Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Oppie's languages

Ever wondered where Robert Oppenheimer got the nickname "Oppie" from?

"Only six weeks after his arrival [in Holland, for a series of
lectures], Oppenheimer astonished his peers by giving a lecture in
Dutch, yet another language he had taught himself. His Dutch friends
were so impressed by his spirited delivery that they began calling him
'Opje' -- and affectionate contraction of his last name -- and he
would bear the new nickname for life. His facility with this new
language may have been assisted by a woman. According to the physicist
Abraham Pais, Oppenheimer had an affair with a young Dutch woman named
Suus (Susan)."

The fact that Oppie spoke German may have helped. He has written and
defended his Ph.D. dissertation in German, aged 23, at the University
of Göttingen. After the oral exam for his degree, the examiner said he
was glad the ordeal was over, because Oppenheimer had started asking
the questions.

Here is a passage on Oppie's love of Sanskrit:

"Robert felt himself drawn to both Ryder and the ancient language that
was his friend's vocation. Soon Ryder was giving Oppenheimer private
tutorials in Sanskrit each Thursday evening. 'I am learning Sanskrit,'
Robert wrote Frank [his younger brother], 'enjoying it very much, and
enjoying again the sweet luxury of being taught.' While most of his
friends saw this new obsession as slightly odd, Harold Cherniss -- who
had introduced Oppie to Ryder -- thought it made perfect sense. 'He
liked things that were difficult,' Cherniss said. 'And since almost
every was easy for him, the things that really would attract his
attention were essentially the difficult.' Besides, Oppie had a 'taste
for the mystical, the cryptic.' With his facility for languages, it
wasn't long before Robert was reading the Bhagavad-Gita. 'It is very
easy and quite marvelous,' he wrote Frank. He told friends that this
ancient Hindu text -- 'The Lord's Song' -- was 'the most beautiful
philosophical song existing in any known tongue.' Ryder gave him a
pink-covered copy of the book which found its way onto the bookshelf
closest to his desk. Oppie took to passing out copies of the Gita as
gifts to his friends."

Oppenheimer's greatest linguistic love, however, was the English
language and its literature, a fact that comes through again and again
in Bird and Sherwin's biography. Friends and foes alike were time and
again astounded by Oppenheimer's ability to quote reams and reams of
poetry and to speak, extemporaneously and at great length, with
eloquence, poise, and great powers of persuasion. Not that it did him
any good before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The quotes are from American Prometheus, Kai Bird and Martin J.
Sherwin's biography of Oppenheimer. Because I read this book on a
Kindle, I don't know the page numbers.