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In the confessional with Robert Oppenheimer


First introduction to Robert Oppenheimer
Jeremy Bernstein Scientist
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Then I mentioned I was on my way to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. I stopped off to see my parents and pick up my ancient Morris Minor convertible, which I drove from Rochester to Princeton. And the top of the convertible was not entirely secure, so it let in a lot of road dust and things. I got to Princeton at maybe 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon and I... all I wanted to do was to get the key to my condo and go there and have a bath. That was my object. But the key to the condo was in the administrative offices. So I went in there and I said who I was, and a secretary said, 'Yes, Dr Oppenheimer wants to speak to you'. And I thought, there's no chance on this Earth that Dr Oppenheimer wants to speak to me. I don't want to speak to him, because I'm covered in road dirt and I just want to… So I said, 'Well, there must be some error, because there's no reason he wants to speak to me'. [She said] 'Oh yes, yes, he wants to speak to you'. So I walked into Oppenheimer's office and he was beautifully dressed. His clothes were all specially tailored by the only bespoke tailor in Princeton at Lime Rock, Mr Decker. Mr Decker was very pleased to be the bespoke tailor for Oppenheimer and he had fabricated, among other things, a special green Loden coat, which Oppenheimer wore in the winter so he was extremely well-dressed. He was rather wealthy and he sort of liked having money, I believe. So the first thing that he said to me was, 'What is new and firm in physics?' And this question completely threw me because I thought I might say what was new, but I wasn't sure what was firm. I could say what was firm. I had done some work that summer. It was firm but it... wasn't really new or very interesting. So I was absolutely… I didn't have any idea what to answer to this. And the phone rang. So I thought, oh God, this is… I can get out of here because, you know, he doesn't want to answer the phone when I'm here.  So he picked up the phone and began talking, and I said, 'Well, excuse, I…' And he said, 'No, no, please stay,' he said. And I stayed and then he was talking and it was clear he was talking to his wife, Kitty she was called. Katherine, Kitty. So he hung up the phone and then he said to me, 'It's Kitty and she's been drinking again'. And I was absolutely appalled. I was absolutely appalled. I didn't know what to say or what to do. And years later, Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Review of Books, told me that Oppenheimer did the same thing to him with Kitty. Absolutely appalling. So I was mute and then he said, 'We have some pictures at our house you might like to see.' And I said, 'Yes, well thank you very much'. I had no idea what he was talking about.

Later on, in the Fall, I did go to his house for a party and I realised that among the pictures were, you know, one or two van Gogh's and he had a collection which had been assembled by his father. A small but superb collection of pictures. One of the father's pictures, I think it belonged to his brother Frank, and was now in the Metropolitan, it's actually one of my favourite van Gogh's. So that was my first introduction to Oppenheimer.

Born in 1929, Jeremy Bernstein is an American physicist, educator and writer known for the clarity of his writing for the lay reader on the major issues of modern physics. After graduating from Harvard University, Bernstein worked at Harvard and at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton. In 1962 he became an Associate Professor of Physics at New York University, and later a Professor of Physics at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, a position he continues to hold. He was also on the staff of The New Yorker magazine.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Princeton University, Rochester, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, J Robert Oppenheimer, Catherine Oppenheimer, Robert Silvers, Vincent van Gogh, Frank Oppenheimer

Duration: 3 minutes, 53 seconds

Date story recorded: 15th June 2011

Date story went live: 08 September 2011