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The Oppenheimer Alternative
That is what novels are about. There is a dramatic moment and
the history of the man, what made him act, what he did, and what
sort of person he was. That is what you are really doing here.
You are writing a man's life.
I.I. Rabi, testifying at Robert Oppenheimer's
What pithy words should one use to sum up the life of J.
Robert Oppenheimer before dropping the urn with his ashes
Do you wax poetic about the precocious child who, at age
twelve, gave a lecture to the venerable New York Mineralogical
Club? Perhaps you'd discuss his rise to fame in 1945 as "the
father of the atomic bomb" and then lament the McCarthy
Era witch-hunt that later sought to strip his security clearance?
You might even include a word or two about his supposedly quiet
twilight overseeing the monastic Institute for Advanced Study in
In the end, Kitty Oppenheimer, the compact alcoholic for whom
Robert had been the fourth albeit longest-serving
husband, said nothing while raindrops fell like bombs from the
heavens. She let go of his urn seconds after dangling it over
the gunwale of the motorboat that she, their twenty-two-year-old
daughter, and two friends had taken out from the Oppenheimer
beach house on Hawksnest Bay that monochromatic afternoon in
Surprisingly, the urn didn't sink at once. Rather, it bobbed
up and down as if empty, the waves themselves giving the storied
physicist a final sinusoidal eulogy before the container, taking
on water, at last sank beneath the choppy surface.
I have to explain about Oppie: about every five years, he
would have a personality crisis; he would change his personality.
I mean, when I knew him at Berkeley, he was the romantic, radical
bohemian sort of person, a thorough scholar ...
Robert R. Wilson, American physicist
"You're bad luck for me," said Haakon Chevalier. "I hope
you know that."
Robert Oppenheimer looked at his friend, seated next to him
on the pink-and-green living-room couch as the party bustled
about them. Oppie's sense was the exact opposite: Hoke had
brought him nothing but good fortune, including getting him into
this offbeat rooming house here on Shasta Road. "Oh?"
"Absolutely. When I go places without you, I'm considered
the attractive one."
Oppenheimer made a small chuckle. Chevalier, who had just
turned thirty-five, was three years his senior, and was indeed
movie-star handsome: gallant, as befitted his last name, and long
of face, with wide-spaced eyes and sandy hair swept back in a
By comparison, Oppie knew he himself was scrawny, his tall
body angular, his coarse black hair a wild nimbus, and his
duck-footed gait awkward one friend had described it as a
constant falling forward as if he were forever tumbling into the
"See that one over there?" continued Hoke, with a subtle
nod. "She hasn't glanced at me once since we got here, but
you " Chevalier shook his head in good-natured
exasperation. "It's those goddamn eyes of yours, I tell you.
Oppie was used to compliments about his pale blue eyes: he
often heard them called "transparent" or "luminous," but this
metaphor was new to him. He smiled as he turned to look at the
woman Hoke had indicated, and
And, my God, he'd seen that lovely face before he was
sure of it. But where? "Wow," said Oppie softly.
"Wow, indeed," agreed Hoke. "And she keeps looking your
way. You should go over and say hello."
"I ... um ..."
"Oh, for Pete's sake, Robert, go! You study the mysteries
of the universe; girls are simple by comparison."
Hoke taught French literature at the University of
California's Berkeley campus; Oppie was a professor of physics
there. Normally, members of such diverse faculties would have
little to do with each other, but Oppie loved French poetry, and
the two men had become great friends. One advantage Hoke had was
a lot of female students he'd married one, in fact
whereas in Robert's circles, women were rare. "Come on," said
Hoke. "Give me a story to tell Barb when I get home. Go try
Luck. Einstein said that God didn't play dice with the
universe but, then again, God probably wasn't itching to
get laid. "All right already," Oppie said, unfolding himself
from the couch. Of course, he couldn't just go up and say hello,
but Mary Ellen, his landlady, was swirling by in one of her
floor-length batik dresses. She threw many parties, often as
fund-raisers. This one was for the Republicans in Spain
or maybe it was for the Spanish Nationalists? Whoever the good
guys were, anyway; Oppie had come downstairs from his room for
donuts and drinks, not the cause.
"Say, Mary Ellen, I wonder if you might "
"Robert! So good of you to pull your nose out of your books
and join us! But your glass is empty. Let me "
"No, no; I'm fine. But if you could ..." He gestured
feebly at the busty young woman seated by the fireplace.
"Ah!" said Mary Ellen, her wide face splitting in a grin.
"Yes, of course!" She took Oppie's hand and pulled him across
the crowded room. "Jean," she said, and the woman looked up,
"this is my best tenant oh, hush, Fred; you know I love
you, too! This is Robert. He teaches physics. Robert, Jean
here is studying to be a doctor." Mary Ellen managed to make an
art-deco chair appear out of nowhere and maneuvered Robert onto
it so that he was facing Jean. "Now, let me get you a drink!"
"A doctor," said Oppie, impressed, smiling at Jean.
"Yes. A psychiatrist, in particular." Jean's voice was
warm. She was, as he'd noted from across the room, beautiful
even more so close-up. "I'm fascinated by Freud," she
continued. "Do you know his work?"
Well, well: look at those dice. Six the hard way! "I do
indeed. In fact, I know Ernest Jones."
"Oh my!" said Jean. "Really?"
"Yes. We, ah, met when I was at Cambridge in 1926." Jones,
a great friend of Freud, was the first English-speaking
practitioner of psychoanalysis and had become its chief proponent
in the English world.
"Tell me my God, tell me everything about him!"
Mary Ellen fluttered by again, giving Oppie a bourbon and a
wink, then went upon her way. "Well," said Oppie, "he was
practicing in Harley Street ..." As he spoke, he continued to
study her smooth, classically beautiful face and striking green
eyes, emeralds to his opals. Jean wore her black hair short and
had a slight dimple in her chin. She was probably a decade
younger than he was.
They talked for most of an hour, and the conversation
slipped easily from topic to topic. He was enthralled by that
hauntingly familiar beauty of hers and by her nimble mind
and ready wit, and yet she was mercurial. One moment she'd seem
animated and boisterous, the next fragile and sad. Still,
against a noisy background of someone banging away on the piano,
dozens of overlapping conversations, and the clink of glasses, he
listened attentively, although at one point he had to hold up his
hand to stop her. "My family," she said, "moved out here from
Massachusetts just before the crash, and "
"You were in an accident?"
She looked at him for a moment, puzzled. "No. The
Oppie shook his head slightly.
"The stock-market crash of 1929. The beginning of the Great
"Oh ah, yes. Yes, of course."
"You don't know, do you?" Jean looked amazed. "Where have you
been?" He wished she'd gone on to add the words all my
life, but instead she finished by observing: "Born with a
silver spoon in your mouth, were you?"
"Well, I I mean, my father did all right." Then he
added, as if somehow it explained his ignorance: "He invested,
but mostly in art, not stocks."
She tilted her head again, and the light from the porcelain table
lamp hit her just so, and he suddenly realized where he'd
seen that face before. Oppie's favorite book was Baudelaire's
poetry collection Les Fleurs du mal. The shape of Jean's
face and the curve and length of her nose were identical to that
of the woman in the etching accompanying Baudelaire's
heartbreaking "Une Martyre" in the glorious 1917 edition.
He frowned, ousting the thought. That etching was gruesome: the
woman's head had been severed, a beauty cut down in the flower of
youth as her older lover traveled the world.
The evening was ending at last, and Oppie, four drinks in,
was ready to ask the young lady out. "And so, Miss ..." he
"Tatlock," she said, and the crisp syllables hit him like
"Are ... are you related to John Tatlock?"
"He's my father."
"John Tatlock? The medievalist at Berkeley?"
"Yes, why? Do you know him?"
Oh, yes, thought Oppie. John Strong Perry Tatlock was an
expert on Geoffrey Chaucer, a towering presence at Berkeley
faculty-association meetings, a loud voice often heard booming
across the Faculty Club dining hall and a raging
anti-Semite. That wasn't unusual at Berkeley; when Robert had
tried to get his student Bob Serber a job there, the physics
chairman had said that having one Jew in his department was quite
sufficient. But ... damn.
"Ah," said Oppie, his stomach knotting; he hadn't mentioned
his own last name. He got up from the funky chair. "Well," he
said sadly, "it was nice meeting you." He made his way toward
the staircase that led up to his lonely room.
Jean was present at the next party Mary Ellen hosted, and
the one after that, each time just as lovely, just as magnetic.
Finally, her father's prejudice be damned, Oppie mustered the
courage to ask her to dinner.
"Where would you like to go?" she replied, and he was
flustered again. Did that mean her acceptance was a given, or
that it was now contingent on him naming a suitably posh place?
"I, um, well "
"Oh, it doesn't matter!" she said, smiling. "Do you like
"Very much so."
"There's a place over in San Francisco, the Xochimilco
Café. Do you know it?"
He shook his head.
"Well, good! Then it can become our place! Saturday
night? Or or do you ...?" The question, he realized, was
a belated reference to his Jewishness.
"No, Saturday is fine."
And it was. The café, which had a name more
appropriate to the Southwest he'd loved in his youth than the
Northern California he was in now, was a dive. Not that it
mattered; she'd been right that money wasn't a concern for him
he'd happily have taken her to the most-expensive seafood
place on the wharf. But the booth they found was suitable for
conversation, the carne adovada agreeably piquant, and the
tequila strong and plentiful.
She was, he discovered, a member of the Communist Party and wrote
for its newspaper, The Western Worker. When she spoke of
downtrodden people, of the fight for liberty common coin
on the Berkeley campus, stuff he'd previously tuned out as
background noise he found himself listening, nodding, and
repeatedly interjecting, "Yes, yes, yes!"
That night, he walked her home. After a block, she reached
over and took his hand. When they arrived at the entrance to the
small building she lived in, they could hear a jazz recording
through a neighbor's open window; she told him it was Benny
Goodman's latest, "The Glory of Love." Oppie pulled her near
and, bending his head down, he kissed her for the first time,
starting slowly, gently, but, as she responded, growing more and
They began dating regularly. A few years before, he'd given
a talk entitled "Stars and Nuclei" to the Caltech astronomy club;
he'd studied the largest and smallest of objects, but, until
Jean, he'd missed seeing the human world all around him.
Still, it wasn't long before he learned of the darkness that
chased her inner light her mood swings, her nightmares;
she was a chimera, angel and demon in one body, the would-be
psychiatrist who had long seen a psychiatrist of her own.
Despite it all, he came to love her unwaveringly, and she, with
the deeper feelings both high and low that heaved and tossed her
spirit, perhaps loved him even more.
After only a few months, they were engaged ... and then,
bewilderingly, Jean broke it off. "Not ready," she said, and
"Too soon." They continued to date, though, and he finally
worked up the courage to ask her a second time to marry him. She
agreed, but then, weeks later, once again changed her mind: she
did love him, she insisted, but said he deserved more, better,
and his protestations failed to sway her. Robert, heartbroken,
started seeing other women, including Kitty, the petite
temptress, the flirtatious vixen, the skilled horsewoman who
could, or so it seemed, break any stallion. To his surprise at
the time, she was soon pregnant. He did the honorable thing
did his duty and married her.
But it was winsome, bittersweet Jean Tatlock, not Kitty, who
was forever in his heart, his mind, the soulmate he could never
Six Years Later: 1942
Question: What is an optimist? Answer: One who thinks the
future is uncertain.
Leo Szilard, still cherubic at forty-four, had been warned
about this visit. General Leslie Groves was coming to the
Metallurgical Laboratory, the drab code name given to the
facility at the University of Chicago that studied the
fissionable elements uranium and plutonium. The man who'd been
merely a colonel days ago had apparently leveraged a promotion to
go along with being appointed head of what the hell were
they calling the overall bomb effort now? Ah, yes: "The
Manhattan Engineer District."
