Oppenheimer Couldn’t Run a Hamburger Stand. How Did He Run a Secret Lab?

From The Wall Street Journal:

When he was named the director of the Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos Laboratory, J. Robert Oppenheimer was an improbable choice for the most important job in America. 

At the time, he was a 38-year-old theoretical physicist who had never managed anything more than a dozen graduate students, much less an operation with the fate of the world at stake. Leslie Groves, the Army general who hired him, said he received “no support, only opposition” for his decision. One close friend who would later win a Nobel Prize called Oppenheimer “absolutely the most unlikely choice” to run a secret lab that would build the atomic bomb.  

“He couldn’t run a hamburger stand,” said another colleague. 

So how did he transform into one of the most effective and consequential leaders in history? 

This weekend, “Oppenheimer” is expected to dominate the Oscars. But even watching a three-hour movie from a painstakingly meticulous auteur like Christopher Nolan isn’t enough to understand what made Oppenheimer tick. If you really want to get inside his mind, you have to read two Pulitzer Prize-winning books, “American Prometheus” by Kai Bird and the late Martin J. Sherwin and “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” by Richard Rhodes. (PG notes that the Rhodes book is available with Kindle Unlimited.)

. . . .

Oppenheimer the recruiter

Before he could build the bomb, Oppenheimer had to build something else with the potential to blow up in his face: a team. 

Los Alamos hadn’t yet been selected as the site of his secret lab when Oppenheimer began hunting for talent. Once he identified scientists and decided to hire them, he did whatever it took to get them. When the physicist Richard Feynman turned him down because his wife was sick with tuberculosis, for example, Oppenheimer found a sanatorium close enough to Los Alamos that he could visit on the weekends. 

It’s a revealing story not because Feynman was a star but the opposite: The future Nobel winner was still merely a graduate student, “not anybody famous at all,” as he put it, and yet Oppenheimer still went above and beyond. 

. . . .

Oppenheimer the communicator

Once he got them, Oppenheimer knew how to get the best work out of his scientists. In his new book, Charles Duhigg writes about “supercommunicators,” people who are “capable of saying exactly the right thing, breaking through to almost anyone, figuring out how to connect in even the most unlikely circumstances.” Oppenheimer, as it turns out, was a supercommunicator. 

Others in Los Alamos were better physicists, chemists and engineers. But what he could do better than anybody there—and maybe better than anybody on the planet—was take scientists with different perspectives and bring them to a consensus. 

“He would stand at the back of the room and listen as everyone argued,” Bird said. “Then he would step forward at just the right moment, summarize the salient points that everyone had been making that were in common and point the way forward.” 

“He would walk in, quickly grasp what the problem was and almost always suggest some leads to a solution,” Rhodes said. 

. . . .

But what set him apart from the other geniuses at Los Alamos was his broad knowledge and breadth of interests, which allowed him to make connections across disciplines and see what others in the room couldn’t. They were specialists. He was a generalist. They were singularly focused on their narrow fields of research. He was curious about philosophy, literature, poetry and the Bhagavad Gita. “He was a good scientist precisely because he was also a humanist,” Bird says.

Groves was so impressed by Oppenheimer’s range of interests that he once declared: “Oppenheimer knows everything.” He also could explain everything he knew without condescending, another trait that distinguished him from other eminently qualified scientists who interviewed for the job. 

“He was able to speak in plain English,” Bird said. 

. . . .

Oppenheimer the collaborator

The scientists were willing to drop everything in their lives to work around the clock in the middle of nowhere. What they were not willing to do was wear a military uniform. 

Oppenheimer himself was so allergic to hierarchy that he objected to making a basic organizational chart. He was intense but informal, someone who commanded respect without demanding it, and the biggest difference between Oppenheimer and Army generals was how they believed teams should operate. 

The military relied on compartmentalization. He insisted on collaboration. 

By demanding a flatter structure, Oppenheimer might as well have asked the Army if everyone in Los Alamos could have a mullet. In fact, when Groves learned that Oppenheimer was in favor of instituting a weekly colloquium for hundreds of scientists, he tried to shut it down. Oppenheimer prevailed. He understood the value of gathering people from different parts of a project in the same place, encouraging them to discuss their work and combine their ideas.

“Very often a problem discussed in one of these meetings would intrigue a scientist in a completely different branch of the laboratory,” Bethe once wrote, “and he would come up with unexpected solutions.” 

The meetings also improved morale at Los Alamos, providing a weekly reminder that everyone on the Manhattan Project had a role to play. Oppenheimer was right to fight for their existence. 

“He won the loyalty of people inside the fence,” Bird says. “They could see that he was protecting them, allowing them to collaborate and talk freely, which was necessary to the success of the project.”

They worked six days a week, but Oppenheimer made sure they weren’t only working. On their off days, there was horseback riding, mountain climbing, skiing, hiking and some of the geekiest basketball games of all time. When a local theater group staged a performance of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” Oppenheimer brought the house down with his surprise cameo as a corpse. And he was especially famous for his parties, where Oppenheimer paired his deadly gin martinis with his favorite toast: “To the confusion of our enemies!” 

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal