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What did Robert Oppenheimer say about scientists' drive to get results?
June 14, 2014 9:10 AM   Subscribe

I read a while ago a quote from Oppenheimer that eloquently expressed the idea that once a scientist gets in his or her head the idea that a result is achievable, he or she will not be stopped until that result is achieved. He referred to the scientist, though the sense in which he meant the term might better map to what many consider an engineer.

Oppenheimer said or wrote this in the context of the Manhattan Project, I believe, providing perspective on the mind of a scientist that, say, was just exposed to the idea of the possibility of building an atom bomb when that scientist realizes that he or she possesses the skills to help make that happen. This quote—to me at least—captured a lot of what's admirable and dangerous about the rage to learn and do in a way that reminded me of Vonnegut's Player Piano.
posted by edw to Science & Nature (6 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
I could be wrong, but I think what you're referring to was Oppenheimer's description of what he called the "technically sweet": "However, it is in my judgment in these things that when you see something that is technically sweet you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb." This is from his testimony at the 1954 Atomic Energy Hearings, which you can read in full in Robert Polenberg's edited collection, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Security Clearance Hearing (quite a lot of it is available on Google Books). It's become a famous phrase for the irresistible excitement of knowing that something is possible and that it's just a question of doing it and working out the consequences later.
posted by deathmarch to epistemic closure at 10:07 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


There's a couple quotes you could be referring to, he opined on that kind of subject frequently...the technically sweet above...or any of these?

"But when you come right down to it, the reason that we did this job is because it was an organic necessity. If you are a scientist you cannot stop such a thing. If you are a scientist you believe that it is good to find out how the world works; that it is good to find out what the realities are; that it is good to turn over to mankind at large the greatest possible power to control the world and to deal with it according to its lights and values." (from a speech at Los Alamos regarding the Manhattan project)

"There is something irreversible about acquiring knowledge; and the simulation of the search for it differs in a most profound way from the reality. "

"[W]e have made a thing, a most terrible weapon, that has altered abruptly and profoundly the nature of the world. We have made a thing that, by all standards of the world we grew up in, is an evil thing. And by doing so, by our participation in making it possible to make these things, we have raised again the question of whether science is good for man, of whether it is good to learn about the world, to try to understand it, to try to control it, to help give to the world of men increased insight, increased power. Because we are scientists, we must say an unalterable yes to these questions; it is our faith and our commitment, seldom made explicit, even more seldom challenged, that knowledge is a good in itself, knowledge and such power as must come with it."
posted by barchan at 10:10 AM on June 14


Oh I forgot one: “It is a profound and necessary truth that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because it was possible to find them.”
posted by barchan at 10:15 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


Possibly are you thinking of the first of Clarke's laws
posted by koolkat at 10:48 AM on June 14


Hi. I'm not an expert on Oppenheimer, but I did write my university senior history thesis on Oppenheimer kinda getting blackballed from the nuclear program after he started being more vocal.

He was an absolutely brilliant scientist. In terms of being a "science manager", Oppenheimer was brilliant as well.

When the manhattan project started a lot do scientists were recruited. A lot. In fact it's almost like their families were recruits as well. These your brilliant scientists were working on something almost sci-fi like back in the 1940s.

Oppenheimer did something which can only be done in crazy-ass sci-fi stuff that will end up changing the world: he made it clear that what they were doing wasn't a 'possibility' it was an 'inevitability'.

When science and research on brand new stuff is done, scientists take on the role that 'this is my hypothesis. But I also understand that there is a possibility that my hypothesis is wrong. After I collect enough data I'll be able to show how my hypothesis could work out...or I'll be able to show how my hypothesis is wrong."

Oppenheimer made it clear to everyone that the a-bomb was totally possible, and the ONLY thing that prevented it from already existing is that nobody had put in the WORK for it.

This is an amazing and radical idea. In terms of science management this is an awesome idea. It's kinda like that wal-mart manager who says something like "I know your dept is understaffed, the lights are out, the store is flooded, all the cash registers are broken, we have no online connection to bentonville, and the customers all have questions about that mistake in the flyer. So just make sure that we reach our sales goal in 3 hours, and that the store is looking spic n span in 4 hours time when your shift ends."

I'm not saying that he was a 'nice' boss or anything, but in terms of producing results, he made sure that everyone knew how important the outcome was, and that the outcome was going to be a result of hard work, not some eureka moment.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:54 AM on June 14


Folks, thank you so much; the "technically sweet" was exactly what I was thinking of. A Both as a creative person and a manager of creative people—I'm a programmer with a liberal arts background—his words exhilarated even as they sobered me to the ramifications of what I create as part of my profession. Thank you again.
posted by edw at 3:41 PM on June 14


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