Jonathan Cape, £30 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Inside the Centre: The Life of J Robert Oppenheimer, By Ray Monk

He was a poet, mystic, progressive - and the scientist who opened the gate of nuclear hell

As head of the Allies' atomic bomb programme during the Second World War, Robert Oppenheimer is one of the few scientists to have directly influenced the main trajectory of history.

The Oppenheimer story also encapsulates other profound 20th-century themes: the Jewish Diaspora; the 1930s crisis of capitalism; the embrace by many intellectuals of communism; the post-war nuclear disarmament movement; the Cold War; McCarthyism; and the "Two Cultures" - Oppenheimer wrote poetry and stories and had many deep artistic interests. So it is not surprising that his (extremely demanding) science has received short shrift from his several biographers. It is this that Ray Monk's life has set out to rectify.

As a physicist, Oppenheimer was involved in many major scientific discoveries of the century but never quite claimed one for himself. In 1932, he had a good chance of elucidating the nature of the enigmatic positive electron, the positron, but just missed out. His most original work, mostly disregarded in his lifetime, and which might have won him a Nobel Prize had he lived longer, was the first prediction of Black Holes, as early as 1939.

But as a catalyst, Oppenheimer more or less singlehandedly orchestrated the world dominance of American physics from the mid-1930s onwards. He directed the Manhattan Project, culminating in the two bombs dropped on Japan in 1945, and after the war he was at the centre of the agonised debates about nuclear policy.

Despite Monk's emphasis on pure science, it is the epic story of the atomic bomb and Oppenheimer's fall from grace in the McCarthyite era that stir the reader, swept up in the torrent of Oppenheimer's life, experiencing vicariously the triumph of the scientists as the Bomb comes to fruition. But then the doubts set in. Uranium fission was discovered in Germany days before the war started, so the ostensible purpose of the Manhattan Project was always to be first to possess nuclear weapons. But the war with Germany ended and that country was revealed to have had no credible atomic bomb project. Nevertheless, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Cold War followed.

Who was Robert Oppenheimer? The central premise of the book is that no one quite knew where his emotional centre was, least of all himself. He was born into a rich German-Jewish family so assimilated that they belonged to a secular movement, the Ethical Culture Society, which ran schools and embraced the American way of life.

His childhood was closeted but at the age of 18 he discovered New Mexico, where he rode horses and generally broke free. He was so obsessed by New Mexico that he successfully manoeuvred to have the Manhattan Project located there. Unusually for a scientist of that era, Oppenheimer was also deeply aesthetic, multilingual, a lover of French poetry and with a leaning for Hindu philosophy. When the first test atomic bomb exploded in the New Mexican desert Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds".

The story of 20th-century physics is one of the great human milestones, ranking alongside the birth of agriculture, Greek democracy, the Renaissance; but it is besmirched by the way that it debouched into the nuclear nightmare of the Cold War. This opened up an absolute gulf between the scientists, who wanted international control of this new weapon, and the politicians.

Niels Bohr, father-figure of the physicists, tried to warn Roosevelt and Churchill in 1943 that making a bomb involved no secrets: from now on, anyone could do it. Churchill dismissed him as "very near the edge of mortal crimes" (accusing him of potential treason). Oppenheimer himself was later derided by President Truman as a "cry-baby scientist".

Most people would assume that Oppenheimer's fall was a result of the McCarthyite witch-hunt. In fact, it was a hearing at the Atomic Energy Commission in April 1954, not the House Un-American Activities Committee or Senator McCarthy's own committee, that resulted in him losing government clearance to work on classified material. Oppenheimer had made many enemies and in the mid-1930s, like so many, he had been involved in left-wing activism. Many of his friends – some of whom he later betrayed – were avowed communists.

What brought this to critical mass in 1954 was Cold War hysteria and the escalating arms race with Russia to develop the hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer had serious doubts about the need for this weapon, so big it could have no military value. Add to this cocktail the fact that some members of the US atomic bomb project, notably Klaus Fuchs, had passed secrets to the Russians, and Oppenheimer was a dish ready to be roasted.

He had sealed his own fate by what he later admitted was an idiotic lie he told to the FBI in 1943. Haakon Chevalier, a lecturer in French literature at Berkeley, a close friend of Oppenheimer's and a communist, had suggested that he knew of a conduit to the Russians. Chevalier wondered whether Oppenheimer would like to avail himself of this opportunity to acquaint them with the bomb project. Oppenheimer had dismissed this as "treason" but, wanting to protect himself and Chevalier, he told the FBI what he later called "a cock and bull story". Having covered up for Chevalier in 1943, in the 1954 hearings Oppenheimer betrayed him in the starkest manner.

Monk does a fine job on Oppenheimer's early life and the years of power, but the dominance of physics means that we don't quite join up all the dots in his traumatic personal life, which flickers intermittently. And the book loses energy towards the end.

Oppenheimer did not simply fall from grace in 1954. Later he was partially rehabilitated and in the last 12 years of his life he became a celebrity on the international lecture circuit. Too much of the last 35 pages is a recital of one lecture after another. The lack of substance in Oppenheimer's pronouncements on science and the public realm is perhaps a clue to that problem of the emotional centre: he had too much unacknowledged guilt in his life. The mystery of Robert Oppenheimer remains intact.

Peter Forbes's 'Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage' is published by Yale University Press

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine