Destroyer of Worlds

I just finished Jeremy Bernstein’s Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma – a very odd book.

Consider this – a passage so strange I had to read it aloud to Lissa. (The setup: Bernstein, our author, in addition to being an acclaimed writer for the New Yorker, was also a physicist, and spent several years in the 1950s at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. The occasion is an Institute party):

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Oppenheimer and his wife escorting a somewhat frail-looking man with thick glasses. I immediately recognized him as Godel. I had seen a great many pictures. He was one of my heroes. His theorem on the undecidability of mathematical truth was to me one of the most wonderful things I had ever learned and now, there he was, bearing down in my general direction. He was a notorious recluse, so it would never have occurred to me to have gone to his office. In any event, when the Oppenheimers stood within hailing distance they introduced me. Godel then said he had known my father in Vienna. Since my father had never been in Vienna, I attempted to explain. Godel then repeated that he had known my father in Vienna. I thanked him, and the Oppenheimers moved on.

Oppenheimer is intrinsically compelling, and Bernstein’s book is of a type that I love, the literary biography that is less comprehensive historiography and more personal biographical essay. (One of my favorite books of this type is Wallace Stegner’s biography of John Wesley Powell. It’s as much Stegner’s take on the West with Powell as the lens as it is anything else. Brendan Gill’s Frank Lloyd Wright biography also comes to mind.)

Detangling Oppenheimer from the legend that surrounds him is hard. This is the guy who recites in his mind the Bhagavad-Gita as the Trinity blast changes our world forever, “I have become death: the destroyer of worlds.” That’s the stuff of legend, and stories told and retold to the point of losing their original truth. Bernstein is not offering us a detailed account of the man’s life, so much as Bernstein’s own observations of that which is important about that life. It’s a helpful framework for looking at a very interesting character.