Sunday, January 4, 2009

Mark Wolverton's "A Life in Twilight"

Mark Wolverton is the author of The Depths of Space and The Science of Superman. His articles on science, technology, and history have appeared in Scientific American, American Heritage of Invention & Technology, Air & Space Smithsonian, Skeptical Inquirer, Quest, and American History, among other magazines.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Life in Twilight: The Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and reported the following:
Page 99 of A Life in Twilight finds the book’s subject, J. Robert Oppenheimer, at something of a point of transition and contemplation. It’s spring 1957, and for the first time since the Atomic Energy Commission stripped him of his security clearance and banished him from government service in 1954, Oppenheimer has decided to discuss his security case directly and publicly. He tells journalist Victor Cohn of the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune that although he’s still persona non grata in some circles of American society, he’s found a refuge as administrator of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, since it was a place where...

...Oppenheimer could feel secure, accepted, and needed, and where, even with his administrative responsibilities, he was still free to do science...

And in a larger sense, Oppenheimer is grateful for “the good sense and good courage of many Americans,” including all those citizens who hasten to defend him in the editorial pages and letters columns and who refuse to believe the many inaccuracies and untruths regarding him peddled by various demagogues and rabble-rousers.

What about his family? How did Oppenheimer’s ordeal affect them? Here, as always when such personal matters came up with the press, Oppenheimer is tight-lipped, but regarding the children, Peter, then sixteen, and Katherine (“Toni”), then thirteen, he offers: “It has not affected their lives. Everyone has treated them very well.” Unfortunately, although no one, including Oppenheimer, fully realized it at the time, the lives of both Peter and Toni would in fact be profoundly affected by their father’s difficulties, even if those effects would not be manifested until much later.

As to the larger effects of his security case? “I know the incident had a disturbing effect on a lot of young people, both in their attitude toward government service and toward the pursuit of science,” says Oppenheimer. “I believe it may have discouraged some scientists from speaking on the disturbing aspects of United States weapons and military planning.”

Here, as he usually did with the press, Oppenheimer was playing it close to the vest. He knew all too well the devastating effects his persecution had had on the willingness of talented scientists to advise and work for the U.S. government, effects which would become all too clear only a few months after this interview appeared in papers across the country. When the Soviets launched Sputnik in October 1957, a stunned and humiliated America would wonder how it had been bested scientifically and technologically by a supposedly backward nation that couldn’t even build a working refrigerator...and realize that the answer might be that, as the Washington Post would observe, “we have driven out of our laboratories a great many preeminent men of science...we have let scientists become targets of the name of security, we have sacrificed security.”

But the public redemption of Oppenheimer himself remained a distant, yet tantalizing prospect.
Watch the video preview of A Life in Twilight and learn more about the author and his work at Mark Wolverton's website.

--Marshal Zeringue