Atom and Void: Essays on Science and Community

Atom and Void: Essays on Science and Community

by J. Robert Oppenheimer


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J. Robert Oppenheimer was one of the outstanding physicists of his generation. He was also an immensely gifted writer and speaker, who thought deeply about the way that scientific discoveries have changed the way people live and think. Displaying his subtlety of thought and expression as do few other documents, this book of his lectures discusses the moral and cultural implications of developments in modern physics.

Originally published in 1989.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691603742
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #999
Pages: 170
Product dimensions: 9.00(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

Atom and Void

Essays on Science and Community

By J. Robert Oppenheimer


Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-08547-0


Newton: The Path of Light

Science has changed the conditions of man's life. It has changed its material conditions; by changing them it has altered our labor and our rest, our power, and the limits of that power, as men and as communities of men, the means and instruments as well as the substance of our learning, the terms and the form in which decisions of right and wrong come before us. It has altered the communities in which we live and cherish, learn and act. It has brought an acute and pervasive sense of change itself into our own life's span. The ideas of science have changed the way men think of themselves and of the world.

The description of these changes is not simple; it is rich in opportunity for error. As for the great material changes which science and practical art have made possible — machines, for instance, or power, the preservation of life, the urbanization of populations, new instruments of war, new means of communication and information — these are but part of the materials for the analysis of political economy and the wisdom and the insight of history. These are strands in the tangled affairs of men, and their evaluation is no more likely to be final and exhaustive than in any other part of history.

As for the more direct effects of discovery in science on the way men think about things which are not themselves part of science, the historian of ideas has a similar problem. Noting what in actual fact men have said about what they thought, who it was that thought it, and why he thought it, one finds, as in all history, that the contingent and the unpredictable, the peculiar greatnesses and blindnesses of individual men play a determining part. One even finds the science of great scientists taken in the name of those scientists for views and attitudes wholly foreign and sometimes wholly repugnant to them. Both Einstein and Newton created syntheses and insight so compelling and so grand that they induced in professional philosophers a great stir of not always convenient readjustment. Yet the belief in physical progress, the bright gaiety, and the relative indifference to religion characteristic of the enlightenment, were as foreign to Newton's character and preoccupation as could be; this did not keep the men of the enlightenment from regarding Newton as their patron and prophet. The philosophers and popularizers who have mistaken relativity for the doctrine of relativism have construed Einstein's great works as reducing the objectivity, firmness, and consonance to law of the physical world, whereas it is clear that Einstein has seen in his theories of relativity only a further confirmation of Spinoza's view that it is man's highest function to know and to understand the objective world and its laws.

Often the very fact that the words of science are the same as those of our common life and tongue can be more misleading than enlightening, more frustrating to understanding than recognizably technical jargon. For the words of science — relativity, if you will, or atom, or mutation, or action — have been given a refinement, a precision, and in the end a wholly altered meaning.

Thus we may well be cautious if we inquire as to whether there are direct connections, and if so of what sort, between the truths that science uncovers and the way men think about things in general — their metaphysics — their ideas about what is real and what is primary; their epistemology — their understanding of what makes human knowledge; their ethics — their ways of thinking, talking, judging, and acting in human problems of right and wrong, of good and evil.

These relations, the relations between scientific findings and man's general views, are indeed deep, intimate, and subtle. If I did not believe that, I should hardly be addressing these lectures to an attempt to elucidate what there is new in atomic physics that is relevant, helpful, and inspiring for men to know; but the relations are not, I think, relations of logical necessity. This is because science itself is, if not an unmetaphysical, at least a non-metaphysical activity. It takes common sense for granted as well as most of what has gone before in the specialized sciences. And where it adds, alters, or upsets, it does so on the basis of an uncritical acceptance of a great deal else. Thus, to the irritation of many, the assertions of science tend to keep away from the use of words like "real" and "ultimate." The special circumstances of the discovery of scientific truth are never very far from our minds when we expound it, and they act as a protecting sheath against their unlimited and universal acceptance. A few illustrations may make this clearer.

