Biographer recounts life, times of first lab director

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By Roger Snodgrass

J. Robert Oppenheimer, the first director of the Los Alamos laboratory, did not quite come to life Monday night, but his shadow cast by a master storyteller had a haunting and unusual presence.

The prize-winning co-author of an acclaimed biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer performed a powerful feat of ventriloquism, placing his subject squarely in his own time while speaking directly to our own.

Martin Sherwin, along with Kai Bird, won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2006, for their acclaimed biography, “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.”

Sherwin became the first historian to give the talk, the 38th in the series.

In his one-hour lecture to an audience that nearly filled Duane Smith Auditorium, Sherwin gave an abbreviated version of the Oppenheimer story focusing on the transformations in the life of the man who would become famous as “the father of the atom bomb, then later denounced it as “a most terrible weapon.”

Sherwin’s talk was entitled, “Oppenheimer’s Shadow: His Nuclear World and Ours,” and one of its main themes was Oppenheimer’s profound concerns and ultimate renunciation of the bomb in his later life

“It is a time when roads not taken should be taken,” Sherwin said. “No historical event ever had to happen the way it happened.”

Sherwin, had previously written “A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance.” He said before the talk that he was asked after that to write a 150-page children’s book about Oppenheimer, but his own publisher inspired him to take on what became the first complete biography.

“It could take eight years. Who knows?” he thought at the time. In fact, it took 25 years and bringing in Bird as a co-writer along the way.

He and Bird had both written historical works on the period, so they knew that part, but their work on the early years, especially the 1930s, took time

“One of the reasons, the biography took so long to write and the clue to all this was in the ’30s and there was never enough information to satisfy me,” Sherwin said.

Among the major transformations in Oppenheimer’s life were those that took him from a difficult childhood in a privileged upper-West Side Jewish immigrant family in New York at the turn of the century to a troubled adolescence and youth, that reached a nearly disastrous culmination in graduate school at Cambridge.

Sherwin called the chapter “I am having a bad time,” after Oppenheimer’s own description of his year at Cambridge, England, when he tried to poison a teacher and nearly committed suicide.

But then, a transformation: Oppenheimer discovered an affinity for quantum physics while studying in Germany and his self-assurance and purpose in life gradually returned.

He transformed himself again from a brilliant intellectual into what Sherwin called “a social person.” It was an act of will, Sherwin said, when he learned, “if not to suffer fools gladly, but to suffer them a little bit.”

Studying Robert Oppenheimer made me a better professor,” Sherwin said, adding he learned that high standards were important, but the same standards don’t apply to everybody.

“One has to understand what your students need,” he said.

As a professor at Tufts, Sherwin founded Nuclear Age History and Humanities Center and came up with the idea that became the “space bridge” linking his students and American scholars by television with counterparts in the Soviet Union.

Another transformation occurred in Oppenheimer’s life, Sherwin said, after the Trinity test of July 16, 1945, opened a great divide in human history.

It was as if, “Someone had shifted an active volcano under all human existence,” Sherwin said, “That volcano remains active and we ignore its dangers at our peril.”

Sherwin, writing a commentary on July 30 in The Nation magazine underlined that conclusion, drawn from Oppenheimer’s later years.

Co-written with Jonathan Schell, the opinion piece begins, “Israel and the entire Middle East are approaching a stark existential choice: a nuclear holocaust or a nuclear-free Middle East.”

Like Oppenheimer, other prominent members of the security establishment, including Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn, have taken up the cause, Sherwin and Schell recall.

“Nuclear weapons today present tremendous dangers, but also an historic opportunity,” the “gang of four” wrote in the Wall Street Journal early last year, “U.S. leadership will be required to take the world to the next stage,” — preventing proliferation and ending nuclear weapons as a threat to the world.