J. Robert Oppenheimer and Style


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Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Original Post - Jun 17, 2009 - 06:33pm PT
The 1988 Stonemaster calendar featured the following superb Oppenheimer quote about style.

"It is style which complements affirmation with limitation and with humility; it is style which makes it possible to act effectively, but not absolutely; it is style which enables us to find harmony between the pursuit of ends essential to us, and the regard for the views, the sensibilities, the aspirations of others; it is style which is the deference that action pays to uncertainty; it is above all style through which power defers to reason."

I would like to use this quote to open the first chapter on style in the book that I am writing about Tom Frost. Those of you familiar with Oppenheimer's writings, could you please let me know where this particular quote appears so that I am absolutely clear about its original context. I haven't been able to place it thus far.

Cheers- Steve

Jun 17, 2009 - 06:40pm PT

Given the nature of JRO's life work, his relationships with peers, his duplicity, etc. are you sure you want use his quote regarding Tom Frost. For me it won't work.

With respect,

Edit: I'd defer to Ed H.'s opinion of JRO's character. He'd have a much better idea than me.
Greg Barnes

Jun 17, 2009 - 06:43pm PT
Very simple to find with an internet search.

Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - Jun 17, 2009 - 06:49pm PT
Thanks Greg.

I too am concerned with the context given the outcome of the powers at play in JRO's life, hence the thread.

Jun 17, 2009 - 06:53pm PT
Yeah, Steve. Look for something tomorrow as I have a full plate right now. Father of the A-Bomb is a start.

Greg Barnes

Jun 17, 2009 - 06:58pm PT
Hey Steve, all I did was pick a unique phrase (compliments affirmation with limitation), go to advanced search in Google, put oppenheimer in the general field and that particular phrase in the "this exact wording or phrase", then picked the original looking one out of the top hits (the 1949 Atlantic one).

Note that your quote is missing the "in the domain of foreign policy" phrase of the original, so it'd be more accurate to put a "..." in the quote if you decide to use it.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - Jun 17, 2009 - 07:04pm PT
We should include Einstein in the lineage to be fair, mindful of the terrible nature of atomic weaponry. Piton scars do not come anywhere near such a destructive outcome but the concept of style does apply in both cases.

I haven't asked Tom about the quote until I have done my contextual homework. Opinions about the Bomb vary pretty widely. Best not to assume anything from where I am writing...

Nothing harmonious at all about Hiroshima or Nagasaki...Point taken about "the domain of public policy" exclusion.

Jun 17, 2009 - 07:08pm PT
You should probably research some of the books on Oppenheimer. A recent article in Physics Today about Wheeler quotes Wheeler as volunteering that Oppenheimer first mentioned the concept underlying Black Holes with him, an area in cosmology in which Wheeler was actively working. In many places Wheeler has been credited with the idea. The two did not get along but that did not prevent Wheeler from according Oppenheimer the profesional credit he had earned.

As to the atomic bomb I think we would need to imagine we were back in the 1940's and worried about what would take place had Germany the technology. Many people have tried to claim we had enough intelligence data to know apriori that Germany would not succeed and so should not have persisted ourselves. Being wrong would have had a cost anyone at the time would have judged to be unacceptable and, IMO, just so even now in retrospect. And no one had doubts about Heisenberg's brilliance. Indeed, according to what I have read Oppenheimer was one of the early people to move out in front urging care and the appropriate control of this technology. That was in fact one of the brick bats thrown his way.

As to Joe McCarthy and all of that I have two words to say.

Rush Limbaugh=Joe McCarthy

Where I am wrong in any of this, I would hope to be corrected.

I assume you and Tom have talked about this project. I happen to agree it is something that needs doing. But who am I?
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Jun 17, 2009 - 07:12pm PT
J. Robert Oppenheimer was an important American intellect, and a complex man. I think not more complex than any other important figure of his time. I would think that quoting him is without prejudice.

