Whitehead and Oppenheimer

A page of Whitehead’s grading notebook showing his seminary students for 1924–25. (click to enlarge)

With the recent release of Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer, it seems an appropriate time to write a brief note about Whitehead’s relationship with the father of the atomic bomb. The short version is that Oppenheimer attended Whitehead’s seminars—called “seminaries” at the time—as a twenty-year-old undergraduate during Whitehead’s first year at Harvard. His name can be seen in Whitehead’s grading notebook (see image above).

The Reports of the President and Treasurer of Harvard College for 1924–25 list the number of students attending Whitehead’s two seminars:

Key: Gr.=Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; Se.=Senior; Ju.=Junior, R.=Radcliffe College; G.E.=Graduate School of Education.

Whitehead’s grading notebook doesn’t quite reflect these numbers. He records twelve names instead of thirteen for the Seminary in Metaphysics (along with “Visitors ±5”); the missing name is likely the Radcliffe student, since Whitehead typically prefaced their names in his notebook with “Miss” or “Mrs.” Meanwhile, he does not list any names at all for the Seminary in Logic, though he does give grades for Oppenheimer and Baylis in a second column.

At least one book claims that these were the only two students in attendance,[1] which does not square with the report above that says it drew six graduate students; then again, Oppenheimer was an undergraduate and the report does not list any undergraduates, so it is inaccurate in at least this one respect, and possibly in others.

A 1968 letter from Charles A. Baylis to Victor Lowe seems to give a somewhat clearer picture. Several graduate students had approached Whitehead at the beginning of his first fall term to ask if he might teach a course on Principia Mathematica. Whitehead decided to make it a topic—or at least one of the topics—of his spring seminary. These took place once a week on Friday evenings from 7:30–9:30pm at Whitehead’s home rather than a classroom. They covered ★1 to ★5, or the first 37 out of some 2,000 pages, and may have skipped around to some other portions of it. Baylis and Oppenheimer are the only students whom we know were in attendance; Whitehead’s colleagues in the department Henry M. Sheffer and Ralph M. Eaton also attended, while C. I. Lewis—the other noted mathematical logician at Harvard, along with Whitehead and Sheffer—did not.[2]

That Oppenheimer was a little intimidated by Whitehead is evidenced by his statement in a letter to a friend that “I have got to debate with Whitehead at the Seminar next week, and am already trembling.”[3]

In a 1962 letter to Bertrand Russell congratulating him on his 90th birthday, Oppenheimer wrote:

It is almost forty years ago that we worked through the Principia Mathematica with Whitehead at Harvard. He had largely forgotten, so that he was the perfect teacher, both master and student. I remember how often he would pause with a smile before a sequence of theorems and say to us: ‘That was a point Bertie always liked.’ For all the years of my life I have thought of this phrase whenever some high example of intelligence, some humanity, or some rare courage and nobility has come our way.[4]

Finally, a letter from Oppenheimer to Whitehead’s biographer, Victor Lowe, dated January 10, 1967, stated that Whitehead

gave a seminar on the Principia, and we worked through it at a pace which was both breakneck and shambling. From time to time he would come to a theorem which puzzled him, and typically he would say, “Well, that was one of Bertie’s ideas.” I learned a lot from him, perhaps more than I needed to know of mathematical logic and a little, for one never knows enough, of the greatness of the human spirit.[5]

Lowe sent a follow-up letter with a number of questions to Oppenheimer on February 15 which would never be answered, as Oppenheimer died of throat cancer three days later.

[1] Monk, Ray, Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center (New York: Anchor Books, 2012), 84.

[2] Lowe, Victor, Alfred North Whitehead: The Man and His Work, Volume II: 1910–1947 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 147.

[3] Hunner, Jon, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Cold War, and the Atomic West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009), 27.

[4] Monk, Ray, Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center (New York: Anchor Books, 2012), 84.

[5] Lowe, Victor, Alfred North Whitehead: The Man and His Work, Volume II: 1910–1947 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 147.

How to cite this blog: Petek, Joseph. “Whitehead and Oppenheimer.”