- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2003

In a prologue to his study of the atomic bomb scientists the historian Brian VanDeMark — he teaches at Annapolis — informs us that he is going to create this history by weaving together the profiles of nine of the most important physicist participants, men such as Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr, Leo Szilard and Edward Teller. He says that “People usually think about what the atomic scientists did, instead of who they were, because they do not see them as human beings with personal histories and emotional lives, hearts — sometimes broken — as well as heads.”

With all respect due, “Pandora’s Keepers” is largely a recycling of the numerous references the author cites to essays, profiles, biographies and autobiographies which in fact deal with scientists as “human beings.” The question is does Mr. VanDeMark bring anything new to this rich table. I think collecting this literature in one accessible place is a useful thing to have done. It would have been even more useful if his scholarship had been more careful. I will explain.

In his prologue Mr. VanDeMark acknowledges his limitations in nuclear physics, but then proceeds to write about it — often erroneously — anyway. It is as if someone who was tone deaf insisted on writing a treatise on Bach. Two examples: Shortly after fission was discovered in 1938, Niels Bohr realized that what had actually been observed was the fissioning of the relatively rare isotope of uranium U-235. Isotopes of elements are atoms with the same chemical properties but which differ slightly in mass. He understood that separating this isotope from the common U-238 would be a monumental task and so concluded — erroneously — that nuclear weapons were not a practical possibility.

If Mr. VanDeMark had left it at this, he would have been better off. Instead he tries to “explain” this effect as due to the relative instability of U-235 and U-238. Actually both U-238 and 235 are unstable with lifetimes of the order of a billion years. What matters here is what isotopes are created when a neutron — the electrically neutral nuclear component — is absorbed by a uranium nucleus.

This is a subtle matter of nuclear physics. What is unsubtle is the monumental howler Mr. VanDeMark makes when he discusses the fusion process that powers the hydrogen bomb. He informs us that it is called a hydrogen bomb because it involves isotopes of hydrogen, an example of which he says is lithium. Don’t publishers have editors with a high school knowledge of the periodic table?

Given Mr. VanDeMark’s background, these scientific lapses are perhaps understandable. What is less understandable are his lapses in the history and biography. I will give two examples. That in the summer of 1939, Albert Einstein signed a letter written by the Hungarian-born physicist Leo Szilard that eventually found its way to President Franklin Roosevelt warning him of a possible German nuclear danger, is one of the cliche stories of the nuclear age.

Everyone who has written on this subject gives a version. What is remarkable is that Mr. VanDeMark’s version is wrong. He writes that on Aug. 2, Szilard, who could not drive — neither could Einstein for that matter — enlisted Edward Teller to drive him to Southhold, on Long Island where Einstein had rented a summer cottage. Mr. VanDeMark informs us that not being able to find the cottage they got the help of a little girl who knew where the man with the long white hair lived.

The problem is that this visit, which took place on July 30th, was not Szilard’s first visit but his second. The first was on July 12 and Szilard was chauffered by the Princeton physicist Eugene Wigner. It was on this occasion they asked directions of a child which was said to have been a boy.

More importantly, the intention on this first visit was to persuade Einstein to write to the queen of Belgium to ask her to stop the shipments of uranium from the Belgian Congo to Germany. It was only after this visit that Szilard got the idea of writing to Roosevelt. Why Einstein had a special relationship with the Belgian royal family is in itself quite a story not to be found in this book.

The second example involves Robert Oppenheimer who figures large — and for good reason — in this book. Mr. VanDeMark informs us that Oppenheimer was the grandson of Jewish emigrants. In fact his mother Ella Friedman’s family had lived in the Baltimore-Philadelphia area for generations and his father, Julius, had emigrated from Germany at the age of 17, leaving his family.

What is important about this, besides getting the facts straight, are its implications for Oppenheimer’s character. Certainly as he was growing up, Oppenheimer had great difficulties with his Jewishness. That his father had a thick accent must have been an embarrassment. One reflection was the fact that he dropped his given name “Julius” which he shortened to “J.” It is clear from his letters that he was concerned about how his non-Jewish schoolmates would find his family. There is every indication that they found them charming.

Mr. VanDeMark writes that there was a Van Gogh in their apartment. Actually there were three, of which one, “Enclosed Field with Rising Sun,” was still in Oppenheimer’s possession when I saw it in his house in Princeton in the late 1950s. One must remember that in the 1920s anti-Semitism was overt and prevalent. When Oppenheimer’s important physics professor at Harvard, Percy Bridgman wrote a letter of recommendation for Oppenheimer he felt obliged to note that while Oppenheimer was Jewish he did not share the objectionable stereotypes of his race.

Mr. VanDeMark quotes part of this letter but leaves this out. There was so much anti-Semitism even after the war that when Oppenheimer tried to get Richard Feynman a job at Berkeley he inquired if the physics faculty already had its limit of Jews.

I think that this ambiguity of identity was responsible for several of the foolish things Oppenheimer did which eventually ended up in his disastrous security hearing in 1954. I think that Mr. VanDeMark’s discussion of this hearing is very good and I also thought that his description of the decision to build a hydrogen bomb was equally good.

Mr. VanDeMark had the opportunity to interview a few of the important figures in his story. The others had died and, since his book was written, more of them have followed. We are fast losing our firsthand contact with this history. We are also losing contact with people who have actually witnessed a nuclear explosion. I can testify having seen two in the Nevada desert in 1957, that this is an experience that marks you forever.

I fully support the ban on above-ground nuclear testing but I worry that this may have sanitized the whole issue of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are not just a variant on ordinary bombs. They treat people like inanimate matter. Their use should be unthinkable.

Jeremy Bernstein is a physicist at the Aspen Center for Physics in Aspen, Colo.

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