Ein­stein and Oppen­heimer: The Mean­ing of Genius

Sil­van S. Schweber

  • Review
By – January 26, 2012

This schol­ar­ly dis­cus­sion of two of the most pre­em­i­nent Jew­ish physi­cists of the 20th cen­tu­ry is more a col­lec­tion of six essays than a cohe­sive book. The first chap­ter dis­cuss­es Einstein’s views on nuclear weapons. The sec­ond brings to light Einstein’s role in the found­ing of Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty. The third chap­ter gives a brief biog­ra­phy of Oppen­heimer and the fourth focus­es on philoso­phies he devel­oped lat­er in life. The last two chap­ters dis­cuss both Ein­stein and Oppen­heimer. One is devot­ed to the two men’s views of the future of physics and the oth­er dis­cuss­es how com­mu­ni­ty influ­enced their lives.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the top­ic of Ein­stein and Oppen­heimer is ter­ri­bly dif­fi­cult to tack­le, as the two men’s sci­en­tif­ic lives only briefly over­lapped. Oppen­heimer was born the year before Einstein’s mirac­u­lous year of dis­cov­ery in 1905. The men only met a few times and their meet­ings were not par­tic­u­lar­ly note­wor­thy. Ein­stein was no less than an icon of his time; Oppen­heimer was much less. Schwe­ber best dis­cuss­es the two men in their dif­fer­ences, although the lives and impact of the two men were so dif­fer­ent that the read­er is hard pressed to actu­al­ly feel that they are wor­thy of the contrast.

The book is sober­ly well-writ­ten and care­ful­ly anno­tat­ed and ref­er­enced. While there are sig­nif­i­cant details of inter­est, over­all the book is more appro­pri­ate to a schol­ar of sci­en­tif­ic his­to­ry than a casu­al read­er. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, notes.

Juli Berwald Ph.D. is a sci­ence writer liv­ing in Austin, Texas and the author of Spine­less: the Sci­ence of Jel­ly­fish and the Art of Grow­ing a Back­bone. Her book on the future of coral will be pub­lished in 2021.

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