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A lesson for us all from the life of Robert Oppenheimer …


Via Freeman Dyson in the New York Review of Books:

In addition to his restlessness, Oppenheimer had another quality, emphasized by Monk in the subtitle of his book. He always wanted to be at the center. This quality is good for soldiers and politicians but bad for original thinkers. He paid too much attention to famous people working on fashionable topics, while ignoring less famous people working away from the mainstream of science. ignoring less famous people working away from the mainstream of science.

He had abundant opportunities to learn from two unfashionable geniuses, Fritz Zwicky and John Wheeler. Zwicky was working at the California Institute of Technology throughout the thirteen years when Oppenheimer was a regular visitor. Wheeler was working at Princeton University throughout the twenty years when Oppenheimer was living in Princeton. Zwicky was the discoverer of dark matter, the mysterious invisible stuff that outweighs the visible universe, and he was also a pioneer in the study of supernova explosions and neutron stars. Wheeler was the leading expert on black holes, and the founder of the field of science now known as relativistic astrophysics.

Although Oppenheimer lived close to each of them for many years and knew what they were doing, he did not take their work seriously. He seems to have considered them unworthy of his attention because they were out of the mainstream. Karl Hufbauer reports that Oppenheimer disliked Zwicky and for that reason never used Zwicky’s name “neutron star” for the collapsed remnant of a supernova explosion. Wheeler was one of the most enthusiastic proponents of the hydrogen bomb, and Oppenheimer never used Wheeler’s name “black hole” for the remnant of a nonexplosive gravitational collapse. In his attitude to Zwicky and Wheeler, personal antipathy was combined with professional misjudgment. As a result, he failed to grasp the opportunities that a closer contact with Zwicky or Wheeler would have provided to make revolutionary discoveries in areas of science ignored by the fashionable mandarins.

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