Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center, by Ray Monk (Doubleday: 2013), 822 pages.

“There aren’t any secrets about the world of nature,” Robert Oppenheimer told journalist Edward R. Murrow in 1954. It had been nine years since the bombs he’d helped develop as leader of the Manhattan Project’s secret weapons laboratory at Los Alamos destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and ended the Second World War, and by now Oppenheimer was almost as well known for the fact that the US government had withdrawn his security clearance (because of suspected Communist sympathies) as for his achievements in physics. Secrecy had become a major aspect of Oppenheimer’s public persona—and he had strong opinions on the subject. “The trouble with secrecy is that it doesn’t give the public a sense of participation,” he told Murrow. “The trouble with secrecy is that it denies to the government itself the wisdom and resources of the whole community… There are secrets about the thoughts and intentions of men. Sometimes they are secret because a man doesn’t like to know what he’s up to if he can avoid it.” [658] That last comment reveals something profound about Robert Oppenheimer: How well did he understand himself—or want to?

Ray Monk faces this problem repeatedly in his massive and detailed new biography, Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center. Oppenheimer sought meaning in the universe not only through the practice of science, but through spiritual study, poetry, and the contemplation of nature. His Los Alamos colleague Hans Bethe believed that Oppenheimer “worked at physics mainly because he found physics the best way to do philosophy.” [419] Surely he was the only scientist at Los Alamos who counted Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal as his favorite book. [676] In his early twenties, Oppenheimer confessed: “The kind of person that I admire most would be one who becomes extraordinarily good at doing a lot of things but maintains a tear-stained countenance” [113] – a pretty close description of the man Oppenheimer became.

Monk portrays Oppenheimer as an outsider who was constantly striving to reach “the center,” whether in his scientific work, which explored neutron stars and black holes in which the centers of massive stars collapse and fold into themselves; as a Jew at Harvard and Berkeley (both were wary of admitting “too many” Jews); as a political leftist with (as Albert Einstein remarked) “an unrequited love for the United States” (xvi); and as a scientific researcher whose appreciation for the value of collaborative work inevitably put him at odds with the security restrictions of the United States military.

Born in 1904, great things were always expected of Julius Robert Oppenheimer (named after his father, he dropped his first name early on) and he was raised in spectacular isolation in the luxurious New York City apartment of his wealthy parents. A boyhood interest in chemistry ultimately led him to the University of Gottingen in 1926 where his advisor Max Born became a lasting and profound influence. He was an outsider in Europe, but Oppenheimer’s work in quantum chemistry nevertheless managed to impress his colleagues.

After establishing UC Berkeley as a center for theoretical physics, in 1943 Oppenheimer was chosen to lead the secret weapons laboratory at Los Alamos, a job requiring all of his varied skills, a job at which he excelled. Yet as soon as the atomic weapons he’d helped develop at Los Alamos were deployed, Oppenheimer began to lobby for ways to mitigate their danger—primarily by sharing information with other countries to achieve international arms control. The Los Alamos scientists argued that the so-called “secret” to the atomic bomb would soon be unlocked by other developed countries. Yet most in the US government, “to whom the physics of fission was an utter mystery,” Monk reminds us, “regarded [this argument] as a treasonous plot.” [503] “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands,” Oppenheimer told President Truman when they met shortly after the end of the war. Truman recoiled. “I told him the blood was on my hands,” Truman said later, “let me worry about that.” [494] After Oppenheimer left, Truman told Dean Acheson, “I don’t want to see that son-of-a-bitch ever again.” [493] It was the beginning of the end for Oppenheimer’s status as an American hero.

Although he continued to work on behalf of the United States in the Atomic Energy Commission, in 1949 he was accused of having Communist ties and his security clearance was revoked. The American scientific community was outraged. Drawing on many independent studies and testimonies, Monk demonstrates that Oppenheimer was never a security threat.