Leo suspected he'd soon have some obscure code name himself.
His preference would be "Martian Number One." Enrico Fermi, who
believed the universe should be teeming with intelligent life,
had exhorted Leo to explain the absence of these advanced
visitors, which, for lack of a generic term, Enrico had taken to
calling "Martians." Leo had quipped, "Oh, we are here but
we call ourselves Hungarians."
Szilard had already bestowed nicknames on others, which he
mostly kept to himself. His largely platonic girlfriend Trude, a
dozen years younger, was "Kind," the German for "child."
Eugene Wigner, a fellow Martian, was "Pineapple Head," in honor
of his oddly prolate noggin. And he'd decided the best name for
this general who had burst into their seminar room in Eckart Hall
was "Bumpy," commemorating both his lumpy exterior and his
bumptious nature. Leo couldn't fault a person for being
overweight; his own fondness for pastries and rich sauces had
made him, as Trude affectionately chided from time to time, more
than a little rotund. But a man's clothes should fit, for God's
sake, and this blustering martinet's jacket seemed at least one
size too small.
The general and his military aide had been brought to see
this group the Met Lab's fifteen most-senior scientists
by Arthur Holly Compton, the jutting-jawed director of the
laboratory. The seminar room was large and luxurious with
built-in glass-fronted bookcases, plush maroon leather furniture,
and two blackboards, one wall-mounted and another that had been
wheeled in. A central mahogany table was strewn with papers,
dog-eared journals, and coffee mugs.
Thirty-two-year-old Luis Alvarez, lanky and intense, was
trying to answer the general's slew of questions by writing
equations on the built-in blackboard, but that oaf had the gall
to interrupt him. "Just a second, young man. In the third
equation, you've got the exponent as ten-to-the-minus-five, but
then it magically becomes ten-to-the-minus-six on the next line."
"Oh, yes, yes," replied Alvarez sheepishly, rubbing out the
mistake with his thumb and writing in the correct value. "Slip
of the chalk."
"That raises a question," Groves said to the whole group.
"Your estimates for how much fissionable material you'll need
how accurate are they?"
Leo, with his shoeless feet propped up on a vacant chair,
shrugged slightly. "Within a factor of ten."
"A factor of ten!" exploded Groves. "That's idiotic!
That's like telling a wedding caterer to prepare for a hundred
guests when the real number could be anywhere from ten to a
thousand. No engineer can work with sloppy figures like that."
"General ..." said Leo, giving him his newfound title in
hopes of placating the brute, "you have to
"No," snapped Groves. "All of you have to understand.
This isn't a theoretical project; it's a practical one. I have
to build actual working bombs." He took a deep breath then let
it out loudly. "Now, you lot may think engineers are just
technicians" Leo had the good sense not to interject
"and you may know that I don't have a Ph.D. Colonel
Nichols here has one, but I don't. But let me tell you that I
had ten years of formal education after I entered college
ten full years. I didn't have to make a living or give up
time for teaching. I just studied. That'd be the equivalent of
about two doctorates, wouldn't it?"
Leo swung his feet off the chair and leaned forward. "Sir,"
he said, the word almost a hiss, "I would never claim your rank
even if you have only just attained it as my own.
But forget doctorates; everyone in this room, save you, has one."
"Leo ..." cautioned Compton, thin eyebrows drawn together in
a don't-do-this glare.
"No, no, no," said Szilard. "We're trotting out credentials
here, are we not? And you, Arthur, you are none other than the
winner of the 1927 Nobel Prize in physics." Leo locked his gaze
on Groves. "Maybe you saw him on the cover of Time a few
years ago?" Szilard then indicated a slender, balding man seated
on the opposite side of the table. "And him? That's Enrico
Fermi. He won the 1938 Nobel. And next to me?" He pointed to
an egg-headed man with a mustache. "Say hello to James Franck,
the 1925 Nobel laureate. As for me, I have collaborated with
and share patents with! Albert Einstein."
