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Ray Monk's biography of the Anglo-Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein ( Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius) was well received by reviewers in 1991. His biography of Robert Oppenheimer, however, moves the bar even higher when it comes to the craft of biography. On its publication in 2013, the book received considerable praise and rightly so. To be honest, I cannot think of a biography so well-researched and so judiciously written. The plaudits (and there were many) were well-deserved.

Why should you read this book, especially when it requires real commitment? Simply because Robert Oppenheimmer (in some ways an outsider) was most certainly a man 'inside the centre' in every sense. This was a man that took us from the 19th century into the 21st century, a man who delivered the atom bomb that swiftly ushered in the hydrogen bomb (still very much with us) as well as the Cold War. This was a man of exceptional intellectual brilliance (though arguably outclassed by others in the area of mathematical competence and speculative endeavour in theoretical physics). This was a man on the Left (supporting the American Communist Party and the Left's involvement in the Spanish civil war) but also a genuine patriot insofar as he delivered the goods for the Allied forces. This was a man pilloried by Senator McCarthy in the the 1950s.

Monks's achievement is to give a 'coherent' (the single quotes here are absolutely essential) account of Oppenheimer's life based on a serious examination of the primary and secondary sources. When, very occasionally, Monk is drawn to conjecture, he flags it clearly and argues 'his own reading' in a precise and persuasive way.

Oppenheimer was an amazingly complex character. Monk covers all the relevant issues: his engagement with and assessment of the great figures in particle physics and quantum mechanics, his diffident relationsip to Judaism as well as his attraction to Vedic religion, his love of New Mexico, his penchant for married women...

Ultimately the picture that Monk paints of Oppenheimer is that of a man haunted by his brilliance but also by a growing sense of personal responsibility. Earlier in his career there is a feeling he sometimes 'absented himself' from difficult situations, a 'McCavity figure'; intellectual ability and social urbanity providing effective cover. Somewhat late in life (like many of us) he recognised that this wasn't enough!

In short I have no problem whatsoever in recommending this book. This is a book for adults who want to know why the current world is as it is! Have our politicians, our opinion-formers, read it? I doubt it. And that, in the strict (i.e. Greek) sense, is a tragedy!


Book of the Month

Ray Monk