Questions and answers with Ray Monk

The author of the latest J. Robert Oppenheimer biography aims to make science the centerpiece of what set him apart, rather than the juicy details of his personal life.

Ray Monk is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southampton in the UK. He studied philosophy at the universities of York and Oxford in the UK, specializing in the philosophy of mathematics. He is the author of several books, including the biographies Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (Penguin Books, 1991), Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude 1872–1921(Free Press, 1996), and Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness 1921–1970 (Free Press, 2001).

Ray Monk

His most recent biography is Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center (Doubleday, 2012), a book he began to work on in 1992. It joins a handful of biographies that explore the life of the famous physicist known to some as the father of the atomic bomb. Those books include Charles Thorpe's J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect (University of Chicago Press, 2006), Abraham Pais and Robert Crease's J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2006), David Cassidy's J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), and Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin's American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Knopf, 2005).

Physics Today caught up with Monk to discuss what makes his book different from the rest and what surprised him about Oppenheimer.

PT: There are several bios of Oppenheimer. What motivated you to want to write yet another?

MONK: When I began my book 11 years ago, there were not several bios of Oppenheimer, and my ambition was to write the first full and complete one. Then the books by Thorpe, Pais [and Crease], Cassidy, and Bird and Sherwin appeared. Strangely, though, my motivation remained the same, because although some of these books were impressive, particularly the Bird and Sherwin, none of them was complete, since none of them dealt in any adequate way with Oppenheimer's scientific interests.

PT: Your research interests include philosophical issues arising from the practice of biography. What are some of those issues, and how did your research inform your approach to writing this biography?

MONK: There are several issues. Some fall into the category of "philosophy mind": What is a self? Can we understand another person? Some [are] specific to biography: How does one decide what details to include in writing the life of a person? How, exactly, does the biographer achieve and convey an understanding of another? What is the relation between a subject's life and their work? Very broadly speaking, my views on these questions are Wittgensteinian: I think it is possible to understand another person; I do not think another's inner life is hidden from us, but I do not think there could possibly be a science of biography. Like poetry, painting, and, say, being a good friend or a good husband, the most one can pass on to another is not a theory or even a method, but rather, tips.

PT: Why did you choose to focus on Oppenheimer's science, and what was one surprising or overlooked story or detail about his science?

MONK: [The science] was central to his intellectual preoccupations, so that to understand him necessarily involves understanding his scientific work—even if one thinks, as some people think, that it was not a very important contribution to the development of physics. One surprising thing about him was how often he missed important discoveries that he was in a perfect position to make. The most glaring example of this is his missing of the positron, even though he had pointed out—and was the first to point out—that the accepted theory required the existence of positively charged particles about the size of electrons!

PT: How would you compare and contrast Oppenheimer to other similarly complex biographical subjects, including nonscientists?

MONK: I think he is the most complex, and unfathomable, subject I have ever taken on. And considering my other subjects include Wittgenstein and Russell, that is saying something!

PT: What's your next major research or writing project, biographical or otherwise?

MONK: I am deliberately—dedicatedly—avoiding thinking about this. I do not want to say I will never write a large biography again, but for the sake of my sanity, I do not want to commit myself to one for a while.

PT: What books are you reading at the moment?

MONK: As usual, I have too many books on the go all at once. I am reading a lot of British history at the moment, medieval mostly: The Wars of the Roses (Viking, 1995) by Desmond Seward and The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England (revised edition, Viking, 2013) by Dan Jones. I am also reading Falling Man (Scribner, 2008) by Don DeLillo, which is rather underrated, I think. There is some beautiful writing in it.


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Scitation: Questions and answers with Ray Monk