BOOK REVIEW | Einstein and Oppenheimer: The Meaning of Genius by Silvan S. Schweber

Review by Tom Siegfried

In mid-20th century America, two scientists towered over all others in the public mind: Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was the man who built the atomic bomb; Einstein’s theories explained how such a vast release of energy was possible. Both were acclaimed as geniuses of the highest order. Yet they were dissimilar in numerous respects. Einstein was solitary, kind, self-assured and even stubborn; Oppenheimer was gregarious, witty, sometimes sarcastic and cruel, and at some level deeply insecure.


Historian Silvan S. Schweber exploits these contrasts to explore the meaning of genius, especially with respect to how these two geniuses interacted with a non-scientific society. Many previous writers have examined both men’s lives thoroughly, but Schweber brings fresh insight by focusing on less widely noted episodes. Aspects of Einstein’s personality emerge more clearly, for example, in the accounts of his role in the founding of BrandeisUniversity. Oppenheimer’s inner thoughts surface through analysis of a series of lectures he delivered at Harvard.

Schweber observes that Einstein exuded a constant sense of self and self-assurance throughout his life. Oppenheimer remade himself several times as his role evolved from student, to teacher, to lab administrator and then public figure. The differences in their personalities played out in their engagement in world affairs. After World War II, both attempted, each in his own way, to influence politicians to forge international controls over the new atomic weaponry, and both failed. Genius—no matter what kind—and politics, it seems, don’t mix. Schweber‘s story shows the difficulties that geniuses encounter in realms where knowledge and logic are not valued as much as power and profit.

HarvardUniv. Press, 2008, 432 p., $29.95

Tom Siegfried is a contributing correspondent. He was editor in chief of Science News from 2007 to 2012 and managing editor from 2014 to 2017.

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