We have discovered atoms. In many ways they act like the atoms of the atomists. They are the stuff of which matter is made; their constellation and motion account for much — in fact, for most of the ordinarily observable properties of matter. But neither they nor the smaller, less composite particles of which they are made are either permanent, unchanging, or unchangeable. They do not act like objects of fixed form and infinite hardness. Such findings may be persuasive in discouraging the view that the world is made of fixed, immutable, infinitely hard little spheres and other shapes; but such findings are not in the nature of things conclusive, for one may always hold that the true atoms, the immutable, hard atoms, have so far eluded physical discovery, but that they are nevertheless there, and only when they are found will physics be dealing with the ultimate reality. Beyond that, one can hold that, although they may never be found by physical experiment, they are the underlying reality in terms of which all else, including the world of physics, is to be understood.

Or, again, we may have discovered that as the nervous impulses pass from the retina of the eye toward the brain itself their geometric disposition resembles less and less that of the object seen. This may complicate or qualify the view that the idea is a geometric replica of the object of vision. It cannot and need not wholly exorcise it.

The scientist may be aware that, whatever his findings, and indeed whatever his field of study, his search for truth is based on communication with other people, on agreement as to results of observation and experiment, and on talking in a common tongue about the instruments and apparatus and objects and procedures which he and others use. He may be aware of the fact that he has learned almost everything he knows from the books and the deeds and talk of other people; and, in so far as these experiences are vivid to him and he is a thoughtful man, he may be hesitant to think that only his own consciousness is real and all else illusion. But that view, too, is not by logic exorcised; from time to time it may rule his spirit.

Although any science gives countless examples of the interrelation of general law and changing phenomena, and although the progress of science has much to do with the enrichment of these relations, knowledge of science and practice of it and interest in it neither compel nor deny the belief that the changing phenomena of the actual world are illusion, that only the unchanging and permanent ideas are real.

If, in the atomic world, we have learned — as we have learned — that events are not causally determined by a strict, efficient, or formal cause; if we have learned to live with this and yet to recognize that for all of the common experience with ordinary bodies and ordinary happenings this atomic lack of causality is of no consequence and no moment, neither the one finding nor the other ensures that men when they think of the world at large are bound to a causal or a non-causal way of thinking.

These many examples show that there can indeed be conflict between the findings of science and what a philosopher or a school of philosophy has said in great particular about some part of experience now accessible to science. But they also show that, if there are relationships between what the sciences reveal about the world and how men think about those parts of it either not yet or never to be explored by science, these are not relationships of logical necessity; they are not relationships which are absolute and compelling, and they are not of such a character that the unity and coherence of an intellectual community can be based wholly upon it.

But if these examples indicate, as we should indeed expect from the nature and conditions of scientific inquiry, that what science finds does not and cannot uniquely determine what men think of as real and as important, they must show as well that there is a kind of relevance — a relevance which will appear different to different men and which will be responsive to many influences outside the work of science. This relevance is a kind of analogy, often of great depth and scope, in which views which have been created or substantiated in some scientific enterprise are similar to those which might be held with regard to metaphysical, epistemological, political, or ethical problems. The success of a critical and sceptical approach in science may encourage a sceptical approach in politics or in ethics; the discovery of an immensely successful theory of great scope may encourage the quest for a simplified view of human institutions. The example of rapid progress in understanding may lead men to conclude that the root of evil is ignorance and that ignorance can be ended.

All these things have happened and all surely will happen again. This means that, if we are to take heart from any beneficent influence that science may have for the common understanding, we need to do so both with modesty and with a full awareness that these relationships are not inevitably and inexorably for man's good.

It is my thesis that generally the new things we have learned in science, and specifically what we have learned in atomic physics, do provide us with valid and relevant and greatly needed analogies to human problems lying outside the present domain of science or its present borderlands. Before I talk of what is new I shall need to sketch, with perhaps an exaggerated simplicity and contrast, the state of knowledge and belief to which these correctives may apply. In doing this, we may have in mind that the general notions about human understanding and community which are illustrated by discoveries in atomic physics are not in the nature of things wholly unfamiliar, wholly unheard of, or new. Even in our own culture they have a history, and in Buddhist and Hindu thought a more considerable and central place. What we shall find is an exemplification, an encouragement, and a refinement of old wisdom. We shall not need to debate whether, so altered, it is old or new.

There are, then, two sketches that I would like to draw of the background for the altered experience of this century. One is the picture of the physical world that began to take shape in the years between Descartes' birth and Newton's death, that persisted through the eighteenth century, and with immense enrichments and extensions still was the basic picture at the beginning of our own.