If his "duplicity" refers to his extensive associations with the American intellectual movement in the pre-WW II era, it was driven by his curiosity, and his adventurous intellect. His contributions during WW II are amazing. What happened after the war were a part of the dark tragedy of that time, some of which we are still trying to come to terms with.

That is my opinion. Take it for what it's worth.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - Jun 17, 2009 - 07:12pm PT
Rush has no real power or moral authority and so his sideshow style doesn't really concern me. He is an entertainer and no more than that.

What interests me is the personal aspect of style, how one frames one's own life experience philosophically.
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Jun 17, 2009 - 07:14pm PT
you might be interested in this paper:


as a lot of the context of Oppenheimer's quotes comes from the Gita..

the Moon and Antarctica
Jun 17, 2009 - 07:20pm PT
Recently finished editing a writup on the birth of the bomb, had to fight to get these quotes inserted so as not to paint too bleak of a picture of Oppie's personality:

“It is true that we are among the few citizens who have had occasion to give thoughtful consideration to these problems during the past years. We have, however, no claim to special competence in solving the political, social, and military problems which are presented by the advent of atomic power.”

"If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima. The peoples of this world must unite or they will perish."

He was a very complex character, indeed.
Doug Robinson

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Jun 17, 2009 - 08:05pm PT
Boy, this is a hard one.

Hard to separate the quote from the taint -- our rightful ambivalence toward his product -- of the quoted. jstan is right, Oppie's times were vastly different, but you can't land that context on the page with his words. The words have to punch today.

At first blush I find the quote too complex, even too ambivalent in aim within itself, for a headquote. I picture opening the chapter, seeing it on the page. I feel that minutes later I'm still within the byways of its thought, teasing out what it means. So it does not feel like an arrow pointing me toward what you are about to say about Tom.

Tom -- he does embody some of the political adroitness called out by the quote, but is that his main quality? I see him firstly as a great heart bright light, his good will leading the way and smoothing out contradictions with moral force and good will. "The pursuit of ends essential to us" has the feel of mere politics rather than the larger channeling of the energy of the Cosmos, which seems more especially Frost.

This feels too nuanced; where's the bright spotlight illumiating Tom's salient style?

Jun 17, 2009 - 08:30pm PT
Thanks Ed.

Trad climber
Jun 17, 2009 - 08:40pm PT
Would you really seriously leave off an Oppenheimer quote because of post-war Red baiting?

The best argument against the quote is that the vast majority of readers in your audience 1. won't bother reading it; 2. won't bother trying to understand what it meant then; and 3. will have even less interest or ability to imagine what it might mean for your subject. For most, it'll remain at best a bit of ornament.

For folks really interested in Oppenheimer, Bird and Sherwin's American Prometheus is the best-known, serious biography.

But the various essays in Carson and Hollinger, eds., Reappraising Oppenheimer, are probably the best way into the political battles. Bird and Sherwin have an essay in there, too.

Boulder climber
Salt Lake, UT
Jun 17, 2009 - 08:54pm PT
Oppie was a complex guy. And the Manhattan Project might not have been done when it was done if it hadn't been for him. But I wouldn't blame the A-Bomb on him -- it would have happened sooner or later, and probably better that he acted as at least a slight restraint to nutballs like Teller. Certainly Oppenheimer was at least deep enough to realize the possibilities of what he had done.

As to what happened to him after the war, it was disgraceful (as was so much of the Red-scare-witchhunt). He may have had some socialist leanings, but there seems little doubt that he served this country well when he was asked.

Another good reference on him is 109 East Palace, by Jennet Conant, whose father was one of Oppenheimer's contemporaries.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - Jun 17, 2009 - 09:15pm PT
Ed- Thanks for that thoroughly illuminating reference. I knew that you had probably spent some time and energy wading around in JRO's pool.

Doug- Personal style unlike ethics is such a complex mix of history and influences as to be somewhat elusive. The quote in question is going to make almost anyone think widely and in personal terms. It prys open the intellect straight away...

