There Are No Prophets in Science: The Vision and View of J. Robert Oppenheimer

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J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1944

In this 1954 talk, J. Robert Oppenheimer surmises that today's pressing questions "will be transmuted before they are answered" and that "the very process of discovery will shatter the concepts that we today use to describe our puzzlement."

"Prospects in the Arts and Sciences" is the topic of this broadcast observing the bicentennial of Columbia University. In it, Oppenheimer shies away from making predictions about the future. Instead, the theoretical physicist gives his view of the responsibility and predicament of the scientist and artist in today's world, lamenting how both professions have grown increasingly isolated from the society at large. This thoughtful and pithy, if somewhat bleak, address ends with the wistful hope that even when confronting "the all-encompassing dark…we can love one another." 

Oppenheimer calls for a balance between the "intimate, partial, accidental" view of a traveler and the over-arching view from a "high altitude rocket" in trying to arrive at a sense of where we are and what needs to be done. While there are "super-highways" of travel and information between the "villages" of the world, he worries that the "paths" between them are "barely discernible." He sees hope in the patronage of both science and the arts by universities, since neither maker has much of a place in wider society. In academia, discoveries made on the "edge of mystery" can be brought back and shared. While painting a gloomy picture of the "true human community…being blown dry and issueless," he charges scientist and artist with the task of strengthening the paths until they become "precious bonds."

Oppenheimer was born in 1904. A brilliant scientist, his interests ranged over a broad spectrum of physics, including theoretical astronomy, quantum mechanics, and astrophysics. Shortly before the United States entered World War II, Oppenheimer was chosen by the Roosevelt administration to coordinate its effort to build an atomic bomb. This required a unique combination of theoretical knowledge, technical know-how, and organizational skills. The website recounts how:

…under Oppenheimer's guidance, the laboratories at Los Alamos were constructed. There, he brought the best minds in physics to work on the problem of creating an atomic bomb. In the end, he was managing more than 3,000 people, as well as tackling theoretical and mechanical problems that arose. He is often referred to as the "father" of the atomic bomb. 

That title was to weigh heavily on Oppenheimer. A man of wide interests and deep spirituality, he immediately grasped the moral quandary posed by the extraordinary weapon he and his team had built. The New York Times describes the scene as he witnessed the first successful test of the bomb:

As he clung to one of the uprights in the desert control room that July morning and saw the mushroom clouds rising in the explosion, a passage from the Bhagavad-Gita, the Hindu sacred epic, flashed through his mind. He related it later as: "If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One." And as the black, then gray, atomic cloud pushed higher above Point Zero, another line -- "I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds" -- came to him from the same scripture.

After the war, Oppenheimer attempted to rein in the prospective damage nuclear weapons could cause. He pushed for cooperation with the Soviet Union and discouraged the development of new armaments. But with the more hawkish Eisenhower administration in power, and in the face of growing "Red Scares," his position became untenable.  As the Notable Names Database reports:

In 1947 he was unanimously elected chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission (a civilian agency overseeing U.S. atomic affairs), where he had the opportunity to push his agenda. But his ongoing conflict with politicians and other scientists (most notably Edward Teller) on the matter, plus his heel dragging over reporting that his brother Frank had been approached by Soviet intermediaries (the Cold War was on and the United States was trying to keep its nuclear knowledge to itself) led to Oppenheimer being stripped of his security clearance in 1953. During hearings Oppenheimer’s earlier leftist/Communist sympathies were trotted out and Los Alamos alum Edward Teller insinuated that Oppenheimer’s opposition to research on the more powerful H-bomb was so "confusing" (given his work on the A-bomb) that his loyalties could not be trusted.

The talk given here was delivered shortly after this watershed moment in Oppenheimer's life. It reflects his later concerns, which focused on the alienation of the scientist and the artist from the broader aspects of modern society. As director of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, he attempted to create something like the meeting ground he describes, where ideas can be valued more for their theoretical beauty than their immediate utility. But his disillusionment with the government left a deep streak of pessimism in his thought, which can be heard in this address as well. In 1963, partial amends were made when he was given the Enrico Fermi Award by President Lyndon B. Johnson. But Oppenheimer remains a symbol of the modern scientist attempting to integrate his pursuit of pure understanding with the often less clear moral and ethical demands of the world. As he memorably put it: "In some sort of crude sense, which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose."

J. Robert Oppenheimer died in 1967, at age 63.


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.