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

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
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.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions