HARRY GOLD WAS RIGHT: This is a big story. It’s the story of the creation—and theft—of the deadliest weapon ever invented. The scenes speed around the world, from secret labs to commando raids to street-corner spy meetings. But like most big stories, this one starts small. Let’s pick up the action sixteen years before FBI agents cornered Harry Gold in Philadelphia. Let’s start 3,000 miles to the west, in Berkeley, California, on a chilly night in February 1934.
On a hill high above town, a man and woman sat in a parked car. In the driver’s seat was a very thin young physics professor named Robert Oppenheimer. Beside him sat his date, a graduate student named Melba Phillips. The two looked out at the view of San Francisco Bay.
It was a fine view, but Oppenheimer couldn’t seem to stay focused on the date. He turned to Phillips and asked, “Are you comfortable?”
She said she was.
“Mind if I get out and walk for a few minutes?”
She didn’t mind.
Oppenheimer got out and strolled into the darkness. Phillips wrapped a coat around her legs and waited. She waited a long time. At some point, she fell asleep.
She woke up in the middle of the night—the seat beside her was still empty. Worried, she stepped onto the road and waved down a passing police car.
“My escort went for a walk hours ago and he hasn’t returned,” she told the cop.
The police searched the park, but found nothing. They notified headquarters, and a wider search was begun. An officer drove to Oppenheimer’s apartment to look for useful clues.
He found the professor in bed, sound asleep.
The cop shook Oppenheimer awake and demanded an explanation. Oppenheimer said he’d gotten out of the car to think about physics. “I just walked and walked,” he said, “and I was home and I went to bed. I’m so sorry.”
A reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle got hold of the story and wrote an article with the headline: “Forgetful Prof Parks Girl, Takes Self Home.”
No one who knew Robert Oppenheimer was the least bit surprised.
* * *
HE’D ALWAYS BEEN DIFFERENT. A girl who knew Robert as a child in New York City described him as “very frail, very pink-cheeked, very shy, and very brilliant.”
Oppenheimer was a tougher critic. “A repulsively good little boy,” he said of himself. “My life as a child did not prepare me for the fact that the world is full of cruel and bitter things.”
He was constantly getting sick, so his nervous parents tried to protect him by keeping him inside. While other boys played in the street, Robert sat alone in his room studying languages, devouring books of literature and science, and filling notebooks with poetry. Around kids his age he was awkward and quiet, never knowing what to say unless he could bring the conversation around to books. Then he would let loose annoying bursts of learning.
“Ask me a question in Latin,” he’d say, “and I’ll answer you in Greek.”
Hoping to toughen up their stick-skinny fourteen-year-old, Robert’s parents sent him to a sports summer camp. But he was an awful athlete and simply refused to participate. Then the other campers found out he wrote home every day, and that he liked poetry and looking for minerals. That’s when they started calling him “Cutie.”
Robert never fought back. He never even responded. That made his tormentors even angrier.
One night, after dinner, Robert went for a walk. A group of boys waited for him in the woods. They grabbed him, dragged him to the icehouse, and tossed him on the rough wood floor. They ripped off his shirt and pants, dipped a brush in green paint, and slapped the dripping bristles against his bony body.
Robert never said a word about the attack to camp counselors. “I don’t know how Robert stuck out those remaining weeks,” his only friend at camp later said. “Not many boys would have—or could have—but Robert did. It must have been hell for him.”
Science saved him. Robert dove deep into chemistry and physics in high school, graduated from Harvard University in 1925, then earned advanced degrees at top universities in Britain and Germany. Even in classes with some of the brightest students in the world, “Oppie,” as friends called him, never lost his know-it-all style. He interrupted physics lectures with his own theories, sometimes charging to the chalkboard, grabbing the chalk and declaring. “This can be done much better in the following manner.” Classmates got so annoyed they actually signed a petition asking him to allow others to speak in class. After that, Oppenheimer calmed down. A little bit. “The trouble,” a friend said, “is that Oppie is so quick on the trigger intellectually, that he puts the other guy at a disadvantage.”
