Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect

Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect

Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect

Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect


At a time when the Manhattan Project was synonymous with large-scale science, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904–67) represented the new sociocultural power of the American intellectual. Catapulted to fame as director of the Los Alamos atomic weapons laboratory, Oppenheimer occupied a key position in the compact between science and the state that developed out of World War II. By tracing the making- and unmaking- of Oppenheimer's wartime and postwar scientific identity, Charles Thorpe illustrates the struggles over the role of the scientist in relation to nuclear weapons, the state, and culture.

A stylish intellectual biography, Oppenheimer maps out changes in the roles of scientists and intellectuals in twentieth-century America, ultimately revealing transformations in Oppenheimer's persona that coincided with changing attitudes toward science in society.

"This is an outstandingly well-researched book, a pleasure to read and distinguished by the high quality of its observations and judgments. It will be of special interest to scholars of modern history, but non-specialist readers will enjoy the clarity that Thorpe brings to common misunderstandings about his subject."- Graham Farmelo, Times Higher Education Supplement "A fascinating new perspective.... Thorpe's book provides the best perspective yet for understanding Oppenheimer's Los Alamos years, which were critical, after all, not only to his life but, for better or worse, the history of mankind."- Catherine Westfall, Nature.


This book traces the life and career of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. But it aims, through looking at his life, to analyze more general themes: the shaping of self; vocation; the cultural and political authority of science; charisma; and individual moral responsibility. Framing all of this is the way in which science became, in the twentieth century, a central instrument of violence, transforming the capacity and scope of violence and, in so doing, becoming a vital resource of state power.

Problems of power and violence, in light of the atomic bomb, were central to Oppenheimer's reflections after World War II on the meaning of science. In his 1948 lecture “The Open Mind,” Oppenheimer pointed to the paradox that this activity, held in modern culture to be at the polar opposite to coercion, has become perhaps the primary medium of technological violence. A central faith of modernity, and perhaps the core idea of the Enlightenment, was that science and reason offer a solution to the problem of violence. In the middle of the twentieth century, such a view of the social order of science as antithetical to coercion took on particular significance as part of the liberal response to Fascism and Communism. Science, it was said, flourished in, and helped to preserve, a peaceful and free society. The founder of the academic history of science in America, George Sarton, articulated this faith most clearly when he wrote, “Science makes for peace more than anything else in the world; it is the cement that holds together the highest and the most comprehensive minds of all countries, of all races, of all creeds.” It was a view that strongly informed the statement by his student, sociologist Robert K. Merton, of the universalistic values that, Merton argued, constituted the normative structure of science.

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