Oppenheimer died of cancer at the age of 62. He had been under surveillance by the FBI for the previous nine years. The diplomat George F. Kennan spoke at Oppenheimer’s funeral. “The truth is that the US Government never had a servant more devoted at heart than this one,” said Kennan. [694] The “secret” of Oppenheimer, Monk reveals, was not Soviet sympathy but rather, as his friend and fellow physicist Isidor Rabi observed, a “spiritual quality… He always left a feeling that there were depths of sensibility and insight not yet revealed.” [694]

This review originally appeared in the Boston Globe, May 19, 2013.

A Dirty Monk with a Vision

Book Review: The Lost Carving: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, by David Esterly. (Viking: 2012) 281 pp.

Orig. published in the Boston Globe, January 4, 2013.

The Lost Carving is a memoir about woodcarving. There are precedents, of course: Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance (1974) called itself “An Inquiry into Values,” and the more recent Shop Class as Soulcraft (2010) by Matthew B. Crawford was subtitled “An Inquiry into the Value of Work.” David Esterly’s book is a “Journey to the Heart of Making.”  Inquiry or journey: what’s the difference? For the most part, pretensions: Esterly doesn’t have any. He’s not trying to convince the reader of anything (though the reader may end up convinced), he’s simply trying to understand his own path from English Lit graduate student to becoming the world’s greatest living practitioner of high relief naturalistic wood carving, an art form previously thought to have reached its peak in the early eighteenth century in the work of the Dutch-born carver Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721).

Esterly begins his story with two conversion moments. As an American student at Cambridge in the 1970s he happened to walk into St. James’s Church in London and spotted Gibbons’ carvings above the altar. “A shadowy tangle of vegetation, carved to airy thinness. Organic forms, in an organic medium. My steps slowed, and I stopped. I stared. The sickness came over me… The traffic noise on Piccadilly went silent, and I was at the still center of the universe.” [44] Instantly obsessed with Gibbons, Esterly resolved to research his work and write about it. But research wasn’t enough. “More than the mind needed to be deployed,” [53] he thought, so he bought himself the raw materials used by Gibbons himself: chisels, gouges, and limewood – the preferred medium of high relief woodcarvers. “I found that as the blade moved through the wood my whole body moved, too, with it and against it at the same time. A wave of pleasure passed through me.” [58] Esterly was in love. He turned his back on the academic life and taught himself to carve.

Years later in 1986, now a master woodcarver, Esterly was called back to England, to Henry VIII’s palace at Hampton Court, where a fire had recently destroyed many of the original Gibbons carvings that decorated the royal apartments. Esterly was hired to the team of artisans who would repair the lost carvings. He recognized the significance of the project; it was a culmination of Esterly’s life work (what Matthew B. Crawford would call soulcraft) and a reunion with his great teacher and master, Grinling Gibbons. It was also a reckoning: would he really be capable of repairing this masterpiece?

Some of the challenges he faced were technical – before the invention of sandpaper, how did carvers smooth their finished pieces? – but even more of them were bureaucratic, as Esterly navigated the cliques and politics of the British heritage industry. Along the way he reveals some of the lessons he’s learned through the practice of his craft. The wisdom that comes from making mistakes, for example, and the way in which “disaster allows nature to take control, to create its own order. Disaster can be a fine designer.” [67] He learns to be humble in the presence of a block of wood. “The wood began as submissive, put-upon thing, then gradually came to life,” he writes: “A carver begins like a god and ends as slave.” [176] The Lost Carving is a book about the rewards of hard work and learning to appreciate one’s limits. It’s also an exploration of the ways in which great art can enrich our lives in the most tangible ways. This is a serious, beautiful book about craftsmanship written not by an aspiring philosopher but, as Esterly proudly describes himself, by “a dirty monk with a vision.” [258]

The 3 Rs: Required Reading & The Richardson House

News! Podcasts! Living the Good Life! Happy to report on my new podcast, Required Reading, with my collaborators Matthew Meschery and Steve Goldbloom. We'll be producing one 45-min show weekly(ish) on all the stuff you should have read, watched, and listened to in the previous week but couldn't fit in. Next week: The Life and Death of Mike Wallace, The $1 Billion-Dollar Photo, and The Strange Case of Augusta National. Check us out -- you can listen to RR right there on the link above. And it's FREE!

