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In the Shadow of the Bomb:
Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist
Silvan S. Schweber

Paperback | 2007 | $35.00 | £27.95 | ISBN: 9780691127859
288 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4 | 10 halftones.
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In the Shadow of the Bomb narrates how two charismatic, exceptionally talented physicists--J. Robert Oppenheimer and Hans A. Bethe--came to terms with the nuclear weapons they helped to create. In 1945, the United States dropped the bomb, and physicists were forced to contemplate disquieting questions about their roles and responsibilities. When the Cold War followed, they were confronted with political demands for their loyalty and McCarthyism's threats to academic freedom. By examining how Oppenheimer and Bethe--two men with similar backgrounds but divergent aspirations and characters--struggled with these moral dilemmas, one of our foremost historians of physics tells the story of modern physics, the development of atomic weapons, and the Cold War.

Oppenheimer and Bethe led parallel lives. Both received liberal educations that emphasized moral as well as intellectual growth. Both were outstanding theoreticians who worked on the atom bomb at Los Alamos. Both advised the government on nuclear issues, and both resisted the development of the hydrogen bomb. Both were, in their youth, sympathetic to liberal causes, and both were later called to defend the United States against Soviet communism and colleagues against anti-Communist crusaders. Finally, both prized scientific community as a salve to the apparent failure of Enlightenment values.

Yet, their responses to the use of the atom bomb, the testing of the hydrogen bomb, and the treachery of domestic politics differed markedly. Bethe, who drew confidence from scientific achievement and integration into the physics community, preserved a deep integrity. By accepting a modest role, he continued to influence policy and contributed to the nuclear test ban treaty of 1963. In contrast, Oppenheimer first embodied a new scientific persona--the scientist who creates knowledge and technology affecting all humanity and boldly addresses their impact--and then could not carry its burden. His desire to retain insider status, combined with his isolation from creative work and collegial scientific community, led him to compromise principles and, ironically, to lose prestige and fall victim to other insiders.

Schweber draws on his vast knowledge of science and its history--in addition to his unique access to the personalities involved--to tell a tale of two men that will enthrall readers interested in science, history, and the lives and minds of great thinkers.


"An absorbing investigation of how the two physicists, each formidable in his own way, attempted to shoulder responsibility for their creation."--The New Yorker

"There is merit to Schweber's contrasting portraits of Oppenheimer and Bethe. . . . Trained as a physicist, Schweber is the first biographer to explain the significance of the scientific work that Oppenheimer and Bethe did--a fascinating topic in itself."--Gregg Herken, American Scientist

"The author of this book studied physics with J. Robert Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe. His remarkably clear account of their rise to intellectual leadership in the 1930's pulses with an insider's love. Mostly, however, S. S. Schweber writes as a historian and philosopher of science, elegantly exploring the morally fractured stories of American physicists transformed by the Cold War."--John M. Staudenmaier, The Historian

"In the Shadow of the Bomb is a rare example of a successful hybrid work. . . . Schweber entwines issues of science, technology, ethics, and politics in a relatively seamless manner, bringing in each lens of analysis at the appropriate time. . . . [He] presents a model of how to write respectfully of individuals while portraying them as fallible human beings in a complex cultural, political, intellectual, and scientific context."--Russell Olwell, Technology & Culture

"For a world in which scientific power must be checked by visionary words linked to prudent politics, Schweber has written a book of compelling insight."--Booklist

"Schweber is to be commended for pulling together, with comprehensive referencing, many of the relevant events in the interlocking sagas of Oppenheimer and Bethe. . . . Bethe is the dominant figure in this volume, and Schweber knows and describes him well."--Sidney D. Drell, Physics Today

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Table of Contents:

Preface ix
Acknowledgments xvii
Oppenheimer and the Ethical Culture Movement 42
The Agenda of the Ethical Culture Society 46
The Teaching of Ethics at the School 50
The Maturation of Oppenheimer 53
Becoming a Physicist: Oppenheimer and His School 61
Becoming a Bildungstrager 76
Becoming a Physicist: Arnold Sommerfeld 87
Wholeness and Stability 91
Los Alamos 104
Bethe and Oppenheimer: Their Entanglement 107
The Bernard Peters Case 115
The Philip Morrison Case 130
Some Concluding Comments 146
Atomic Bombs 149
Hydrogen Bombs 156
PSAC and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty 168
Notes to the Chapters 187
Bibliography 239
Index 257

This book has been translated into:

  • Greek

Other Princeton books authored or coauthored by Silvan S. Schweber:


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