Oppenheimer: ‘Philosopher-Scientist-Statesman’

J. Robert Oppenheimer “was widely known not just for his scientific success but for his remarkably wide-ranging knowledge of the humanities [,…] an extraordinary combination…”, says Ashutosh Jogalekar in his 8th and final post about Oppie over at 3 Quarks Daily (2023). Why do I start with this quote? I think it alludes to an important lesson for our time. I explain in less than 700 words below.

A Specialist With Generalist Capabilities

Interdisciplinarity is cited as a reason Oppenheimer was recruited as Director of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study after the Manhattan Project (in Jogalekar’s 8th post about the man on 3 Quarks Daily). Although he supplemented his scientific knowledge with many non-English languages and non-scientific texts, Oppenheimer was as critical about Arts and Letters as he was about Science.

“Oppenheimer wanted to greatly expand the mandate of [Princeton’s] institute, and along with mathematicians and physicists, he started inviting historians, archeologists, poets, writers and psychologists for short terms. […] Oppenheimer was particularly delighted to invite T.S. Eliot, one of the greatest literary talents of the 20th century […]. But Oppenheimer was disappointed when all Eliot wrote during his tenure was ‘The Cocktail Party’ which Oppenheimer considered the worst thing the poet had ever written.”

Jogalekar (2023) – 3 Quarks Daily

Despite his wide-ranging interests, science seemed primary for Oppenheimer. And his colleagues at the institute seemed to appreciate that. When its biggest names (Einstein, Gödel, and many others) defended Oppenheimer’s Directorship in the face of criticism, they praised his broad interest in science (and his patriotism); not his broad interests in the arts. As the author of the 3 Quarks Daily series puts it, “As important as Oppenheimer’s appointments in the humanities were in expanding the institute’s allure, physics came first.”

Part of a letter from Princeton’s IAS in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

However, Oppenheimer rarely if ever published a scientific paper in his two decades as Director of the institute. If it wasn’t scientific papers that secured his position, what was it? In addition to being well connected to power, he was outstandingly skilled at clarifying, correcting, and communicating the logic of scientific hypotheses, evidence, and theory. A colleague attributed “the ascendancy of Oppenheimer” to his “analysis (often caustic) of nearly every argument, that magnificent English …, the dry humor, the perpetually-recurring comment that one idea or another (including some of his own) was certainly wrong…” (Jogalekar 2023). Don’t mistake this eloquence for social virtue. The 3 Quarks Daily posts often describe Oppenheimer as a colossal jerk: “notoriously rude and impatient …, often cutting off [presenters] or telling them that they were speaking nonsense. …he missed important cues” (ibid.).

A Lesson: Don’t Underrate Logic or Communication

The cross-disciplinary explanation of Oppenheimer’s ascendancy reveals an important lesson for the era of STEM, coding, and data science. Although Oppenheimer was a respected scientist, he did not seem to be the most accomplished scientist of his time—Oppenheimer never won a Nobel prize unlike many of his colleagues. What people seemed to value about Oppenheimer was his ability to bring together experts and help reveal the logical paths from their combined knowledge to scientific and technological progress. So Oppenheimer’s esteem was not rooted in STEM or theoretical rigor alone but also in Oppenheimer’s facility with critical thinking and communication. What made Oppenheimer the kind of person that smart and powerful people respected was that he was the “kind of philosopher-scientist-statesman that his hero Niels Bohr had been.”

Disclaimer. The point is not that STEM majors should become philosophy majors—that’s certainly not the path Oppenheimer chose. Instead, I am proposing that excellence in STEM requires more than just STEM skills; it also requires skills that are usually taught in Logic, Critical Thinking, and many Humanities courses. Of course, those skills can be learned outside classrooms (especially given how much is in the public domain). So the point is that ambitious STEM majors would do well to supplement their training with plenty of Critical Thinking, Logic, and related topics—formally or informally. This is more or less what I tell the STEM students who tell me they are thinking of changing to their major to philosophy because they find Logic and Ethics courses more interesting than their major courses. The critical thinking and communication that I teach in my courses will definitely help STEM students stand out from the rest, but only if they also get STEM skills and credentials. So these STEM students should probably remain STEM students, but they should keep studying things like Logic and Ethics as a hobby, as elective courses, or—at most—as a second major.

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog