On Genius, and Sitting Still

Continuing with the theme of the need for sustained focus in achieving mastery, Freeman Dyson’s recent review[1] of Ray Monk’s new biography of Oppenheimer contains an interesting and somewhat sad snippet about the influential Los Alamos lab leader’s relative achievements in science versus bomb-making administration:

The real tragedy of Oppenheimer’s life was not the loss of his security clearance but his failure to be a great scientist. For forty years he put his heart and soul into thinking about deep scientific problems. With the single exception of the collapse of massive stars at the end of their lives, he did not solve any of these problems. Why did he not succeed in scientific research as brilliantly as he succeeded in soldiering and administration? I believe the main reason why he failed was a lack of Sitzfleisch. Sitzfleisch is a German word with no equivalent in English. The literal translation is “Sitflesh.” It means the ability to sit still and work quietly. He could never sit still long enough to do a difficult calculation. His calculations were always done hastily and often full of mistakes. In a letter to my parents quoted by Monk, I described Oppenheimer as I saw him in seminars:

He is moving around nervously all the time, never stops smoking, and I believe that his impatience is largely beyond his control.

If Dyson is right in his interpretation of Monk, it seems to suggest that an Oppenheimer today would receive a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder. Of course, few would argue that Oppenheimer was anything other than a brilliant, effective, and important contributor, so did his lack of Sitzfleisch actually constitute a problem? Perhaps he succeeded in soldiering and administration to the extent Dyson acknowledges not in spite of but because of the very haste that hurt his mathematics. Perhaps a more focused scientist would have produced more physics but, crucially for the war, less fission. But Dyson’s point is, I think, one of tragedy: a great mind that could have been greater; depth that could have been deeper. Judging by the review’s closing comments, it sounds like Oppenheimer may have agreed:

Late in Oppenheimer’s life, when he was sick and depressed, his wife Kitty came to me with a cry for help. She implored me to collaborate with Robert in a piece of technical scientific work. She said he was no longer doing science and he needed a collaborator to get him started. I agreed with Kitty’s diagnosis, but I had to tell her that it was too late. I told her that I would like to sit quietly with Robert and hold his hand. His days as a scientist were over. It was too late to cure his anguish with equations.

[1] Dyson, F. (2013, August 15). Oppenheimer: The Shape of Genius. [Review of the book Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center, by Ray Monk]. The New York Review of Books, p. 19.

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