The merely very good.

Author:Bernstein, Jeremy

Early in 1981 I received an invitation to give a lecture at a writer's conference that was being held someplace on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, just across from New Jersey. I don't remember the exact location, but a study of the map persuades me that it was probably New Hope. My first inclination was to say no. There were several reasons. I was living in New York City and teaching full-time. My weekends were precious and the idea of getting up before dawn on a Saturday, renting a car, and driving across the entire state of New Jersey to deliver a lecture was repellent. As I recall, the honorarium offered would have barely covered the expense. Furthermore, a subject had been suggested for my lecture that, in truth, no longer interested me. Since I both wrote and did physics, I had often been asked to discuss the connection--if any--between these two activities. When this first came up, I felt obligated to say something, but after twenty years, about the only thing that I felt like saying was that both physics and writing, especially if one wanted to do them well, were extremely difficult.

The conference seemed to be centered on poetry, and one of the things that came to mind was an anecdote that Robert Oppenheimer used to tell about himself. Since Oppenheimer will play a significant role in what follows, I will elaborate. After Oppenheimer graduated from Harvard in 1925--in three years, summa cum laude--he was awarded a fellowship to study in Europe. Following a very unhappy time in England, where he seems to have had a sort of nervous breakdown--he physically attacked an old friend, Francis Fergusson, apparently following an intimate discussion he and Fergusson had been having about Oppenheimer's feelings of sexual inadequacy--he went to Germany to get his Ph.D. He studied with the distinguished German theoretical physicist Max Born in Gottingen and took his degree there in 1927 at the age of twenty-three. Born's recollections of Oppenheimer, which were published posthumously in 1975, were not sympathetic. Oppenheimer, he wrote, "was a man of great talent and he was conscious of his superiority in a way which was embarrassing and led to trouble. In my ordinary seminar on quantum mechanics, he used to interrupt the speaker, whoever it was, not excluding myself, and to step to the blackboard, taking the chalk and declaring: `This can be done much better in the following manner. . . .'" In fact, it got so bad that Oppenheimer's fellow students in the seminar petitioned Born to put a stop to it.

Quantum mechanics had been invented in the year before by Erwin Schrodinger, Werner Heisenberg--also a Born disciple--and Paul A. M. Dirac. The next year, Dirac came as a visitor to Gottingen and, as it happened, roomed in the large house of a physician named Cario where Oppenheimer also had a room. Dirac was twenty-five. The two young men became friends--insofar as one could have a friendship with Dirac. As young as he was, Dirac was already a great physicist, and I am sure he knew it. He probably just took it for granted. However, he was, and remained, an enigma. He rarely spoke, but when he did, it was always with extraordinary precision and often with devastating effect. This must have had a profound effect on Oppenheimer. While Oppenheimer was interrupting Born's seminars, announcing that he could do calculations better in the quantum theory, Dirac, only two years older, had invented the subject. In any event, in the course of things, the two of them often went for walks. In the version of the story that I heard Oppenheimer tell, they were walking one evening on the walls that surrounded Gottingen and got to discussing Oppenheimer's poetry. He had published, and continued to publish, poems in such places as Hound and Horn. I would imagine that the "discussion" was more like an Oppenheimer monologue, which was abruptly interrupted by Dirac, who asked, "How can you do both poetry and physics? In physics we try to give people an understanding of something that nobody knew before, whereas in poetry . . . " Oppenheimer allowed one to fill in the rest of the sentence. As interesting as it might have been to hear the responses, this did not seem to be the sort of anecdote that would go over especially well at a conference devoted to poetry.

Pitted against these excellent reasons for not going to the conference were two others that finally carried the day. In the first place, I was in the beginning stages of a love affair with a young woman who wanted very much to write. She wanted to write so much that she had resigned a lucrative job with an advertising agency and was giving herself a year in which...

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