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Oppenheimer, a personal story
The Movie has reawakened an interesting episode in my own life with multiple implications one of which has to be that the complex can emerge out of the simple very quickly.
In about 1959 I was in my senior year at Caltech, majoring in physics. I realized the world understood by physics was not what I meant by understanding the world.
Millikan, first president of Caltech, left a grant called Leaders of America to bring people like Martin Luther King to spend two weeks with students. . That year it was Oppenheimer and I volunteered to be one of those students who led him around. In the middle of his second week as we were walking across campus to the next meeting he said "Doug, what are you going to do when you finish?" I said that I didn't know, and he said “I have a friend at Berkeley who is chair of the psych department, why don't you go up and talk to him.” That was Edward Chace tolman for whom Tolman Hall is named, whose brother, Richard Tolman , was a well-known physicist. So after a few conversations across campuses, I was a graduate student at Berkeley in psychology.
The time came when I had to do a dissertation. I figured Chomsky had worked on grammar and Piaget on logic. I knew that the ancient curriculum had the trivium: logic, grammar, and rhetoric. So I chose rhetoric. The details led to the idea of irony and so my dissertation was on how children develop the capacity to perceive it. I went to the Berkeley card catalog, no computer in those days, and found a book on irony by a Berkeley Professor who had been in the French Department, a guy named Håakon Chevalier, The Ironic character. and then Robert Oppenheimer an ironic man. I had read the 900-page report called The Oppenheimer Hearings of 1954 published by the Defense Department. I looked Chevalier up in the index and ca,e across more of the story. While Oppie was leading Los Alamos the Army sSecurity Agency, concerned about spies, interviewed him and asked did he know of anyone at the lab who had contacts with the Soviet Communists. Indeed he did but to protect that person, whom Oppie thought essential, even vital, to the bomb project gave Chevaliier’s name to get the army off track.
Chevalier was fired and did not know why till after the war. Chevalier moved to A French university. I Found myself through writing my dissertation that I was writing on top of a much more powerful story. Since I owed my presence in Berkeley to Oppenheimer and made use of Chevlier’s books, issues that later led me to study Psychoanalysis with Erich Fromm (uh oh, another story). I felt I was faced with ethical issues, such as following up on Chevalier. This was in the middle of The Berkeley Free Speech Movement and Mario | Savio’s influence. But it was Chevalier’s study of Oppenheimer that gave me a taste for the issue of character and how a person, Chevalier’s thesis in his two books, takes an aspect of thought - irony - and could become a person’s character, becoming an ironic person. I am still on the trail.
Edward Teller on all this.
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