I went out to California a few weeks ago to finalize podcast details and on the way I had to drop by my dear mom in Truckee, my hometown. Sometimes it's nice to be a tourist in your hometown. For the first time, I did not stay with family or friends but at a (gasp!) hotel! Not just any hotel, though: The Richardson House. Anyone who's ever been to Truckee has probably seen it: a gorgeous Victorian sitting atop the hill overlooking downtown Truckee. I've lived, at different points in my life, within a two-minute walk of The Richardson House yet I'd never stayed in it -- until last month. It did not disappoint.

My son referred to it throughout our trip as "The Mansion" and it did feel like that. Gorgeous, high-ceilinged rooms, beds covered in seven layers of featherbeds, and a view of Mount Rose from our room. It was amazing. I may never stay at my mom's house again (sorry, Mom). The Richardson House is a Truckee treasure -- try it!

That's my Truckee Insider Tip for this month. Hey, I should add that to the podcast....

PS: Here's our podcast crew: Steve, Matthew, Leo (our producer, with pacifier), and Me. Hope you enjoy the show!

A Nation of Garbos.

Book Review: Eric Klinenberg, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone (Penguin: 2012)

This review originally appeared in the Dec/Jan 2012 issue of BookForum, available here.

Americans love our icons of individuality — Henry David Thoreau, The Lone Ranger, Carrie Bradshaw — almost as much as we wish all the single people would just settle down and get married. As sociologist Eric Klinenberg writes in Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, “Americans have never fully embraced individualism, and we remain deeply skeptical of its excesses.” [8] Nevertheless, we’d better start getting OK with it--because as Klinenberg shows, this country is getting more single by the minute. The facts are astonishing. “The majority of all American adults are single,” he writes. “The typical American will spend more of his or her adult life unmarried than married, and for much of this time he or she will live alone.” [4] And as he goes on to note, “people who live alone make up 28 percent of all U.S. households.” [5] Adults living alone are “more common than the nuclear family, the multigenerational family, and the roommate or group home.” [5] OK, fine: We’re single. So why are we so insecure about it?

Like his predecessors who have mined the social fallout of the country’s individualist streak–writers such as David Reisman (The Lonely Crowd, 1950) and Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone,1995)--Klinenberg wants to expose a previously underreported fact of American existence, something so huge we’ve come to take it for granted. As he writes, “living alone is something that each person or family experiences as the most private of matters, when in fact is its an increasingly common condition and deserves to be treated as a subject of great political significance.” [6] When it does become the topic of debate, living alone is usually presented as “an unmitigated social problem, a sign of narcissism, fragmentation, and diminished public life.” [6] But Klinenberg maintains that none of these judgments are necessarily true.

Klinenberg begins with a basic admission: This book is about the middle and upper classes. And this concession by itself tells us something important about living alone: People do it as soon as they can afford to. So please do not throw the book (or this review) on the floor when I tell you the first chapter begins at a championship adult kickball game in Brooklyn. Klinenberg starts with the Non-Committals (imagine the sociologist’s joy: that’s the actual name of the winning kickball team) because here we have one of his target groups: people in their twenties and thirties who “have come to view living alone as a key part of the transition to adulthood.” [31] What happened to all the “boomerang” kids, those foot-shuffling college grads who live in their parents’ basements? The data show that there are fewer slackers today than ever before. [31] Maybe they’re just more visible because of the kickball.