Groves rose, fuming. "I'm going to Berkeley," he snapped,
"but I'll be back in a few days." He jabbed an accusatory finger
at the blackboard. "And I expect precise answers when I
return." His footfalls on the hardwood floor shook the bookcase
glass as he stormed out.
Leo got up, turned to face his colleagues, and spread his
arms. "I warned you how it would be if the military were allowed
to take over! How can we work with people like that?"
Compton had calmed down a bit. "Well, once Groves gets to
Berkeley, Oppie will set him straight on the theoretical issues."
Szilard frowned. Oppenheimer? Too eager to please, too
much of a climber. Oh, sure, charismatic in person who
hadn't felt that? But as the champion of science and reason
against Bumpy Groves? "May God have mercy on our souls," Leo
said, shaking his head.
Robert Oppenheimer gazed out the mammoth window in the
university president's living room, lost, as often, in thought.
Of course he was thinking about the vexing problem of isotope
Isotopes were the same element but different both
this and yet each separately that. Just as it was
with the women in his life, both beautiful and brilliant, but
different, too: Kitty, who demanded to be satisfied, and Jean,
whom he could never fully satisfy. The same and yet not: Kitty,
who had been married to someone else when she first began dating
Robert and who he'd now learned from friends had bragged that
she'd gotten him to marry her "the old-fashioned way, by getting
pregnant," and Jean, still there, still in his social circle,
occasionally still in his arms, who ran away from commitment.
Robert hadn't been blind as time went on. His former
landlady, that whirlwind of energy named Mary Ellen, and the
delicate, moody Jean, now indeed an M.D., were more than casual
friends. In just one of many ways in which Jean was pulled in
multiple directions simultaneously, Mary Ellen always
confident where Jean was often diffident; always a confidant, as
close as Oppie himself was had also taken Jean to bed.
The voice had been that of the reception's host, President
Sproul. He turned. "Yes?"
Sproul panther-lean, bespectacled, and wearing a gray
three-piece suit indicated the uniformed man next to him,
and Oppie beheld the visitor. "General Leslie Groves, meet Dr.
J. Robert Oppenheimer."
The term "fission" describing how a uranium nucleus could
split into two had been borrowed from biology, and Oppie had a
sudden flash of micrographs he'd seen of a dividing cell: an
entity pinched in the middle to form bulbous halves. Groves's
belt was the constriction and an ample gut billowed out above and
The general was almost as tall as Oppie, with an elongated
head weighed down by jowls and crowned by swept-back hair.
Groves sported a short, bristly mustache that had grayed at
either side, lending the more-prominent dark part
inadvertently, Oppie was sure a Hitlerian aspect. Binary
stars adorned each side of his khaki collar. Oppie offered his
hand, and Groves shook it firmly. "You're the head theoretician
here," the general said as if it were an accusation.
Oppie nodded. "My actual job title is if you can
believe it `Co-ordinator of Rapid Rupture,' but, yes,
"I'm a nuts-and-bolts man myself," said Groves. His voice
reminded Oppie of the sound stones made in his lapidary tumbler.
Oppie nodded amiably. "You're in charge of building the
Pentagon." The massive new structure in Virginia was nearly
The general's eyebrows creased his forehead, clearly
impressed that Oppie knew this. "Indeed I am." Oppie left
unspoken the fact that Groves had also been in charge of building
the internment camps for Japanese Americans. The army man looked
around the vast room, apparently uncomfortable with the opulent
surroundings. "I was hoping that I'd have earned my pick of
assignments after the Pentagon I wanted to see action
overseas but they gave me this thing."
"This thing," Oppie knew, was being in charge of the
atomic-bomb project, including the work here at Ernest Lawrence's
Radiation Laboratory and that at Arthur Compton's Metallurgical
Laboratory in Chicago.
President Sproul apparently knew the way to this particular
man's heart, at least: "Lunch will be served momentarily."
Groves smiled at that, and Oppie smiled at Groves's smile.
