The Scientific Indian

Oppenheimer’s demons

Held a hefty book today that warrants a blog post. The book is American Prometheus, The triumph and tragedy of Robert J. Oppenheimer.

I referred to this book to check on a certain event in Oppenheimers life. It is this: Oppenheimer, at one time, left a poisoned apple for his tutor Blackett at Cambridge (Blackett apparently and luckily did not eat it). This rather alarming action was the result of Oppenheimer’s lack of good experimental hands. Blackett had assigned him seom experiments without knowing Oppenheimer’s ineptitude, and boy! What a way to be avenged! Oppenheimer almost got expelled for this. Like many extraordinarily smart men and women he had many demons in him. Perhaps, he sublimated them only to midwife the atomic demon into this world.

As an aside, here’s a remarkable quote from the book. “When Dirac and Oppenheimer were both at Cambridge, Oppenheimer offered Dirac several books for reading. Dirac politely declined the gift, remarking that reading books interfered with thought.


  1. #1 Ashutosh
    October 7, 2008

    The poisoned apple incident is extremely speculative and there are several theories, none of them conclusive, about what actually happened. Please don’t take it seriously. More on it in David Cassidy’s and Abraham Pais’s biographies of Oppenheimer.

    As an aside, you probably know Dirac’s comment about Oppenheimer’s love of poetry which he could not understand; “In physics, we tell people things in a way that they understand, something that nobody understood before. In poetry it seems to be the opposite”! Dirac’s erudition is not appreciated very well by many laymen. There is a Physics World article (originally from Scientific American I think) by Antonino Zichichi that argues not entirely unconvincingly that Dirac was the greatest physicist of the century and not Einstein.

  2. #2 Selva
    October 8, 2008

    >Dirac was the greatest physicist of the century and not Einstein.

    I think that goes to show how great both men are. Personally, I awed by their insistence on beauty (mathematical, especially) and their trust in the deep connection between Truth and Beauty.

    thanks for the link.

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