The Mind-Wandering of Oppenheimer
Why we should be promiscuous in our love of ideas.
One of the ironies of Robert Oppenheimer’s life is that his legacy rests on a single scientific achievement while his route to that achievement – directed and redirected by his eclectic curiosity along the way – was anything but narrow. “The notion,” he once recalled, “that I was travelling down a clear track would be wrong.”
We know Oppenheimer now as the father of the atom bomb, a titan of physics – but physics was the last thing he mastered in his education. He was so far behind in his knowledge of the field that when he enrolled at Harvard University he’d never even taken an elementary physics course. His biographers Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, in American Prometheus, describe his approach to learning physics as “haphazard”, with Oppenheimer focusing on advanced “interesting” problems and “bypassing the dreary basics”.
In fact, the young Oppenheimer didn’t decide to pursue physics until the end of his freshman year. Up to that point, his interests indicated that he might become a philosopher, a classicist, or a historian; he even dabbled in poetry that, while far from the achievements of his revered T. S. Eliot, were not the embarrassing kind of lines usually penned by adolescent poets. His curiosity was so wide-ranging and his proficiency so expansive that he easily met Susan Sontag’s idea of a great writer: “someone interested in everything.”
Cross-disciplinary interest has been key to the genius of many of history’s great figures. By contrast, the partitioning of learning and the deepening moats between disciplines are direct counters to the life of the mind. Milan Kundera wrote (in Linda Asher’s translation) that as we advance “into the tunnels of the specialized disciplines”, the less clearly do we see “the world as a whole”, and we sink further into what “Heidegger called, in a beautiful and almost magical phrase, ‘the forgetting of being’.”
There is a common fear that intellectual versatility leads to distraction or thinness of thought. Oppenheimer’s friend Paul Dirac – for whom science was everything and the humanities were, at best, a footnote – couldn’t understand why a scientist would bother with art and poetry. When Oppenheimer learned that two friends were reading Dante in the original Italian, he vanished from his social life for a month; on returning, he’d taught himself enough Italian to recite Dante aloud. Dirac merely grumbled that his friend was wasting his time on “trash”.
Dirac sincerely feared that his friend was squandering his great talent as a scientist. He failed to see that, for Oppenheimer, those interests seemingly unrelated to physics all nourished each other, including his science. A catholic sense of curiosity often allows people to climb higher up their particular ladder. The true polymath is not the complacent jack of all trades, settling for average proficiency in a variety of disciplines. Instead, he excels at his primary purpose while buttressing it with all he learns from other pursuits. If nothing else, having some other project to work on prevents burnout caused by a narrow focus.
There is a little of Dirac in every teacher who complains about daydreaming in class, never realising that a child’s daydreaming may be among the most important thinking she does all day. Accusations of such mental truancy in the classroom plagued Marcus Raichle, who would go on to become a neuroscientist and discover what he termed “the default mode network” in the brain. This is the part that becomes active when the mind wanders. And it is anything but lazy or incidental to the kind of focused thinking it is erroneously said to prevent. Johann Hari, author of Stolen Focus, explains:
“When you read a book [...] you obviously focus on the individual words and sentences, but there’s always a bit of your mind that is wandering. You are thinking about how these words relate to your own life. You are thinking about how these sentences relate to what I said in previous chapters. You are thinking about what I might say next. [...] This isn’t a flaw in your reading. This is reading.”
Subsequent studies have shown that mind-wandering promotes organisation, the pursuit of specific goals, creativity, and healthy decision-making. This is counter to the work ethic that dominates Western productivity, which insists on exhausting oneself through narrowly focused work. Time spent mind-wandering counts against the work day, when in reality it ought to be encouraged as part of a healthy, holistic approach to achieving one’s goals. The same is ultimately true of an eclectic intellectual life, which in almost all cases produces more lively, interesting, and original work than what comes out of a myopic obsession with a single idea.
Sadly, enforced blinkering and the segregation of intellectual pursuits is endemic in our society. In most cases, it engenders only boredom with the thing we are commanded to focus on, while poisoning us against the general activity itself. This is most clear in the way reading is circumscribed by categorisations created by school bodies or, worse, marketing teams. The reductive practice of siloing our reading (and discouraging the meandering pursuit of curiosity) necessarily diminishes us because, as Alberto Manguel wrote, “our reading, much like our sexuality, is multifaceted and fluid”.
I recently had the joy of being in a bookshop and listening to a ten-year-old boy talking to a bookseller about how much he was enjoying reading Stephen King’s It. School administrators and interfering parents would deem the novel too long, too advanced, and too adult for a kid his age. But I rarely hear kids get as excited as he was about reading, and no doubt this had much to do with the freedom he’d been granted to read what he liked. As C. S. Lewis put it:
“The neat sorting-out of books into age-groups, so dear to publishers, has only a very sketchy relation with the habits of any real reader.”
The deepest readers are also those who read the most widely. The best minds allow themselves the freedom to engage curiosity not as an insistent child to be humoured but a guide to be followed into original works and new relations between distant concepts. Such intellectual polyamory comes from (and in turn deepens) an intense love of ideas. Of the young Oppenheimer who read Homer in Greek and Horace in Latin, who conducted laboratory experiments in third grade, and who gave a lecture to the New York Mineralogical Club at the age of twelve, one teacher said, “He received every new idea as perfectly beautiful.” Reading this, I was reminded of what Michael Scammell wrote about author and journalist Arthur Koestler:
“For Koestler, ideas were never just intellectual playthings but part of his life’s blood, more palpable to him than most of the humans around him. His intellectual nerve endings were so finely tuned that he experienced the onset of fresh ideas like orgasms, and mourned their passing as the end of treasured love affairs.”
There’s much to be said in favour of monogamy, but not all loves flourish with singular attention. The love of ideas should be profligate in its pursuit, open-minded in its courtship, and immune to jealousy. The model of intellectual and creative genius provided by the likes of Oppenheimer and Koestler is one whose fidelity is only to reason, the use of which leads us into great love affairs with a multiplicity of ideas. Dirac worried that Oppenheimer was wasting his time on “trash” such as music and paintings, but it’s a far greater waste of a mind to force its attention down a narrow path. The world is wide, so let your mind wander.
• American Prometheus, Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin (2005)
• The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera (trans. Linda Asher, 1988) (1968)
• Stolen Focus, Johann Hari (2022)
• Through the Looking-Glass Wood, Alberto Manguel (1999)
• Of Other Worlds, C. S. Lewis (1966)