JF Ptak Science Books Post 2407
Years ago I phone-met the physicist Al Wattenberg. He started his long and fine career under the bleachers at the University of Chicago, working with Enrico Fermi where on December 2, 1942, they achieved the first controlled nuclear chain reaction. (The moment was celebrated with a bottle of Chianti donated by Eugene Wigner, and it was signed by all those present at the creation. It turned out that Wattenberg was the last man to leave the area, and he saw the abandoned Chianti bottle and rescued it--he gave it to the Argonne National Lab where it lives to this day.)
One day I asked him about Fermi and what he was like when he wasn't working. Wattenberg said that he used to play tennis with Fermi, who (paraphrasing here) played tennis like he did physics--meticulous, methodical, careful. He said he was frustrating to play with, and he never beat Fermi at the game.
I like these offbeat cross-interest metaphors for explaining complicated things. And it was this thinking that brought me to Oppenheimer and the New York Yankees--and that Boston team--in the hope of dislodging a little piece of insight that might come from comparing disparate things. And so far as I can tell discussing Robert Oppenheimer in terms of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio doesn't get very much red carpet room as an idea, and I suspect that there are good reasons for it.
Let's face it—Robert Oppenheimer left his theoretical physics career sorta behind when he went to win the war at Los Alamos in 1943. I was surprised to see today that his publishing career for the hard stuff stopped around 1950 He was an absolute brilliant light when he started out in 1926, and a massive influence in his field by 1940.
Here's what the production looked like:
- 1926-29: 16 papers
- 1930-39 36 papers
- 1940-42 10 papers
Which makes 62 papers for the 1926-1942 period . After the war, from 1946-50, there were five papers. And after that, none. That's not to say that he didn't publish, because he did, and was prolific—it was just a different career. Also from 1926-1942 he was a theoretical physicist with wholly different responsibilities than those he would take on in 1942, when he became not only the brilliant physicist but also the brilliant administrator/director/curator, working an almost-impossible job with thousands of creative people and the U.S. Army in shacks in the desert trying to beat the Nazis to a bomb that would end the war.
After the war Oppenheimer helped to formulate the direction of physics in the U.S., leading Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study as its director; then he helped formulate American nuclear policy going into the Cold War as the Chair of the Atomic Energy Commission. And then there was the great tragedy of his "security hearings” (1954) which crushed him on a McCarthyite slab, costing him much of the rest of his career. And then he was dead in 1967.
Had he not gone to war, had he not taken the job only he could have done, what would he have become? His accomplishments were already large--the Born-Oppenheimer approximation, Oppenheimer-Phillips process, neutron stars, quantum tunneling. More than likely one of the things he would be well known for today would be his development of the discovery and understanding of black holes—a singularity that he discovered in with in a paper called printed in Physical Review on September 1, 1939, but this was somewhat premature for the time. And then came the war.
Millions of other people went to war, too, stopping their lives on one end, starting a new life on the other, and then returning to their previous lives with varying degrees of retention or creation. Two of those folks were Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio.
Ted Williams went to war too, from 1943-1945. Williams just started out in his brilliant career hitting .406 in ; then two years later, he was gone. Williams was 24-26 years old for the war. Oppenheimer 38-40, though Ted got to play from 1946-1960 when he came back, absent a year that he spent as a Marine fighter pilot during the Korean War (“strafing Commies”). No doubt Williams would have piled up the numbers in a big way had he played ball in those four years
Then there's Joe DiMaggio, who also served for those years when he was 28-30. He had finished up seven years with the Yankees before he left, brilliant—perhaps the most stellar thing about it all (long pointed out to me by my friend, Mr. Baseball, Andy Moursund) was that he hit 219 home runs while striking out 196 times in 7 years. His batting averages were very high, and he was a slugger, and he didn't walk all that much compared to Williams. This seems more in-line with Oppenheimer—a different sort of precision, one where DiMaggio hit for power and rarely didn't hit anything at all, going up swinging but rarely going down swinging at nothing on the third strike. Although he was relatively young went he left for the war, he came back at 30, and played another 6 years,
It may be too weird or nonsensical to think of these sorts of things, let alone thinking of Oppenheimer in units of Joe DiMaggios, especially since Oppenheimer knew/cared nothing about sports2. Plus in the alternative histories world we really can't express the potentials of missing years, especially in terms of metaphors from non-related entities.
On the other hand, I did create a physicists vs. mathematicians chess set, matching up people with what their possible position of the board might be, we can probably Oppenheimer to his baseball equivalent.
Perhaps this is also my pneumonia talking rather than my brain, what with Spring Training approaching, and perhaps this was all useless--but for some reason if Oppenheimer suddenly appeared out in the front yard wearing a baseball jersey, I'd see him in pinstripes, with a "5" on his back.