Notes on Oppenheimer "the great synthesiser" & readings on how we “see” the world and tell its stories.
Friends & readers,
It feels like I am hardly ever writing to you in real time. In fact, I drafted this letter up sometime ago, but got too occupied with life’s other events to put the finishing touches to it, until tonight. Truly, all social media use for me is a retrospective, introspective exercise, which makes me feel out of step with much of the world—but I’m learning to embrace it. As I noted in Chat (accessible to free & paid subscribers), I’m currently in Berlin, where the morning’s streets are swathed in fallen autumn leaves, but my “postcards” here harken back to always sunny and humid Malaysia, albeit before the arrival of the near-annual haze blanketing the region. Enjoy ☀️
After watching Oppenheimer recently, I turned to reading American Prometheus, the biography by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin that apparently inspired Nolan to make the movie.
Not having known very much about Oppenheimer before watching the film, I’ll admit to feeling like the film still left me a little in the dark as to the true nature of Oppenheimer’s genius. Why, for instance, was he—above all other physicists who seemed more comfortable with the experimental and not just theoretical side of things—pinpointed as the one to lead the national American endeavour to produce the world’s first atomic bomb?
In fact, Colonel Leslie R. Groves (played by Matt Damon in the film), who was put in charge of overseeing the bomb project, said that the “scientific leaders of that era” were opposed to the suggestion of Oppenheimer’s appointment as director of the Manhattan Project laboratory. According to the book’s authors, one of the drawbacks Groves perceived to Oppenheimer’s selection was apparently that he “lacked a Nobel Prize and Groves thought that might make it difficult for him to direct the activities of so many of his colleagues who had won that prestigious award”. And for another, he was more of a theorist (the film did make the point that he was incompetent at lab work), when one would assume that building an atomic bomb would require more practical talents.
Add to all this the fact that he was said to have terrible administrative qualities—one peer said he couldn’t be depended to run a burger stand, much less a bomb-making lab—why, then, was he ultimately judged to be the man for the job? According to the authors, from testimonials gleaned from his peers, it was above all because he was an “articulate synthesiser” of knowledge. They wrote:
While Oppenheimer was a theorist who knew how incompetent he was in the laboratory, he nevertheless stayed close to experimentalists like Lawrence. Unlike many European theorists, he appreciated the potential benefit from close collaboration with those who were involved in testing the validity of the new physics. Even in high school, his teachers had noted his gift for explaining technical things in plain language. As a theorist who understood what the experimentalists were doing in the laboratory, he had that rare quality of being able to synthesise a great mass of information from disparate fields of research.
And also: he could then explain it better than anyone else. A peer, Martin D. Kamen, called him “the official explainer”.
Hans Bethe said, “His grasp of problems was immediate—he could often understand an entire problem after he had heard a single sentence.”
According to David Hawkins: “He was very persuasive, very cogent, elegant in language and able to listen to what other people said and incorporate it in what he would say. I had the impression that he was a good politician in the sense that if several people spoke he could summarise what they said and they would discover that they had agreed with each other as a result of his summary.”
But this strength of Oppenheimer’s was also the reason, judged the authors, that he never won the Nobel Prize: “the Nobel Prize is a distinction awarded to scientists who achieve something specific. By contrast, Oppenheimer’s genius lay in his ability to synthesise the entire field of study.”
The way they saw it: “Robert did not have the patience to stick with any one problem very long. As a result, it was frequently he who opened the door through which others then walked to make major discoveries.”
As they illustrated in more detail:
“Oppenheimer’s work with [Hartland] Snyder is, in retrospect, remarkably complete and an accurate mathematical description of the collapse of a black hole,” observed Kip Thorne, a Caltech theoretical physicist. “It was hard for people of that era to understand the paper because the things that were being smoked out of the mathematics were so different from any mental picture of how things should behave in the universe.”
Characteristically, however, Oppenheimer never took the time to develop anything so elegant as a theory of the phenomenon, leaving this achievement to others decades later. And the question remains: Why? Personality and temperament appear to be critical. Robert instantly saw the flaws in any idea almost as soon as he had conceived it. Whereas some physicists—Edward Teller immediately comes to mind—badly and optimistically promoted all of their new ideas, regardless of their flaws, Oppenheimer’s rigorous critical faculties made him profoundly skeptical. “Oppie was always pessimistic about all the ideas,” recalled Serber. Turned on himself, his brilliance denied him he dogged conviction that is sometimes necessary for pursuing and developing original theoretical insights. Instead, his skepticism invariably propelled him on to the next problem. Having made the initial creative leap, in this case to black-hole theory, Oppenheimer quickly moved on to another new topic, meson theory.
I’m still making my way through this heft of a book, among others. (Yes, I read multiple nonfiction books at once, though just one novel at any one time 😅) I just wanted to share this because I thought it was interesting, and because I relate very much to the part where Oppenheimer was “profoundly skeptical” of all his ideas. I mean, I’ll often think I have a brilliant idea, but then I’ll rethink it, and question it, and rethink it some more, and then more likely than not, I’ll end up thinking it’s not a great idea after all and fail to even start pursuing it.
Also, I’ve been worrying a little over my longterm outlook on writing lately, and I guess this made me reflect some on what I think my strengths and proclivities are in this work I’ve always been so sure I wanted to devote myself to.
Dear readers, being able to take you with me everywhere I go means a great deal, and I would be forever grateful if you would sign up to receive more letters like this in your inbox. If you have the means, you can also make a paid subscription. Thank you!
📖 Bad Witness: What I Didn’t Say About Reporting on Chinese Christians in Kenya, by April Zhu—a must-read:
Though nearly all the words she had highlighted as problematic were my editor’s additions, what mattered was that, though I was not happy with how it turned out either, I didn’t think it was that bad. For the first time, I saw the mechanics of my craft laid bare through the eyes of the individual from whom I’d extracted my raw material. I was blind to my own faith: Didn’t she know that the medium works in mysterious ways, that sometimes we must let go of our own words? Daphne was shocked less by how she was portrayed than by how the person she’d sat next to in the pews had been completely evacuated from the page, with nothing but a byline to prove she hadn’t totally hallucinated goodwill. The language my editor used—and which I had accepted after all—was illegible in the reality Daphne and I had shared for weeks. Much is lost in any translation, but what do you call it when you can’t see the author anymore? The author you’d trusted?
📖 Where is the fiction about climate change? by Amitav Ghosh:
Culture generates desires – for vehicles and appliances, for certain kinds of gardens and dwellings – that are among the principal drivers of the carbon economy. A speedy convertible excites us neither because of any love for metal and chrome, nor because of an abstract understanding of its engineering. It excites us because it evokes an image of a road arrowing through a pristine landscape; we think of freedom and the wind in our hair; we envision James Dean and Peter Fonda racing toward the horizon; we think also of Jack Kerouac and Vladimir Nabokov. When we see an advertisement that links a picture of a tropical island to the word paradise, the longings that are kindled in us have a chain of transmission that stretches back to Daniel Defoe and Jean-Jacques Rousseau: the flight that will transport us to the island is merely an ember in that fire. When we see a green lawn that has been watered with desalinated water, in Abu Dhabi or southern California or some other environment where people had once been content to spend their water thriftily in nurturing a single vine or shrub, we are looking at an expression of a yearning that may have been sparked by the novels of Jane Austen. The artefacts and commodities that are conjured up by these desires are, in a sense, at once expressions and concealments of the cultural matrix that brought them into being.
This culture is, of course, intimately linked with the wider histories of imperialism and capitalism that have shaped the world. But to know this is still to know very little about the specific ways in which the matrix interacts with different modes of cultural activity: poetry, art, architecture, theatre, prose fiction and so on. Throughout history these branches of culture have responded to war, ecological calamity and crises of many sorts: why, then, should climate change prove so peculiarly resistant to their practices?
I’ve since been trying to actively redress the balance, by spending more time searching for women to interview. For any given story, I almost always try to contact several sources. If, for example, I’m writing about a new scientific paper, I will interview the scientists behind the work, but also pass the paper around to get comments from independent researchers. To find the right people, I’ll look at related work that’s cited by the paper in question. I’ll google for people who do similar research. I’ll check Twitter. I’ll look at past news stories. To find more female sources, I just spend a little more time on all of the above—ending the search only when I have a list that includes several women.
📖 In some scientific papers, words expressing uncertainty have decreased, by Jeffrey Brainard:
If this trend holds across the scientific literature, it suggests a worrisome rise of unreliable, exaggerated claims, some observers say. Hedging and avoiding overconfidence “are vital to communicating what one’s data can actually say and what it merely implies,” says Melissa Wheeler, a social psychologist at the Swinburne University of Technology who was not involved in the study. “If academic writing becomes more about the rhetoric … it will become more difficult for readers to decipher what is groundbreaking and truly novel.”
📖 How to write a beat sheet to tame unruly work, from by Courtney Maum:
A “beat” advances the plot and/or a character’s development. It’s a summary of what is happening in each paragraph. Remember, the beat sheet is a document that can be scanned quickly by an outside reader. It needs to be SHORT. Let’s consider the opening of ROMEO & JULIET. If I were writing a beat sheet for this play, I’d break down the opening this way:
Two CAPULET servants gossip while walking through the village streets. CLASS DIVISION and SEXUAL CONQUESTS are discussed.
Until the next,