In his review of the biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin) James Gleick captures in superb fashion the fate of many angst-ridden human beings:

When he returned to become a professor at Berkeley, he was already known as America's most brilliant young physicist. He became the first to predict the existence of antimatter, which he realized by dint of imagination and calculation should exist; and he did groundbreaking work on neutron stars decades before astronomers were actually able to observe any. Somehow, though, he always managed to fall short of solving the greatest problems. Bird and Sherwin aptly describe him as "a productive dilettante." His near-contemporary, the physicist I.I. Rabi (whose strong, moral voice runs throughout this book), once said, "God knows I'm not the simplest person, but compared to Oppenheimer, I'm very, very simple." Oppenheimer was the sort of person who studied the Bhagavad Gita in the original Sanskrit and gave clever names to his automobiles (Gamaliel, Garuda and later Bombsight). He had strong social and political convictions, identified himself with communists and communism, supported labor organizers and contributed money to Spanish republicans fighting the fascists.

He never did win a Nobel Prize. The authors suggest that his role as bomb-maker may have been weighed against him, but perhaps Rabi's judgment—that the very greatest achievement in physics eluded him—is more to the point: "His interest in religion . . . resulted in a feeling for the mystery of the universe that surrounded him almost like a fog. He saw physics clearly . . . but at the border he tended to feel that there was much more of the mysterious and the novel than there actually was. He was insufficiently confident of the power of the intellectual tools he already possessed and did not drive his thought to the very end." He finished other physicists' papers when they were stuck. He possessed exquisite taste in selecting problems. With hindsight, we can see that he was meant to be an inspirer, organizer and perfecter of scientists—and a leader.

In a nutshell: "to fall short" because of feeling "insufficiently confident". One doesn't have to be a scientist, or a genius, or an academic to feel that way about one's life. (At an infinitely less exalted level, I certainly see myself there.) Perhaps it's part of the explanation for the relative dearth of certain genders (or racial groups, or other subcultures) in a variety of endeavors.

Or maybe the diagnosis itself is wrong, and the key constraint on many careers is not insufficient self-confidence but rather sensible realism about one's chances to do something off-the-charts—and thus a rational decision not to gamble and, most probably, waste one's time on earth in pursuit of a dramatic long-shot triumph?

(Gleick's essay titled "Fallout" appeared in the Washington Post "Book World" on 2005-04-10; cf. JonMathews (1999-04-25), ShootTheMoon (1999-12-29), ProdesseQuamConspici (2005-05-23), ... )

TopicProfiles - TopicScience - TopicLiterature - 2005-06-14

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