Skip to main content

The vocational fragmentation we noted in yesterday’s post summarizing some prominent Oppenheimer biographies likely had deeper roots going back to Oppenheimer’s childhood. David C. Cassidy’s J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century offers important details concerning the impact of Oppenheimer’s upbringing on his sense of vocation. Cassidy contends that Oppenheimer’s parents considered it to be “a shame . . . to belong to the Jewish Group.”1

Substantial forms of anti-Semitism existed in the United States during Oppenheimer’s childhood. Oppenheimer’s parents distanced themselves intentionally from both the religious and ethnic dimensions of their heritage. Instead of being part of the life of a local synagogue, the Oppenheimers involved themselves in the efforts of the Ethical Culture Society—a secular outgrowth of the Jewish community in New York City. Cassidy discusses at length the education that Oppenheimer received at the Ethical Culture School. At this school, Cassidy notes how Oppenheimer was taught to appreciate the notion of progress in light of the possibility of a perfect future for society.

Following his time at the Ethical Culture School and Harvard University, Cassidy contends Oppenheimer met and studied with many of the world’s leading physicists in England and Germany. After doctoral and post-doctoral work in Europe, Oppenheimer accepted a joint position at the University of California, Berkeley (UC-Berkeley) and the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech). In significant detail, Cassidy offers an understanding of how Oppenheimer helped to develop a comparable appreciation for physics, particularly theoretical physics, in the United States. Cassidy also contends that his leadership within the field of theoretical physics took place at the same time as his awakening to the political realities surrounding him.

During these years, and particularly at UC Berkeley (1929-1943), Oppenheimer began what Cassidy describes as his time as a fellow traveler of the communist party. After atomic bombs devastated two Japanese cities, many scientists, including Oppenheimer, began to focus on the new role and social responsibility of science and scientists. However, they soon found out that they lacked political power. Cassidy quotes Rieff in that “the Oppenheimer case signals not merely the personal defeat of a leading scientist, but the removal of the American scientists as a group from their high place in the political order.”2

That removal is then recounted in dramatic detail in Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s magisterial American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.3 Their work is the most well-written and most comprehensive of any of these works. Anyone who even offers this work a cursory read will likely recognize why it won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 2006 and inspired a director of the caliber of Christopher Nolan to draw upon its storyline for motion picture already drawing speculation from critics as being a blockbuster worthy of commercial and critical success.

The significance of the title, however, is inferential in nature at best. In relation to Oppenheimer, perhaps another figure may prove to be more appropriate than a modern or American Prometheus. Ironically, Bird and Sherwin cite Freeman Dyson, Oppenheimer’s colleague at the Institute for Advanced Study, who offered that Oppenheimer’s agreement to direct the Los Alamos Laboratory was “a Faustian bargain if there ever was one.”4 Whether Prometheus or Faust provides the most helpful point of comparison, Bird and Sherwin generally offer more than their fellow biographers in terms of Oppenheimer’s complexity and peculiarities.

For example, unlike Oppenheimer’s other biographers, Bird and Sherwin dedicate an entire chapter to the investigation surrounding the January 4, 1944, suicide of a woman and known Communist with whom Oppenheimer was once romantically involved, Jean Tatlock. Like Pais, Bird and Sherwin provide a significant overview of Oppenheimer and the other intellectuals who served during Oppenheimer’s tenure as Director of the Institute of Advanced Study. During this period, he had to endure accusations, a now admittedly unfair trial, the stripping of his security clearance, resistance from several colleagues at the Institute, and his final illness.

Oppenheimer initially tried to make the Institute for Advanced Study into a haven for advanced physics but later worked to strengthen many of the other disciplines that were represented. Bird and Sherwin note that “The Institute was [Oppenheimer’s] own little empire.”5 Though he remained effective in his efforts to inspire the scholarly interests of his colleagues, Bird and Sherwin also note that Oppenheimer’s scholarly productivity in physics had all but come to an end. Some considered Oppenheimer humble toward the end of his tenure. However, perhaps Oppenheimer’s insight into the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to one called to the academic vocation is what fostered such a disposition.

