavior to external causes – a traffic jam on the way to work precedes a bad mood, for instance – but other people’s behavior to something innate – something to do with their personalities or the kind of people they are.

In “Einstein & Oppenheimer – The Meaning of Genius” (Harvard University Press, 2008), Silan S. Schweber proposes people apply the same logic when considering intelligent, highly accomplished individuals.

Specifically, he argues that maybe external circumstances played a larger role in the success of Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer than most of us realize.

Clearly, both men stand out. Einstein’s theory of relativity and other major contributions to physics revolutionized the field, and Oppenheimer’s accomplishments as director of work in Los Alamos during World War II, and even earlier, as a teacher at Berkeley, set him apart.

However, Schweber writes, “I am very conscious of the fact – and emphasize – that context and the vagaries of circumstances were factors in allowing them to become ‘great.’”

Throughout a series of six essays, the author discusses these vagaries, creating not a biography or even a comparison of Einstein and Oppenheimer, but rather a sense of the particular point in time to which they belonged.

That the two men lived right when they did mattered, Schweber states, going so far as to say that in today’s cultural context and vast scientific community, “perhaps it is not possible for an individual at present to attain … ‘mythical’ greatness status.”

The book includes two essays on Einstein – one focused mostly on Einstein and atomic bombs, world government, hydrogen bombs and the Einstein-Russell Manifesto, and one on the founding of Brandeis University.

Chapters on Oppenheimer include one primarily about his career and work at Los Alamos, and another, excellent look on establishing identity in their aftermath.

Two more essays examine both scientists together: “Einstein, Oppenheimer, and the Extension of Physics” and “Einstein, Oppenheimer, and the Meaning of Community,” the latter of which features a provocative quote from poet Wistawa Szymborska’s 1996 Nobel speech.

Overall, the book invites deep thinking, but requires a certain understanding of and interest in physics to thoroughly enjoy.

However, philosophers, psychologists and others who simply find themselves fascinated with Einstein – as a physicist, a Buddhist or a self-proclaimed “loner” – and Oppenheimer – the distant, unlikable “boy wonder” – will definitely find a chapter or two seemingly written just for them.

In other words, you don't have to be a genius to appreciate this book.