September 28, 2010

Oppenheimer Brothers

Brothers are in the news at the moment for some reason- I'm sure its the potential of Anton Ferdinand to play with Rio at some point that's the real reason why they are up there. But its interesting in that sense to look at potentially one of the greatest pairs of brothers in the 20th Century- Robert Oppenheimer and his brother Frank. The older brother Robert was a famous and successful theoretical physicist, he led the project to design the nuclear bomb at Los Alamos and became Professor at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton. His career was marked by tragedy and the old tale of his failure to surmount slurs he was a communist and his bureacratic checkmate by Edward Teller have been told too often for them to be rehearsed here. The key thing about Oppenheimer was that after his fall and the scandal he never really produced the great work of physics that he could have done, he was less than the sum of his talents. His brother Frank was also a physicist, Robert despised his intelligence- Frank was an experimentalist rather than a theorist- but ended up founding a great American museum.

The contrast is well developed in Steven Shapin's essay in this week's London Review of Books. Ironically Shapin notes Robert ended up in an institution without students but with Professors, Frank founded an institution that aspired to make everyone a scientist but in which noone was a Professor. I think the most interesting contrast was in their view of science. I remember a friend once telling me that you couldn't understand anything about physics unless you had been a graduate in it: strictly that is probably true and Robert Oppenheimer would have agreed. For him knowledge seems, from Shapin's review, to be something only experts could claim. He made the difference between the expert and the non-expert vast: this point of view is shared by those who believe that experts are wonderful and horrible because it assumes they are different and beyond the sight of anyone else. Frank's view was much more participative: science could be diffused and could become a way of changing society. Anyone might be a scientist so long as they adopted a scientific attitude- you might not understand Feynman diagrams, but you could still be a scientist if you agreed with experimental data.

Frank's perspective seems to me to be much healthier and is really the way I think about knowledge. Knowledge is not about exclusion: you can know more or less about a subject but all knowledge has a value. Furthermore there is a distinction between knowledge and ignorance. Knowledge is not the attribute of a particular group of people, its a method. You can be further forwards or back in your understanding of the method and the amount of evidence to which you have applied it but in principle the method is the same. Therefore the separation between the kid with his chemistry set and the chemist in the field isn't that they do different things or that the kid is doing something ignorant, but that the chemist has just done more.