Going Solo really gets interesting when Klinenberg addresses a seemingly inevitable fork in the path of American singletons (as he calls them): That moment, usually sometime in their 30s, when living alone morphs from a symbol of status (signifying financial security, confidence, independence) to a symbol of pathos (signifying loneliness, unattractiveness, an inability to find a romantic partner). Klinenberg delves into the challenges of living alone, starting with discrimination at work, as in the case of Sherri, who witnessed married coworkers getting raises as management continued to deny her any pay increases. When she confronted her boss, he told her “You wear all these clothes, and you’re always out, and we figured you don’t need it.” [74]

Sherri quit. But the bigger problem is one that is most Americans under 50 will recognize, single or not. “The work world makes extraordinary claims on the lives of young workers. Give yourself to business during the prime of your life, or give up your hope of achieving real success.” [61] It’s a brutal fact with very real consequences. In the “free agent” [61] labor market that now governs our working life, he writes, “the twenties and early thirties is precisely not the time to get married and have a family.” [61]

Going Solo is most compelling in moments like this, when Klinenberg makes connections between public policy, the law, and the rational choices human beings make in response to economic reality. Why should we be surprised that 50 year-old women are first-time mothers (as featured on the cover of a recent New York magazine with the headline “Is She Just Too Old for This?”), when those women had to devote what had previously been thought of as their “childbearing years” to securing  a financial foothold in an increasingly cutthroat economy?

Klinenberg also spends time on the topic of aging alone (today, one in three Americans over sixty-five lives alone, and that number increases in higher age brackets) [157]. His previous book, the award-winning Heat Wave, investigated the deaths of more than 700 Chicagoans — mostly single — who perished in the city’s 1995 heat wave. A city investigator called them “a secret society of people living alone” [23] and as Klinenberg demonstrated, in many cases their social isolation led to their deaths. Here, Klinenberg explores how American society might make the challenge of aging alone less lonely and more humane. He cites Congress’s passage of the 2006 Lifespan Respite Care Act, which allocates money to help pay for community-based caregiving for the elderly and the disabled [228] as a positive, though inadequate step forward. Quality assisted living facilities are also in high demand. “If as it’s often alleged, the baby boomers are a distinctively self-interested generation,” he writes, “they may well use their political clout to promote housing programs that benefit them first.” [229] If it happens, this could be the Me Generation’s most valuable legacy.

And regardless of one’s age demographic, living alone creates certain challenges for society. “What if, instead of indulging the social reformer’s fantasy that we would all just be better off together,” Klinenberg writes, “we accepted the fact that living alone is a fundamental feature of modern societies and we simply did more to shield those who go solo from the main hazards of the condition?” [221] Indeed, “what if” public policy could be created in response to “facts,” as he suggests, rather than irrational fears? It would be preferable, of course. But it’s so much easier to keep rooting for Carrie to marry Mr. Big.

This Week in Geniuses: Stephen Greenblatt and Lucretius.

My review of THE SWERVE: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt (W.W. Norton: 2011) appeared in The Boston Globe's Sunday Books section on September 25, 2011:

At the center of Stephen Greenblatt’s dazzling new book, “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,’’ is a hero: Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459 CE), “[a] short, genial, cannily alert man [who] reached out one day, took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied.’’ It may not sound heroic, but “behind that one moment was the arrest and imprisonment of a pope, the burning of heretics, and a great culturewide explosion of interest in pagan antiquity . . . if he had had an intimation of the forces he was unleashing, he might have thought twice about drawing so explosive a work out of the darkness in which it slept.’’

The work in question was a remote German monastery’s copy of “On the Nature of Things,’’ the epic philosophical poem written by Lucretius ca. 50 BCE . Extravagant as it sounds, Greenblatt argues that Lucretius’s poem is the forgotten keystone in the foundation of western civilization, helping to inspire an entire culture’s rebellion “against the constraints that centuries had constructed against curiosity, desire, individuality, sustained attention to the material world, [and] the claims of the body.’’ Lucretius, in other words, helped create modernity. By the end of this erudite and entertaining book - no, by the second chapter - he will have you convinced that it’s true.