Charles Thorpe’s Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect is a more philosophically focused form of biography than the other works, which are more historically focused. In essence, Thorpe argues that “the bomb project catapulted scientists into a position within America’s political and administrative elites.”6 Though Oppenheimer was also well educated in fields beyond theoretical physics, Thorpe notes that Oppenheimer’s early years in life left him without any real sense of identity or vocation. In fact, Thorpe contends that Oppenheimer seemed to lack the internal ability to justify many of the decisions he made until he started reading the Bhagavad Gita during his years at UC Berkeley.

Issues prompting such decisions ranged from social and political realities of daily life as a professor to working for the United States military to develop an atomic bomb. Thorpe notes that in contrast to Oppenheimer’s sentiments at a couple of points in his life, Edward Teller insisted that scientists should only concern themselves with what is true and leave questions about what is good or beautiful to others.7 Teller’s position reflects an adherence to the notion of compartmentalization largely prompted by modern Western society.8

Thorpe can bring this compartmentalized understanding to the front of his work. He does so because he promises to study Oppenheimer in the context of Max Weber’s understanding of the vocation of science and to use “the narrative form of a sociologically conceptualized biography to weave together the threads of the ‘individual’ and the ‘social.’”9

In the end, Thorpe’s book goes well beyond the reporting of factual information concerning Oppenheimer and thus points us toward the significance of Oppenheimer’s life for the academic vocation. After making a clear distinction between science and technology, Thorpe raises important questions concerning the role of science and scientists, their relation to political powers, and even their relation to ultimate worldviews. Later in life and despite his broad interests and occasional reservations, Oppenheimer returned to a defense of scientific specialization and thus compartmentalization.

Thorpe notes that Oppenheimer believed that “scientists were specialists, not general intellectuals.”10 Thorpe refers to C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” of science and the humanities, and points out that some scholars started to realize that due to a loss of common identity, “universities” were now described more aptly as being “multiversities.”11 Thorpe’s last chapter is entitled “The Last Intellectual,” sympathizing as it seems with Rieff’s lament that “America is without a culture elite.”12

Indeed, in light of Oppenheimer’s final reductive approach to who a scientist is and what a scientist is called to do, it is doubtful that one could call Oppenheimer an intellectual in the classical sense. For a scientist such as Oppenheimer was socialized toward fragmentation, questions of the good or even a good life were not common to his professional purview. Tomorrow we will begin to explore the perils such a sense of fragmentation yielded in Oppenheimer’s life and, if not challenged, in the lives we are called to lead.


  1. David C. Cassidy, J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century (New York, NY: Pi Press, 2005), 14.
  2. Cassidy, J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century, 338.
  3. For this work, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for a biography. Further details concerning this award are found at
  4. Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 5.
  5. Charles Thorpe, Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2006), 386.
  6. Thorpe, Oppenheimer, 2.
  7. Thorpe, Oppenheimer, 8.
  8. Thorpe, Oppenheimer, 9.
  9. Thorpe, Oppenheimer, xvi.
  10. Thorpe, Oppenheimer, 263.
  11. Thorpe, Oppenheimer, 264–5.
  12. Thorpe, Oppenheimer, 288.

Todd C. Ream

Indiana Wesleyan University
Todd C. Ream is Honors Professor of Humanities and Executive Director of Faculty Research and Scholarship at Indiana Wesleyan University, Senior Fellow for Public Engagement for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, Senior Fellow for Programming for the Lumen Research Institute, and Publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review.  He is the author and editor of numerous books including (with Jerry Pattengale) The Anxious Middle: Planning for the Future of the Christian College (Baylor University Press, September 15, 2023).

Willem P. Van De Merwe

Willem P. Van De Merwe is the Blanchard Chair of Physics Emeritus at Indiana Wesleyan University.