Science Book a Day Interviews Ray Monk

Ray MonkSpecial thanks to Ray Monk for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center

Ray is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southampton
Ray’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/Raymodraco

#1. After writing two biographies on philosophers, what made you decide to write about such a famous physicist?

I was asked by the Observer newspaper to review a collection of his correspondence, which I found fascinating. I said there was a really interesting biography of him to be written, which prompted several inquiries from publishers asking if I would be prepared to take it on.

#2. When people read your biography, what kind of man are you trying to show them?

Above all else, a very, very complex man! Most people who knew him said that they did not feel they understood him. His character was elusive and extremely variable. He could come across as extremely charming or as unbearably arrogant, full of confidence or plagued with self-doubt. One constant thing, though, was his intelligence. He was unbelievably clever and quick-minded and spread himself very widely. Apart from physics, he was an expert on Hindu scripture, French literature, classical architecture and many, many other things. A really remarkable man.

#3. Peter Higgs and Francois Englert won the Nobel prize for Physics yesterday. What do you think Oppenheimer’s reaction would have been to the progress that physics has made in the last 50 years?

I think it would have worried him that so much contemporary physics is closed to most people, but I think he would have been delighted at the discovery of the Higgs boson.

#4. Can you tell us about the research that went into this biography? How long did it take you to write this book and how did you go about learning what you needed to learn?

It took me eleven years to research and write the book. The research involved several trips to the Library of Congress in Washington DC and also several sessions of physics instruction with my friend, James Dodd, who has co-written a textbook on particle physics. It also involved massive amounts of reading! About, e.g., the history Jewish migration to the USA, about the development of quantum mechanics, about the Manhattan Project, about the history of left-wing politics in America and so on and so on…

#5. Do you already have a new project on the boil? 

No! I have promised my partner, Jenny, that I will not even think about another large book for at least a year!

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