David Hecht, an assistant professor of history, has connected his teaching interests and personal research in the publication of “Storytelling and Science: Rewriting Oppenheimer in the Nuclear Age.” Released this past spring, his book uses physicist Robert Oppenheimer as a way to explore public perceptions of science, a common theme throughout many of his courses at Bowdoin. 

Hecht discussed his book on Tuesday during a book release event for students and faculty.
Oppenheimer was famous during World War II for his work on the atomic bomb. While claims that he was a member of the Communist party affected his position in the U.S. government, his popular public image did not seem to be tarnished by these allegations.

While he uses this information to build a story on Oppenheimer, Hecht stresses that his book is not a biography of the physicist.

“The book isn’t really about him...the book is about his cultural image,” said Hecht. “I’m interested in public images of science, so the question is what can we learn about public attitude through science by looking at the life and career of this one guy.”

Hecht has always been interested in the physicists of the Nuclear Age—he is currently teaching a course titled “The Nuclear Age.” After accumulating general knowledge about this time period, Hecht spent around two years researching and writing his book.

Over the course of his research, Hecht discovered new aspects of Oppenheimer that surprised him, particularly about his personality.

“I started out admiring him in some way,” said Hecht. “I wouldn’t say that I’ve gone all the way to the other side, but you learn about the less savory aspects of people’s careers.”

These “less savory” aspects include Oppenheimer’s arrogant and sometimes caustic behavior towards his peers. These traits were perhaps covered up by his somewhat mythical public image.

Similarly, many Oppenheimer supporters say that the accusations of him being a Communist were unfounded, but Hecht’s research seems to indicate otherwise.

“During the course of the research, I found a couple of scholars and people at the time who were making an argument that he very well may have been [a member of the party],” said Hecht. “That is a more compelling argument than I thought it was going to be.”

This semester, Hecht has been able to apply his book research to his Nuclear Age class. This research allowed him to further his understanding of some of the nuances of Oppenheimer’s story.

“What I would say [before writing the book] wasn’t exactly wrong, but there are some really interesting subtleties and connections that I can now make in class that I wouldn’t have been able to make before,” said Hecht.

Dallas Denery, chair of the history department, finds that this combination of teaching and research is important for maintaining the Bowdoin history department’s high standards. However, he feels the research aspect of teaching often goes unnoticed by students.

“I think it’s important for the students to see both sides of the faculty and to see how important the research is even for the teaching side,” said Denery.

Hecht’s book allows students a view into professors’ out-of-class work. While Bowdoin students will most likely not be reading “Storytelling and Science” in their classes, many are still excited by Hecht’s work.

“When you think about [World War II], [the atomic bomb] is one of the more contentious topics that still has immediate relevance to what we are dealing with today,” said Conner Lovett ’19, a student in Hecht’s Nuclear Age class.

“Storytelling and Science: Rewriting Oppenheimer in the Nuclear Age” is on sale in the Bowdoin Bookstore.