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In the Shadow of the Bomb

In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist

S. S. Schweber
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    In the Shadow of the Bomb
    Book Description:

    In the Shadow of the Bomb narrates how two charismatic, exceptionally talented physicists--J. Robert Oppenheimer and Hans A. Bethe--came to terms with the nuclear weapons they helped to create. In 1945, the United States dropped the bomb, and physicists were forced to contemplate disquieting questions about their roles and responsibilities. When the Cold War followed, they were confronted with political demands for their loyalty and McCarthyism's threats to academic freedom. By examining how Oppenheimer and Bethe--two men with similar backgrounds but divergent aspirations and characters--struggled with these moral dilemmas, one of our foremost historians of physics tells the story of modern physics, the development of atomic weapons, and the Cold War.

    Oppenheimer and Bethe led parallel lives. Both received liberal educations that emphasized moral as well as intellectual growth. Both were outstanding theoreticians who worked on the atom bomb at Los Alamos. Both advised the government on nuclear issues, and both resisted the development of the hydrogen bomb. Both were, in their youth, sympathetic to liberal causes, and both were later called to defend the United States against Soviet communism and colleagues against anti-Communist crusaders. Finally, both prized scientific community as a salve to the apparent failure of Enlightenment values.

    Yet, their responses to the use of the atom bomb, the testing of the hydrogen bomb, and the treachery of domestic politics differed markedly. Bethe, who drew confidence from scientific achievement and integration into the physics community, preserved a deep integrity. By accepting a modest role, he continued to influence policy and contributed to the nuclear test ban treaty of 1963. In contrast, Oppenheimer first embodied a new scientific persona--the scientist who creates knowledge and technology affecting all humanity and boldly addresses their impact--and then could not carry its burden. His desire to retain insider status, combined with his isolation from creative work and collegial scientific community, led him to compromise principles and, ironically, to lose prestige and fall victim to other insiders.

    Schweber draws on his vast knowledge of science and its history--in addition to his unique access to the personalities involved--to tell a tale of two men that will enthrall readers interested in science, history, and the lives and minds of great thinkers.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4949-9
    Subjects: History of Science & Technology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-2)
    (pp. 3-27)

    “Well, now we’re all sons of bitches” was the trenchant comment made by Kenneth Bainbridge, the Harvard physicist who was in charge of the Trinity test, upon witnessing the explosion of the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico, at 5:29:45 a.m. on Monday, July 16, 1945, that fateful day that ushered in the atomic age.¹ The meaning of Trinity was obvious to Bainbridge at Alamogordo. But its moral and political implications were not as explicit nor as immediate to many of the other physicists there.² The “gravity” of the moral and political problems arising from the mastering of nuclear...

    (pp. 28-41)

    In November 1784, the Berlinische Monatschrifte published Kant’s response to the question, “What is Enlightenment?” which the magazine had posed earlier that year. Kant’s now well-known answer was given in the epigraph above. Some two hundred years later, Michel Foucault took Kant’s essay as the point of departure for his reexamination of this same question: Was ist Aufklärung?¹ The importance of Kant’s essay for Foucault stemmed from the fact that he saw it as a watershed: “modern” philosophy could be characterized as the philosophy that is attempting to answer the same question as the Berlinische Monatschrifte had raised.² Foucault suggested...

    (pp. 42-75)

    Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York on April 22, 1904, into a well-to-do, emancipated Jewish family of German descent. His father, Julius, was a successful businessman who had emigrated to the United States in 1888 when he was seventeen years old to work in the textile-importing business of relatives. His mother, Ella Friedman, was an artist whose family had come from Germany to Baltimore in the 1840s. A brother, Frank, was born in 1912. The Oppenheimers lived on Riverside Drive near 88th Street in a large eleventh-floor apartment overlooking the Hudson River. Although Jewish, the Oppenheimers had no temple...

  8. 3. HANS BETHE
    (pp. 76-114)

    Bethe was born on July 2, 1906, in Strasbourg, when Alsace was part of the Wilhelminian empire. He is an only child. His father was a widely respected physiologist who accepted a professorship in Frankfurt when Hans was nine years old. His mother was raised in Strasbourg where her father had been a professor of medicine. Bethe’s father was Protestant. His mother had been Jewish but became a Lutheran before she met Hans’s father at the ceremony at which her older sister converted in order to marry a German army officer. Hans thus grew up in a Protestant household, but...

    (pp. 115-148)

    By 1949 the Cold War had become frigid and the national mood in the United States was one of “cold fear.” West Berlin was being blockaded and most Americans came to believe that the goal of the Soviet Union was to impose its totalitarian system on the entire world, as it had on Eastern Europe. An anti-Communist hysteria and a concomitant obsession with atomic secrets were gripping the country. The rampant fear of Communism that had started with the unraveling of the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union had led to a policy of containment that had been drafted by...

    (pp. 149-177)

    How to act morally has been one of Bethe’s constant concerns. The boundary between the moral and the political have never been sharp for him. He learned early that Kant’s individualistic categorical imperative, though morally binding, was often not effective in halting or eradicating evils in the world. The futility of James Franck’s resignation as director of the Göttingen institute for experimental physics—in contrast to the efficacy of the collective efforts of Niels Bohr, Ernest Rutherford, and their colleagues in Europe and of Livingston Farrand¹ and others in the United States in finding suitable positions for the members of...

    (pp. 178-182)

    On November 25, 1947, Oppenheimer delivered the second Arthur D. Little Lecture to a packed audience of over a thousand that had gathered in Walker Memorial Hall at MIT.¹ The purpose of the lectureship was to promote “interest in and stimulate discussion of the social implications inherent in the development of science” by “secur” the record of the deepest thoughts and convictions of [the] lecturers, based on [their] many years of experience in their contact with science, society, government, economics, and the humanities.”² Oppenheimer was surely qualified to accept the invitation to speak on the subject of the lectureship. He...

    (pp. 183-186)

    There is a certain irony in tracing the parallel lives of Bethe and Oppenheimer. During the 1930s, when Oppenheimer was creating his great school of theoretical physics in Berkeley, he was the center of an active social and intellectual community. When he became active in political circles in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, the significance of community was enlarged for him. Los Alamos further expanded the meaning of community. But the change in the interior landscape that T. S. Eliot so movingly evoked in the Journey of the Magi also describes insightfully Oppenheimer’s experience at Los Alamos and...

  13. Notes to the Chapters
    (pp. 187-238)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 239-256)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 257-260)