"I'm glad they put an engineer in charge," Oppie said,
turning on the charm as Sproul was beckoned away by another
guest. "We scientists can spend far too much time
The general's eyes, a darker blue than his own, fixed on
Oppie. "Are you free this afternoon? I'd like to talk to you
It was all falling into place; Kitty would be so pleased.
"Your wish is my command, General."
The gravitational deflection of light will prevent the escape
of radiation as the star contracts. The star thus tends to close
itself off from any communication with a distant observer; only
its gravitational field persists.
J. Robert Oppenheimer and Hartland Snyder
Groves arrived at Oppie's office in Le Conte Hall
accompanied by a colonel with thinning hair and round glasses
"Nichols," the general called him, and that let Oppie put
a face to the name. This was Ken Nichols of the Manhattan
Engineer District, whose office in New York had now lent its name
to the entire American atomic-bomb effort. The British
counterpart was code-named Tube Alloys, and heaven only knew what
bland moniker the Soviet undertaking, if there was one, lurked
Groves removed his army jacket, revealing a pressed shirt
with crescent moons of sweat on either side. He handed the outer
garment to Nichols and said, "Get this dry-cleaned."
Oppie took a drag on his cigarette. He knew that Nichols
had a Ph.D. in hydraulic engineering from Iowa State. Once one
received a doctorate, the grad-student lot of being an errand boy
traditionally ended but perhaps, to give him the benefit
of the doubt, the general merely wanted privacy. Oppenheimer's
assistant, the shy and lisping Bob Serber, finally granted a job
here despite his religion, was working away on the office
blackboard. Oppie took the opportunity not only to ensure they
were alone but also to reset the karmic balance. "Say, Bob, why
don't you take Dr. Nichols here over to the Faculty Club for a
drink? You can leave the dry-cleaning with Becky."
Oppie caught Nichols's eye, hoping for a grateful nod.
Instead, what he saw on the man's bespectacled face was anger
that Robert had witnessed his petty humiliation. Serber assented
as he rubbed his hands together to disperse chalk dust.
Once the other two were gone, Oppie sat on the edge of his
desk. The ceiling of the white-walled office consisted of two
angled sections joining in a central peak. Groves moved to stand
near the far wall, the low roof there making him seem even more
imposing. "I saw Ernest Lawrence this morning," the general
rumbled, "and his vaunted Calutron. You know how much
uranium-235 he's managed to separate from 238 so far?"
"None?" ventured Oppie.
"That's right, none. And I was in Chicago a few days ago.
That buffoon Leo Szilard and the rest are still just blue-skying
instead of getting down to specifics. I'm knee-deep in
physicists, and not one of you seems to understand time."
Robert admired Szilard's bounding intellect, but he could
certainly see how these two would clash. "Well," he said,
"Einstein wrote FDR in August 1939, urging the development of an
atomic bomb. It's now October of '42, over three years later,
and we've barely started on that bomb. I'd say it's awfully late
in the day, General."
"At last a practical man!" exclaimed Groves. "All right, Mr.
Rapid Rupture, tell me: can it be done? Atomic fission?"
Oppie frowned. "It's a sweet problem. The answer is ..."
He paused deliberately for dramatic effect, then, firmly: "Yes."
Groves nodded, impressed. "How fast?"
"If we maintain a concentrated effort? Two years."
"Straight answers," Groves said. "I like that." He eyed
Robert for a moment. "Okay, let's get this out of the way right
now. Are you a member of the Communist Party?"
Oppie had been prepared for that question and kept his tone
completely flat as he brushed ash from his cigarette with his
"Have you ever been?"
"Your wife was. And your brother Frank."
"True and true. And you'll find I've supported just about
every left-wing cause there is, from the Teachers' Union to the
Republicans in Spain over the last few years. But I've never
belonged to the Communist Party and I've left all of those other
things behind. There's work to be done."
"There is indeed," said Groves, "and there's no room for
Communists in it."
"General, I give you my word: I'm not a Communist." A
pause. "I'm an American."
