The man of Los Alamos

Joseph F. Mulligan

April 10, 1992|By Joseph F. Mulligan

SOMEWHAT confused circumstances enabled me to meet J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist best known for his direction of the World War II atomic bomb project at Los Alamos, just months before he died 25 years ago.

In December 1966, as dean of the graduate school at Fordham University's Bronx campus, I was invited by W. Donald Cooke, the graduate dean at Cornell, to a meeting later that month on graduate studies in Puerto Rico. The exact purpose of the meeting was unclear, but I agreed to attend.

The day of the meeting dawned cold and blustery, with the promise of snow before evening. I took the subway to the Cornell Club in Manhattan and was directed to a small room with tables set for cocktails and lunch, into which graduate deans from universities in the city and state slowly drifted. At the scheduled time for the luncheon, eight or nine deans were present, but not Don Cooke. A few minutes later the disconcerting news came that the airport in Ithaca was snowed in, and Cooke could not make the meeting he had arranged.

Finally, after another half hour or so, the guests of honor arrived: Luis Munoz Marin, who had stepped down the previous year after 16 years as governor of Puerto Rico, and at his side J. Robert Oppenheimer. We were all puzzled by this strange alliance of physicist and politician who, as far as any of us knew, had little in common except for a love of poetry. After cocktails (Oppenheimer had Campari on ice), we sat down to lunch and the day's business.

The purpose soon became clear. Munoz Marin and Oppenheimer were both concerned about the lack of intellectual life in Puerto Rico. There were no great universities, no renowned research institutes, and as a consequence no role models for children with the potential to contribute to Puerto Rico's future as scholars and scientists.

What Oppenheimer proposed, in his usual eloquent and mesmerizing way, was that the universities represented at the luncheon join forces to plan and administer an Institute for Advanced Study in Puerto Rico, modeled on the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, with which Oppenheimer had been affiliated since 1947. Both he and Munoz Marin spoke movingly about what this would mean to Puerto Rico, to its young people and less directly to the universities involved.

For a number of reasons, nothing came of the Oppenheimer-Munoz Marin proposal, but that is not the point of this story. The morning of the luncheon Oppenheimer had undergone radiation treatment for the throat cancer that would take his life just a few months later. When he arrived for lunch, his jaw and neck were red and raw. He was obviously in pain; he did not appear to have long to live -- and still he was thinking not of himself, but of the people of a beautiful, impoverished island off the mainland of the United States. He was not merely thinking of them; he was pleading for them, that their children might enjoy increased opportunities and a brighter future than they themselves had known.

Over the years I had heard Oppenheimer speak at physics meetings and banquets and had joined in enthusiastic applause for his eloquence, breadth of knowledge and courage upon being stripped of his security clearance after serving his country so well for so long. But during the subway ride back to my office, I realized that on that day I had experienced another facet of this many-sided human being: a true unselfishness, a somewhat impractical other-worldliness, a near saintlike quality that radiated from his sunken countenance.

And now, 25 years later, I understand better that, for Oppenheimer, his scholarship, his service and his suffering were but steps on the road to the peace he discussed so beautifully in a 1932 letter to his brother Frank, then considering a career in physics: ". . . I think that all things which evoke discipline: study, and our duties to men and to the commonwealth, war, and personal hardship, and even the need for subsistence, ought to be greeted by us with profound gratitude; for only through them can we attain to the least detachment; and only so can we know peace."

Joseph F. Mulligan is professor emeritus of physics at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

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