He’d lucked into a thrilling time in theoretical physics. Physicists were just beginning to figure out what atoms look like, and how the tiny particles inside them move and affect each other. Theoretical physicists were the explorers of their day, using imagination and mind-bending math to dig deeper and deeper into the surprising inner workings of atoms. Oppenheimer knew he’d found his calling.
When he returned to the States, schools all over the country tried to hire him. He picked the University of California, in Berkeley, where he quickly built the country’s best theoretical physics program. Students who came to study with Oppenheimer quickly realized they were in for a wild ride. “When you took a question to him,” one student remembered, “he would spend hours—until midnight perhaps—exploring every angle with you.”
“He generally would answer patiently,” another student agreed, “unless the question was manifestly stupid, in which event his response was likely to be quite caustic.”
While sitting in on other professors’ lectures, Oppenheimer was known to squirm impatiently. “Oh, come now!” he’d call out. “We all know that. Let’s get on with it!”
Oppenheimer’s own lectures, according to a student named Edward Gerjuoy, were lightning bursts of ideas, theories, and math on the blackboard. “He spoke quite rapidly, and puffed equally rapidly,” Gerjuoy said. “When one cigarette burned down to a fragment he no longer could hold, he lit another.” Oppenheimer paced as he lectured, his wiry black hair sticking straight up, his large blue eyes flashing, as he furiously wrote, erased, wrote more, talked, puffed, and bobbed in and out of a cloud of white smoke.
During one lecture, he told students to think about a formula he’d written. There were dozens scrawled all over the board, and a student cut in to ask which formula he was talking about.
“Not that one,” Oppenheimer said, pointing to the blackboard, “the one underneath.”
There was no formula below that one, the student pointed out.
“Not below, underneath,” snapped Oppenheimer. “I have written over it.”
As one of Oppenheimer’s students put it: “Everyone sort of regarded him, very affectionately, as being sort of nuts.”
* * *
“I NEED PHYSICS MORE THAN FRIENDS,” Oppenheimer once told his younger brother. Lost in his studies, Oppenheimer paid little attention to the outside world. He didn’t hear about the stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression until six months after it happened. He first voted in a presidential election in 1936, at the age of thirty-two.
“Beginning in late 1936, my interests began to change,” he later said. There were a few reasons.
For one thing, the country’s ongoing economic troubles began to hit home. “I saw what the Depression was doing to my students. Often they could get no jobs,” he said. “And through them, I began to understand how deeply political and economic events could affect men’s lives. I began to feel the need to participate more fully in the life of the community.” Oppenheimer started going to political meetings and discussion groups. He began giving money to support causes like labor unions and striking farm workers.
But it wasn’t only events in the United States that caught Oppenheimer’s attention—he was also alarmed by the violent rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party in Germany. Hitler took over as chancellor of Germany in 1933 and started arresting political opponents and tossing them into concentration camps. With complete control of the country in his hands, Hitler began persecuting German Jews, stripping them of their legal rights, kicking them out of universities and government jobs. Oppenheimer, who was Jewish, still had family in Germany, as well as Jewish friends from his student days. When he heard that Hitler was harassing Jewish physicists, Oppenheimer dedicated a portion of his salary to help them escape Nazi Germany.
At the same time, the German dictator built up a huge military and started hacking out what he called a “Greater Germany,” a massive European empire that Hitler insisted rightfully belonged to Germans. He annexed neighboring Austria in 1938, then demanded a huge region of Czechoslovakia. Britain and France were strong enough to stand in Hitler’s way—but they caved in to his threats, hoping to preserve peace in Europe.
“This is my last territorial demand in Europe,” Hitler promised.
A few months later, he sent German troops into the rest of Czechoslovakia. Just twenty years after the end of World War I, it looked like a second world war was about to explode.
Oppenheimer followed these terrifying events from his home in California, burning with what he described as “a continuing, smoldering fury” toward Adolf Hitler.
But how was a theoretical physicist supposed to save the world?
Copyright © 2012 by Steve Sheinkin