The counterpoise to the proposed quote is Glen Denny's wonderful photo of Tom grinning down at the belay in the midst of "aceing" the third pitch of the NA, the most fearsome aid lead on the planet. Don't let Tom seduce you with thoughts of simplicity of character or belief. He is a very deep, dutiful and serious man even though cloaked in lightness. That is the wonder of my investigation into his life and ways.

Whatever I write needs to pass his muster first and foremost but I greatly value your perpsective in the conceptual and formative stages of this work.

Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Jun 17, 2009 - 09:43pm PT

I think you should freely use Oppenheimer’s thoughts. In fact you must, I insist!!

He was a paragon and I believe remains so long after his death. He was as Ed and John note, in a tremendously pivotal position as the leader of the Manhattan Project as the Axis inexorably was destroying western civilization and the Pacific Theater as per plan. A really horrendous point in world history. He was a great moral leader among his peers in applying for arms limitation and containment of deadly knowledge: more than most, he did all he could to bring to a stasis the spread of the Destroyer once they understood how insanely powerful it was in practice and the goal of stopping the Axis was achieved.

The House Un-American Activities Committee and McCarthy of course got a hold of him shortly thereafter largely destroying his career despite his huge and wholehearted contributions to the Allies and science. HUAC even wiped out my mother for quite awhile. And some nasty colleagues of Oppie turned on him unnecessarily or greedily. Among these perhaps a more salient one was the H-bomb monster Edward Teller who lost most of his credibility testifying against Oppie. I knew him, his son; his daughter Wendy was a very close friend of mine at Berkeley High School as was Owen Chamberlain’s son, Noel. The trouble even continued there at lunch hour!!

Oppie was a good technocratic leader certainly, but his initial work on gravitational collapse is viewed by many as his most important theoretical work and some go so far as to propose, for it he would have won a Nobel. It is thought that were he not so widely focused his scientific work might have had a deeper scope. In sum he paid dearly for the kind of politics and morals he maintained during perhaps one of our worst spots in history as far as civil liberties are concerned, at the peak of the Cold War. He retreated to the Virgin Islands and his New Mexico ranch near Los Alamos, largely marginalized.

He died of esophageal cancer at a young 62 years old (1967), his wife of intestinal and pulmonary complications five years later and his daughter Toni suicided 10 years later after failing to get a UN security clearance as an interpreter. The incredibly distinguished family had paid very dearly in service to the Allies and the US.

Social climber
flagstaff arizona
Jun 17, 2009 - 11:01pm PT
einstien quote in an old gpiw catalog: "a perfection of means, and a confusion of aims, seems to be our main problem" or words to that effect.

Social climber
kennewick, wa
Jun 17, 2009 - 11:36pm PT
A complex issue. To relate his quote to climbing IMHO will lower the ultimate value of your book. I have seen how spirited and opinioned your thoughts are on style ( I am not debating your thoughts). FWIW, I myself have soloed new routes on site that were dangerously close to my on site ability 10d back in 1984. I climbed El Cap in a day back in the early 90's via salathe and nose for my own style considerations. All that sh#t is sport and mostly style.

Style is not a factor in the Manhattan Project. To me ethics in climbing means whether we destroy resources for future generations. Style is a choice that only affects ourselves.

In my current job I am responsible for $4Billion of the cleanup of the Manhattan Proj. Frankly, Oppenheimer did not have a clue as to the affects of what his team accomplished (positives and negatives).

He did what he could to resolve some bad things in his time using the unique skills he had. That resembles some things climbers have done.

Comparing Style of lives, Billions of $, world politics in terms of climbing is IMHO ridiculous. one could argue that Bolts all over El Cap would save lives, just as the justification of the Manhattan Proj.

What we do as climbers is selfish. We do not through climbs resolve world peace, nor spend billions of $, not influence world politics.

If you want to write a book about starting on those parallels then I think you start off on the wrong foot. And since I risked my life in climbing for my personal ideas about that, and since in my professional job I am dealing with the impacts of the Manhattan Project I do feel qualified to offer up that advice.

It is in no way comparable. But good luck in your adventures.

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