"That you are," said Groves. "Born and raised but so
many of these others aren't. Germans, Hungarians, Italians, you
name it. But Americans like you and me? We're thin on the
Oppie tipped his head to one side but made no reply.
"All right, Professor, given how much catching up we have to
do, how would you get us on track?"
"A central laboratory," Oppie said, playing his first card.
"Get all us scientists together at one location." And then,
laying the trump: "That'd make security a hell of a lot easier."
But Groves surprised him by not being surprised. "Yes,
I've been thinking of that. Last month I ordered the acquisition
of 59,000 acres in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for uranium processing.
Might be a good spot."
"No, no. It can't be seen as merely an add-on to an
isotope-separation plant. We're talking about the heart and soul
of the bomb effort. It should be a stand-alone facility."
The general stroked his jaw. "Maybe you're right. Who
would you put in charge?"
"My boss here at Berkeley, Ernest Lawrence, is the logical
first choice," said Oppie, pleased that the general and Lawrence
had already clashed over the failure to produce any uranium-235.
"Then there's I.I. Rabi at Columbia, or Edwin McMillan." But
Oppie knew they couldn't be spared from their secret radar work.
He threw out a couple more names, just for appearance's sake:
"Or, from Caltech, Wolfgang Panofsky, say, or Carl Anderson."
Groves nodded at the mention of Anderson. "He won the Nobel
for discovering the positron."
"True," said Oppie.
"And that raises a point. As I told those clowns in
Chicago, I don't have a Ph.D., but in this project I have to be
the leader of countless people who do. That's not a problem for
me as I made it quite clear to them that I've got more than the
equivalent in post-secondary education. But suppose I decide I
want to put you in charge of this hypothetical
out-of-the-way lab? You'd be a thornier case. Many of the men
you'd be leading have already won the Nobel Prize, but you
Oppie raised his chin. "Not yet."
Groves leaned back and barked a laugh. "I admire a man who
has faith in himself."
"It's not a question of faith, General. The work has
already been done. In 1938 and 1939, I published three papers in
the Physical Review, each with a different one of my grad
students. Now, it sometimes takes the Swedish Academy a while to
recognize an achievement as Nobel-worthy, and, unfortunately, we
were hit with quite a stroke of bad luck: the very day the final
and most important of the three papers was published, Hitler
invaded Poland, and this damned war began."
"September first, 1939," supplied Groves.
"Exactly. And the world has been preoccupied ever since.
However, once the war is over, those papers will be rediscovered,
and their import noted. Then it's only a matter of when
I'll get the Nobel, not if."
Groves made an impressed face, but then shook his massive
head. "Well, for my purposes, if you don't get it until after
the war, it doesn't help. But, okay, I'm curious. What's this
great breakthrough that nobody noticed at the time?"
"There's a terrific Russian physicist named Lev Landau. He
believed he'd figured out what causes the heat of the sun. He
thought the center of the sun is a condensed neutron core. That
is, at the sun's heart, all the orbiting electrons have been
crushed down to combine with protons to become neutrons, and
those neutrons, plus the ones that had already been part of the
atomic nuclei at the core, are all that's left: solid
neutron-degenerate matter. It was a great notion and explained
wonderfully how the sun stays warm the kinetic energy of
in-falling matter being pulled down by the ultra-dense core. But
Bob Serber that's the fellow who I sent off just now with
Colonel Nichols Bob and I realized that Landau had failed
to take into account the strong nuclear force. If you factor
that in, the sun would give telltale signs of having that
sort of core, and it doesn't."
Groves looked at Oppie, clearly unimpressed, but before the
general could voice an objection, Oppie raised a hand. "Now, as
I said, that was the first paper, and, yes, it wasn't all
that much in itself. But it led directly to the second
paper, which I wrote with George Volkoff. In that one, we
determined that sufficiently heavy stars will, at the end of
their lives, contract indefinitely."
Groves frowned. "Indefinitely? What does that mean?"
