Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Atomic Bonds

· May 3rd, 2018 · No Comments

By Nadine Zimmerli, Associate Editor, Books

My job continues to surprise and delight. The most unexpected and fascinating email I received last year contained the following attachment, courtesy of Cameron Strang, whose OI book Frontiers of Science comes out this summer:

This card connects one Institute to another: issued by the library of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, N.J., it features a book published by the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Brooke Hindle’s 1956 volume The Pursuit of Science in Revolutionary America, 1735–1789. It’s not the first title we ever published (that honor belongs to Louis B. Wright’s 1947 edition of Robert Beverley’s The History and Present State of Virginia), but it’s among the earliest (coming in at something like no. 16 on the list). The transatlantic historian in me longs to situate both institutions and their scholarly missions and output within the era’s Cold War context, but I’ll refrain for now and just point out that this old-fashioned library card bridges the disciplines of history and physics; it unites the humanities with the hard sciences.

Even more intriguingly, this unassuming document links an Institute book to a Cold War giant. Cameron was the Martin L. and Sarah F. Leibowitz Member at the IAS when he checked out Hindle’s The Pursuit of Science and discovered that he was in select company when it came to IAS readers of this book. As he put it in his email, “Before me, this copy had only one reader, but he’s pretty impressive.” J. Robert Oppenheimer—Presidential Medal for Merit recipient, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, and the California Institute of Technology, director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory during World War II, and finally director of the IAS when he checked out Hindle’s book—was impressive indeed, an intellectual luminary and one of America’s most influential scientists, the “father of the atomic bomb” who later came to express ambivalence about his creation.[1]

Cameron’s snapshot piqued my curiosity (and not just because I’m a regular listener of the Department of Energy’s podcast “Direct Current” and loved its deep-dive episodes into the Manhattan Project last year). I knew why Cameron would read Hindle’s account of early American science; he was completing a manuscript on the subject, after all. Cameron’s forthcoming book takes American scientific thought and discoveries away from the learned societies, museums, and teaching halls of the Northeast (i.e., Hindle’s subjects in The Pursuit of Science) and puts the production of knowledge about the natural world in the context of competing empires and an expanding republic in the Gulf South instead.

But why would Oppenheimer want to learn about science in revolutionary America? Simple intellectual curiosity? It’s possible. Oppenheimer famously flung the doors of the IAS wide open to humanists—to historians such as Arnold Toynbee and to poets such as T.S. Eliot. As he told the New York Times in 1950, the IAS to him represented an “intellectual hotel dedicated to the preservation of the good things men live by,” and these good things included history and literature in addition to mathematics and quantum physics.[2] Oppenheimer might have simply wanted to acquire a better sense of the history of science in America from colonial days onward.

Yet I wondered whether he had used this Institute publication in any lectures or articles of his own. Turns out the answer is yes; Oppenheimer likely consulted Hindle for an article in the September 1956 edition of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.[3] This particular issue of the journal revolved around the topic of “Science and Social Responsibility,” and Oppenheimer contributed to the theme with a short article on “Science and Our Times.” In it, he does not outright cite Hindle’s book (nor any other publication), but he devotes the third paragraph to an explanation of the founders’ view of science, stating that Franklin and Jefferson were “both in some real sense men of science as well as statesmen,” who “looked to science as an essential part of this country’s heritage” and who “rightly understood that science would contribute to the well-being and the civility of life in America.”[4] Again, the Cold War context of this all—national debates about the place of science in society, or simply Oppenheimer’s personal need to demonstrate his patriotism two years after the Atomic Energy Commission had publicly and infamously revoked his security clearance—just beckons to be explored.[5] Chilling proclamations such as “The threat of the apocalypse will be with us for a long time; the apocalypse may come” beg to be unpacked, contextualized, analyzed.[6]