The second sketch has to do with the methods, the hopes, the program, and the style which seventeenth- and eighteenth-century science induced in men of learning and in men of affairs, with some of the special traits of that period of enlightenment which we recognize today as so deep in our tradition, as both so necessary to us and so inadequate.

More than one great revolution had ended and had been almost forgotten as the seventeenth century drew its picture of the physical world. A centuries-long struggle to decide whether it were rest or uniform motion that was the normal state of an undisturbed body no longer troubled men's minds: the great clarity, so foreign to everyday experience, that motion, as long as it was uniform, needed no cause and no explaining was Newton's first law. The less deep but far more turbulent Copernican revolution was history: the earth revolved about the sun. The physical world was matter in motion: the motion was to be understood in terms of the impetus or momentum of the bodies which would change only for cause, and of the force that was acting upon it to cause that change. This force was immediate and proximate. It produced a tendency for the impetus to change, and every course could be analyzed in terms of the forces deviating bodies from their uniform motions. The physical world was a world of differential law, a world connecting forces and motions at one point and at one instant with those at an infinitely near point in space and point of time; so that the whole course of the physical world could be broken down into finer and finer instants, and in each the cause of change assigned by a knowledge of forces.

Of these forces themselves the greatest in cosmic affairs — that which governed the planets in the heavens and the fall of projectiles on earth — had been found by Newton in the general law of gravity. Was this, too, something that spread from place to place, that was affected only instant by instant, point by point; or was it a property given as a whole, an interaction somehow ordained to exist between bodies remote from one another? Newton was never to answer this question; but he, and even more than he, Huygens, studying the propagation of light, were laying the foundations for a definite view — a view in which the void of the atomists would lose much of its emptiness and take on properties from the bodies which inhabited it, which in turn would affect bodies far away.

It was not until the nineteenth century and Faraday that the full richness of space began to be understood: how it could be the seat not only of gravitational forces produced by the mass of material particles but of electric and magnetic forces produced by their charges. Even in Newton's day it was clear that there were very strong forces at work in lending to material objects their solidity. Newton wrote:

It seems probable to me, that God in the Beginning form'd Matter in solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, moveable Particles, of such Sizes and Figures, and with such other Properties and in such Proportion to Space, as most conduced to the End for which he formed them; and that these primitive Particles being Solids, are incomparably harder than any porous Bodies compounded of them; even so very hard, as never to wear or break in pieces; no ordinary Power being able to divide what God himself made one in the first Creation.

Newton saw that what held atoms together and made matter must be forces of inordinate strength, and he never considered their existence without a sense of mystery and awe. He did not know, nor do we today know, in what subtle way these forces might or might not be related to the forces of gravity.

But for many of his contemporaries and successors these questions appeared less pressing than the confidence that, once given the forces, the course of nature could be foretold and that, where the laws of gravity could be found, other forces would yield to observation and analysis. It is only in this century that we have begun to come to grips with other instances of antinomy, the apparent irreconcilability between the differential description of nature, point by point, instant to instant, and the total unique law and event. It is only in this century that we have had to recognize how unexpected and unfamiliar that relation between bodies and the atoms on the one hand, and that space full of light and electricity and gravitational forces on the other, could prove to be.


Excerpted from Atom and Void by J. Robert Oppenheimer. Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. v
  • Preface, pg. vii
  • CHAPTER ONE. Newton: The Path of Light, pg. 3
  • CHAPTER TWO. Science as Action: Rutherford's World, pg. 16
  • CHAPTER THREE. A Science in Change, pg. 28
  • CHAPTER FOUR. Atom and Void in the Third Millennium, pg. 40
  • CHAPTER FIVE. Uncommon Sense, pg. 52
  • CHAPTER SIX. The Sciences and Man's Community, pg. 64
  • CHAPTER SEVEN. The Open Mind, pg. 76
  • CHAPTER EIGHT. Space and Time, pg. 85
  • CHAPTER NINE. Atom and Field, pg. 113
  • CHAPTER TEN. War and the Nations, pg. 133
  • Appendix I, pg. 143
  • Appendix II, pg. 154
  • Acknowledgments, pg. 157

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