"Good question," said Oppie with a grin, "and the answer was what
the third paper was about, a collaboration with my grad
student Hartland Snyder. Indefinite contraction, we showed, will
lead to a point of zero volume and infinite density, with gravity
so strong that nothing, not even light itself, will be
able to escape the pull. That's a whole new class of
astronomical objects, and one with properties nobody had guessed
at before. A few kilometers from the center, at what's called
the Schwarzschild radius, time itself will freeze, thanks to
relativity but, for an in-falling observer, it will continue to
pass. There's nothing intuitively obvious about these ...
these ... `dark abysses,' if you will, but they absolutely must
Groves leaned back, an expression of awe on his face. "And
that's worth a Nobel," he said softly.
Oppie nodded and crossed his arms smugly. "That's worth a
"Jim, you'll be interested to know that the Italian
navigator has just landed in the New World."
It was code, of course: the Italian navigator was Leo
Szilard's colleague Enrico Fermi, who had led today's successful
experiment. After months of labor, Fermi's team had created that
which Szilard himself had been the first to envision nine years
previously: a controlled nuclear chain reaction. This afternoon,
the world's first atomic reactor had run for twenty-eight minutes
the first, that is, unless Nazi physicists had beaten them
to the punch.
Szilard stood near his boss, Arthur Holly Compton, in the
latter's office at the University of Chicago. Arthur was on the
phone with James Conant, chairman of the National Defense
Research Committee, the organization in charge of secret war
technology for the United States. Conant must have asked how the
natives were because Arthur's reply was, "Very friendly."
Silence while Arthur listened for a moment. "No," he said
into the mouthpiece, "I suspect he's gone ... back to port." A
pause. "Yes, he's here; let me put him on." He handed Szilard
the black handset. Never one for formalities, Leo said, "Hello,
Jim." His Hungarian accent made the name sound a bit like "Yim."
"Congratulations, Doctor!" The voice was warm although
there was much static crackling behind it. "None of this would
ever have happened without you."
Szilard rubbed his forehead with his free hand and said,
because he knew it was what he was supposed to say, "Thank you,"
and then he handed the phone back to Arthur.
Leo liked to think either in his bathtub he often
soaked for hours or quite literally on his feet. He
excused himself and headed out into the cold evening air while
Arthur went back to his oblique conversation. As Leo ambled
across the campus, he passed many students, some clutching
textbooks, a few holding hands, and he felt twinges of guilt. If
something had gone wrong today, all these young people at the
beginnings of their lives, along with, quite possibly, almost
everyone else in Chicago, could easily have been killed.
Leo's breath blossomed into clouds in front of him. He
hadn't had a destination in mind, but his feet brought him across
the width of Stagg football field. There'd been snow earlier in
the week that had melted, leaving the brown grass dry. He made
his way toward the concrete rows of angled seating that ran along
the west side. The brick structure beneath these bleachers
housed various athletic facilities; Leo greeted the guards at the
north end and headed into the doubles squash court that had been
their experimental working space.
A short figure with a receding hairline and an oblong face
was looking down from the court's spectator gallery at the giant
cube of graphite blocks. The other scientists, doubtless in a
mixture of elation and exhaustion, had all left, but Enrico Fermi
leaned on the railing, just staring, apparently lost in thought.
The beast below was hibernating, all fourteen cadmium control
rods having been shoved back in, picas into the hulking
body of el toro.
Leo approached and solemnly offered his hand; Enrico took
it. Their names had already been linked forever in history
or would be, once the security was lifted thanks to
the letter to President Roosevelt that Leo had drafted three
years ago. That letter, signed by Einstein himself, had begun:
Some recent work by E. Fermi and L. Szilard, which has been
communicated to me in manuscript, leads me to expect that the
element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of
energy in the immediate future.
"Well, we did it," said Enrico, with his Italian accent.
But this was only the beginning, and they both knew that. The
Einstein letter had gone on to say:
This phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs,
and it is conceivable though much less certain that
extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be
"Yes," Leo replied, "we did." He let go of Enrico's hand
and shook his head slowly, looking at their creation below.
"This will go down as a black day for mankind."
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