For now, though, I want to highlight a different aspect of the article, one that directly relates to Oppenheimer’s reading an Institute book when penning “Science and Our Times,” aside from his broad sketch of Franklin and Jefferson. In his concluding paragraphs, Oppenheimer bemoans that knowledge is splintering, that research is becoming too specialized: “Logic, psychology, philosophy were long studied in the same rooms … Today they rarely speak to each other, and are more rarely understood or even heard.”[7] Oppenheimer cautions that many of his contemporaries find poorly communicated results of the latest scientific research deeply disturbing. He does not advocate that scholars revert to older modes of learning, however. The explosive growth of knowledge he attests for the 1950s makes that impossible. But he does prescribe an antidote to pervasive ignorance brought about by ever-more specialized branches of knowledge: “bonds of understanding,” created by anyone who “bears in himself more than one passion for knowledge.” As he states, “Occasionally between the sciences, and more rarely between a science and other parts of our experience and knowledge, there is a correspondence, an analogy, a partial mapping of two sets of ideas and words.”[8] This, to him, is a mode of inquiry worth expanding, a way out of chaos into community. Bonds forged between scholars across disciplines might lead to deeper insights, but at the very least they will dispel distrust and promote mutual understanding. Cross-disciplinary curiosity could avert the apocalypse. Male-centric language aside (another sign of the times), I do like Oppenheimer’s plea that scholars ought to read widely and forge bonds with one another, within and particularly between the sciences and the humanities. I especially appreciate that he, a quantum physicist, modeled best practices by checking out and reading a history monograph.

Of course, at least as far as IAS readers of Hindle go, no physicists or mathematicians followed in Oppenheimer’s footsteps, nor did any IAS researcher until Cameron, a historian, pulled The Pursuit of Science off the shelf some six decades later. There’s something to be said about library sales here—a historically important and still significant mainstay of university press publishing—which put specialized monographs at the disposal of an intellectual community at large and lead to discoverability and use of titles long after they’ve been published. There’s something to be said about crafting and publishing books that stand the test of time, too. It’s heartening that an Institute title from the 1950s resonated in its year of publication and found its way into the notes of Cameron’s 2018 monograph. Most importantly, though, Hindle’s largely bare IAS library card does not invalidate Oppenheimer’s point about scholars, and educated readers in general, seeking and acquiring knowledge outside their core discipline or field of interest. As an editor, I hope to help facilitate Oppenheimer’s “bonds of understanding” by ensuring that OI books appeal to specialists and generalists alike. The entire OI Books team endeavors to publish works that advance knowledge through strong arguments, exemplify best disciplinary practices, and feature accessible narratives. This IAS card, then, is an important reminder that Institute books should, and can, reach a wide, cross-disciplinary audience, from our core constituents, trained early Americanists such as Cameron, to the educated general reader, here exemplified by quantum physicist Robert Oppenheimer. Indeed, the subject line of Cameron’s email last year read, “In case you were wondering if Institute books reached an important audience.” It’s nice to know that some of them do! Now I’m looking forward to the moment when Cameron’s book gets an IAS library card of its own, the better to reach a scientist, or two—or two thousand!

[1] I am referring here to Oppenheimer’s famous quote about becoming the “destroyer of worlds,” which was broadcast in a 1965 NBC documentary. The clip is available online at: http://www.atomicarchive.com/Movies/Movie8.shtml. For a recent biography of Oppenheimer that includes a discussion of his qualms regarding atomic weapons, see Ray Monk, Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center (New York: Doubleday, 2012), ch. 14, “Los Alamos 3: Heavy with Misgiving.”

[2] Gertrude Samuels, “Where Einstein Surveys the Cosmos,” New York Times, November 19, 1950. The article is a fascinating read of the inner workings of the “hotel,” complete with a picture of Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer (not often the best of friends) staring at a table overburdened with papers, seemingly pondering the secrets of the universe. On the strained relationship between Einstein and Oppenheimer, see Pedro G. Ferreira, The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses and the Battle over General Relativity (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), ch. 5, “Completely Cuckoo.”

[3] A huge thank you to my friend James Evans, a research and development engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory, for finding this reference for me!

[4] J. Robert Oppenheimer, “Science and Our Times,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: A Magazine of Science and Public Affairs, XII, no. 7 (September 1956): 235.

[5] Monk, Robert Oppenheimer, ch. 18, “Falsus in uno.”

[6] J. Robert Oppenheimer, “Science and Our Times,” 236.

[7] Ibid., 237.

[8] Ibid.

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