Greenblatt has written an intellectually invigorating, nonfiction version of a Dan Brown-like mystery-in-the-archives thriller, right down to the suppression of a great work of radical art by the early Christian church. In the first chapter, titled “The Book Hunter,’’ we’re introduced to our detective, Poggio. He’s on the trail of lost knowledge, following clues and his intuition to find the book that “changed the landscape of the world.’’ In its gumshoe mode, “The Swerve’’ races through the inner sanctums of corrupt popes, crumbling monasteries, and a shockingly violent gathering of Catholic bishops at the 1413 Council of Constance. Once the manuscript is discovered, Greenblatt explores all the ways Lucretius’s poem influenced the modern world. As Poggio departs center stage, “The Swerve’’ leaves the mystery genre behind and becomes a vibrant history of ideas, tracing Lucretian thought from the Renaissance through the Declaration of Independence, Darwinism, and Einsteinian physics.

But still there remains a deep mystery to be solved. How exactly does culture change? Specifically, how was it possible “for a whole culture to turn away from reading and writing’’ and then, centuries later, turn back again? Much has been written (and disputed) about just how dark the so-called Dark Ages were, but in Greenblatt’s view they were very dark indeed. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Greenblatt writes, the Christian church undertook “the difficult project of making what appeared simply sane and natural - the ordinary impulses of all sentient creatures - seem like the enemy of the truth.’’ In contrast to Lucretius’s Epicurean-inspired assertion that the highest goal of life is to seek pleasure and avoid pain, Christians “understood that pleasure is a code name for vice.’’ Yet by the 15th century a few educated Florentines began to look around at the ruins of ancient Rome - the crumbling yet still functional aqueducts, the Forum, which was now used for grazing sheep - and wondered what had gone wrong. “The spectacle of the world,’’ Poggio lamented: “how is it fallen! . . . How defaced!’’ A thousand years of Christianity had not improved life on earth. Then again, it hadn’t really tried. After all, redemption was only available after death in heaven, if you were lucky enough to get in. For a humanist like Poggio, who had already been exposed to life-affirming classical philosophies, that was too long to wait.

Lucretius’s “On the Nature of Things’’ offered something radically different. The “Lucretian challenge,’’ as Greenblatt calls it, rests on a basic principle known as atomism, one of the foundations of Epicurean philosophy. Man was not formed in the image of his Creator: There is no Creator. Instead, everything, including man, is made of tiny particles called atoms, “the seeds of things,’’ Lucretius explained, which are eternal, indestructible, and infinite. They come together in infinite varieties, with a natural balance between creation and destruction, which goes on forever. Two thousand years later the philosopher George Santayana would call this “the greatest thought that mankind has ever hit upon.’’ While gods may exist, they do not control or even care about the lives of humans. “[T]he fact that it is not all about us and our fate . . . is, Lucretius insisted, the good news.’’ Free of superstition, man could fix his efforts on that which he could actually control: the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Of course Lucretius knew nothing of Darwinian evolution nor of molecular biology nor of quantum physics. Astoundingly, all these modern scientific theories would prove him right.

“The Swerve’’ is the story of Poggio’s heroic rediscovery of a book that has shaped human consciousness for over 2,000 years. It is a thrilling, suspenseful tale that left this reader inspired and full of questions about the ongoing project known as human civilization. Although Lucretius was neither an atheist nor a hedonist, his views were anathema to Christian leaders so they were censored and nearly forgotten. But thanks to the subversive and strenuous efforts of one determined 15th-century scholar, Lucretius’s gift to humanity was saved. Greenblatt reminds us that Thomas Jefferson, who owned eight copies of Lucretius’s “On the Nature of Things,’’ described himself as “an Epicurean,’’ someone who rejected superstition in favor of “sensation, of matter and motion, [on which] we may erect the fabric of all the certainties we can have or need.’’ “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’’ certainly reflects an Epicurean philosophy; perhaps, thanks to Greenblatt’s heroic rediscovery, Lucretius can lead us into the light of reason once again.