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Einstein and Oppenheimer

Einstein and Oppenheimer

The Meaning of Genius

Silvan S. Schweber

ISBN 9780674034525

Publication date: 03/30/2010

Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer, two iconic scientists of the twentieth century, belonged to different generations, with the boundary marked by the advent of quantum mechanics. By exploring how these men differed—in their worldview, in their work, and in their day—this book provides powerful insights into the lives of two critical figures and into the scientific culture of their times. In Einstein’s and Oppenheimer’s philosophical and ethical positions, their views of nuclear weapons, their ethnic and cultural commitments, their opinions on the unification of physics, even the role of Buddhist detachment in their thinking, the book traces the broader issues that have shaped science and the world.

Einstein is invariably seen as a lone and singular genius, while Oppenheimer is generally viewed in a particular scientific, political, and historical context. Silvan Schweber considers the circumstances behind this perception, in Einstein’s coherent and consistent self-image, and its relation to his singular vision of the world, and in Oppenheimer’s contrasting lack of certainty and related non-belief in a unitary, ultimate theory. Of greater importance, perhaps, is the role that timing and chance seem to have played in the two scientists’ contrasting characters and accomplishments—with Einstein’s having the advantage of maturing at a propitious time for theoretical physics, when the Newtonian framework was showing weaknesses.

Bringing to light little-examined aspects of these lives, Schweber expands our understanding of two great figures of twentieth-century physics—but also our sense of what such greatness means, in personal, scientific, and cultural terms.


  • With sensitivity and masterful insight Schweber explores aspects of the lives, thought and personalities of Einstein and Oppenheimer—their philosophical and ethical positions, and their ethnic and cultural commitments—as well as their uneasy interaction with each other, their differing views on the unification of physics, and even the role of Buddhist detachment in their thinking. The end result is a book that offers new perspectives on how both scientists responded to the transformations in physics and its relationship with public and political developments brought about by the opening of the atomic age.

    —David C. Cassidy, author of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century and Einstein and Our World


  • Silvan S. Schweber was Associate, Department of the History of Science at Harvard University and Professor of Physics and Richard Koret Professor in the History of Ideas, Emeritus, at Brandeis University.

Book Details

  • 432 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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