One Cubit the More

Jeremy Bernstein · Remembering Oppenheimer

With the death of Stephen Hawking and the discussion it produced on black holes it was a little surprising that there was little or no mention of the man who created the subject, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who died in 1967 at the age of 62. He often said that the J stood for nothing, but I have a copy of his birth certificate on which his first name is given as ‘Julius’. In his day Oppenheimer was the most celebrated physicist in the United States. His portrait had been on the cover of Time magazine and he was on first-name terms with much of the Washington establishment, until he lost his security clearance in 1954.

It was said by people who had known him before that the experience changed him profoundly and he appeared diminished. He did not appear diminished to me when when I arrived at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 1957 and was ushered into his office. The first thing he asked me was what was ‘new and firm’ in physics. I was spared trying to give an answer when his phone rang. It was from his wife. ‘It was Kitty,’ he said when he hung up. ‘She has been drinking again.’

Oppenheimer did probably his most notable piece of physics in 1939 with his student Hartland Snyder. They invented black holes, although the name was coined decades later by John Wheeler. The subject got its start in 1916 when the German astronomer Karl Schwarzschild, serving on the Russian Front, found an exact solution to Einstein’s gravitational equations for a symmetric spherical mass. But the Schwarzschild solution appears to have a problem: at the surface of the sphere, the solutions appear to blow up – the Schwarzschild ‘singularity’. Much later it was shown that this is not a real singularity but an artifact of the way Schwarzschild wrote his solution. But it was enough to convince Einstein that the solution was unphysical and he wrote a paper showing that particles moving around a circle with the Schwarzschild radius had to move faster than the speed of light.

Oppenheimer and Snyder asked what would happen if you had a mass large enough for the sphere to collapse. What would this look like from the outside? They noted that a clock attached to the surface of the sphere would appear to an external observer to be moving slower and slower until at the Schwarzschild surface it froze. This is what happens when neutron stars collapse into black holes. Oppenheimer and Snyder noted that no radiation can escape from the interior of a collapsed sphere. At the time they wrote their paper this was pure speculation, but it was the received wisdom until the work of Hawking.

After war broke out, theoretical physics was put on hold for the atomic bomb and not really resumed until after the war. In 1947 Oppenheimer was made the director of the Institute at Princeton.

Along with his father’s money he had inherited two Van Goghs, one of which was in the living room in his house. As I was leaving his office he gave me a vague invitation to visit to look at the painting; I later saw it at a party at his house. He was a man of fashion. During the winter he wore a Loden coat made for him by the Princeton bespoke tailor Langrock. The owner, Mr Decker, if he knew you were from the Institute, would show you an autographed picture of Oppenheimer.

He was also a man of fashion in physics. Freeman Dyson has described how Oppenheimer almost reduced him to tears in a seminar when he tried to explain Feynman diagrams. They were not yet fashionable – and until Hawking, black holes weren’t fashionable either. Wheeler once told me that when he tried to discuss them with Oppenheimer, he simply turned his back and walked away.

In my second year at the Institute, a little tired of physics, I was summoned to Oppenheimer’s office for a ‘confessional’. He asked me what I had been doing. I said I was reading Proust. He said that when he was my age he had taken a bicycle trip on Corsica and every night read Proust by flashlight.

After I left the Institute and was living in New York, Oppenheimer came to town. Mal Ruderman, who taught at Columbia, called me to say that Oppie was asking everyone if they knew the source of the phrase ‘One Cubit the More’, which he was using as the title for a lecture he was about to give. I had no idea but I called Robert Merton, who identified the passage in the New Testament. That evening I went to the Algonquin for a drink. An elevator door opened and there were Oppenheimer and his wife. Without even saying hello he said: ‘Your father is a rabbi so you should know where “One Cubit the More” comes from.’ He had the wrong testament for my father, but I immediately gave the answer. He looked at me very strangely. I never explained.


  • 16 May 2018 at 2:43am
    jrsm says:
    I have nothing intelligent to say, but I could read articles like this all day. Thank you.

    • 25 May 2018 at 1:12am
      iago says: @ jrsm

  • 16 May 2018 at 5:30am
    farthington says:
    This vignette has made my day, given that the media has only horror stories.
    Exploding matter for the average brain.
    Years ago I saw a marvellous documentary on Oppenheimer.
    I have perennially wished some outfit would resurrect it.

  • 16 May 2018 at 10:47am
    AndrewL says:
    In case anyone else is looking for the original Bible verse, as I was, I think it is Matthew 6:27: "Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit to his stature?"

    This became Oppenheimer's talk "The Added Cubit"; I believe Ray Monk wrote about it at some length in his recent biography of Oppenheimer.

    • 16 May 2018 at 12:54pm
      Jeremy Bernstein says: @ AndrewL
      I have made this mistake before but I appear be incorrigible. It is The Added Cubit and I thank the attentive readers for noting it. Monk's bio is the best. He picked what is left of my brain.

    • 16 May 2018 at 3:46pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Jeremy Bernstein
      I am wondering what the topic of the talk “One Cubit More” was? Without performing an exegesis of the New Testament text (for which I’m not really qualified), I can think of an application of the saying in a scientific talk, that is, alluding to the fact that modern science is the product of a collective effort over the centuries. When it comes to physics no one can claim to have added a cubit to his own stature, standing, as he is, “on the shoulders of giants”. Some might disagree with this by pointing to breakthroughs in systematic understanding of the world made by individuals like Newton or Maxwell or Einstein or Bohr. Did Oppenheimer make any remarks like this in the talk?

    • 16 May 2018 at 5:07pm
      Jeremy Bernstein says: @ Timothy Rogers
      I did not give the title correctly. It was The Added Cubit. That was the talk he gave the night I met him accidentally in the lobby of the Hotel Algonquin. He gave the talk to the National Book Awards ceremony and it was published in Encunter. I no longer remember the content.

    • 16 May 2018 at 11:42pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Jeremy Bernstein
      Here is the link to the talk, which was published in the August 1963 issue of Encounter. It is really about intellectual modesty and clarity about ourselves (especially in trying to understand our inner demons and impulses toward arbitrary classifications of others that might lead to catastrophe in human affairs). The quote from the Gospel of Matthew leads off the essay’s final paragraph, which ends with some combination of rue and hope. My first stab at exegesis was way off the mark, one of those ‘educated guesses’ that proves to be profoundly ignorant.

      The scrolling down function on this site is a little finicky, but keep playing with it and you will get to read the three pages plus a little bit more of the essay.

    • 17 May 2018 at 11:10am
      AndrewL says: @ Timothy Rogers
      Thank you for the link, Timothy. I must admit, I had naively assumed it would be a "shoulders of giants" talk too, but it is so much better than that. Some unexpected resonances with the current political situation in the US. It should be republished.

      Given the last paragraph above - Jeremy knowing the source of the title - the last paragraph of Oppenheimer's talk is priceless. (For those who have not read it, an official of the National Book Committee did not recognize the source. "From what book is that?" he asked.)

    • 17 May 2018 at 4:13pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ AndrewL
      Yes, the talk (or essay) was a deliberative, thoughtful one. The cubit is used as a quantitative measure to indicate the amount of scientific knowledge added from the Renaissance forward in the West - but, from the point of view of humane outcomes, this knowledge has not really increased humanity's stature in wisdom. I think that's the idea behind using the quote from Matthew.

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