“Robert, what the hell’s happening?”
“Give me something to write with.”
Confused but compliant, Professor Yukawa reached into his jacket pocket for a pencil, as the American tore a piece of paper off the memo pad by the apartment phone and sat down on the bed, scribbling out a familiar formula on his knee:
Yukawa leaned over him, gazing down at Schrödinger’s equation describing the dual wave and particle nature of the physical world, amazed again by its elegance and the genius of the man who had discovered it.
“At von Neumann’s funeral I overheard Schrödinger say that he was working towards a unifying theory for intermolecular force,” said Oppenheimer, looking unsettlingly at his friend. Then he wrote another equation:
Yukawa instantly recognized Ernest Lawrence’s renowned formula that had led to the development of the cyclotron. The symbols on the page in front of him had created an innovative cancer treatment and led to the discovery more than a dozen new elements of the periodic table. It declared that the frequency of a circling particle held in a magnetic field does not decrease, regardless of the radius of its arc, thus it is possible to accelerate a particle to near light speed by simply increasing the diameter of its orbit.
“Lawrence was a brilliant man,” mused Oppenheimer. “Arrogant as hell and spoiled by the government and unable to admit his mistakes, sure, but brilliant. I remember when his own mother was diagnosed with pelvic cancer in ’38, he secretly brought her to Berkeley and dosed her with the neutron beam from his own cyclotron. She recovered completely and lived another twenty years. Hideki, he told me yesterday that he was on the verge of a breakthrough in leukemia research.”
The Japanese physicist watched with increasing perplexity as his friend scratched down several more formulas relating to Wolfgang Pauli’s exclusion principle and John von Neumann’s axiomatization of quantum mechanics.
“You have a theory,” Yukawa said, looking questioningly at his friend.
Oppenheimer nodded but said nothing.
“Who do you think killed them?”
There was a long pause.
“You’re going to think I’m crazy.”
“I doubt that. You are the sanest man I have ever met.”
“You really want to know who I think did it?”
“The malakh ha-mavet.”
“The angel of death. The monster of the tenth plague that God visited on the pharaoh,” Oppenheimer continued. “The one that killed all the Egyptian firstborn. The one we Jews don’t want to offend by eating leavened bread or vegetables on Passover. According to rabbinic tradition, it has a body covered in eyes that can look into the souls of men, and is accompanied by theLilim, a class of deformed lesser demons.”
Yukawa’s jaw fell slack with disbelief.
“They say that normal human beings cannot see the malakh ha-mavet,” continued Oppenheimer. “That only dogs are able to perceive its presence.”
“Robert,” the Japanese physicist began uncertainly, unsure how to respond.
“I remember one summer when I was very young, I caught a fever that almost killed me. When I was sweating and shaking and threatening to die in my bed, my mother called me by a different name. I remember she called me Samuel, so that the malakh ha-mavet wouldn’t be able to identify me. It’s not uncommon among orthodox Jews. Sometimes they even give their sick children to other families, to trick the angel into thinking he’s gone to the wrong house.”
“I didn’t know you were so orthodox,” said Yukawa.
“I’m not. My mother was. She was descended from Ashkenazis.”
“So, you really think that you are being stalked by a… a supernatural monster?”
Oppenheimer looked sickly, pale. He returned Yukawa’s critical stare with disquieting eyes.
“There is an ancient Jewish curse, known as the pulsa dinura,” he said, “which summons the malakh ha-mavet to come and kill the victim. I think maybe we’ve been…” he paused, looking uncertainly at his friend, “we’ve been cursed.”
Yukawa blinked slowly. “Robert, I find it hard to believe that you are religious,” he declared incredulously. “You might just be the most educated person on the planet…”
“Regarding the limits of human knowledge,” Oppenheimer interjected, finishing the sentence.
“So, if someone has… cursed you,” began Yukawa haltingly, “is there anything you can do to save yourself?”
“It is almost impossible. The pulsa dinura is extremely powerful. According to the Talmud, even the king of the angels is subject to it.”
“But maybe there is one way. It’s called tikkun, literally a rectification, or reparation.”
“A rectification… for what?”
“For all of one’s past sins. It’s a way to make up your sins to god before he takes his vengeance.” Oppenheimer explained.
There was a pause as both men stared at the floor.
“Because of me, science has known sin,” the American muttered. “And I’ve been waiting fifteen years for the retribution I always knew was coming.”
“Retribution for…” began Yukawa uncertainly, “for building the bomb?”
“Not just for building it,” said Oppenheimer, “for discovering it.”
Yukawa stared at him in confusion.
“The Rabbis of ancient times prohibited the study of the ma’asse merkabah, ‘matters of the vehicle of god’,” explained the American. “They were referring to speculations about the structure of the universe. Rabbinic commentaries of the Talmud dating from ancient times are full of warnings about the dangers of such forbidden studies. Rabbi Ben Azzai died suddenly, Rabbi Ben Zoma lost his mind, Elisha ben Abuya fled from the religion and became a raving heretic… The accounts are numerous.”
“And the explanation…” began the Japanese.
“The explanation was that God had become offended by their investigations. That some knowledge was simply too powerful and should always remain beyond the grasp of man.”
“Well,” sighed Yukawa, “it’s a nice story, but…”
“Do you know how Georg Cantor died?” asked the American.
“The mathematician who discovered the nature of infinity?” the Japanese physicist replied, shaking his head.
“He went insane. Died chewing on his own tongue in a sanatorium in 1918. He had always declared to everyone that he was studying the mind of God, and in the end became totally obsessed with proving something called the ‘continuum hypothesis.’ It drove him mad.”
Yukawa nodded, without understanding.
“And what about Ludwig Boltzmann? He proved the second law of thermodynamics and discovered that the entire universe was degenerating into unmitigated chaos. They found him dangling at the end of a rope in an inexplicable suicide. And then there’s Kurt Gödel. He develops his incompleteness theorem, proves logical certainty to be impossible, and dies of a monumental nervous breakdown, weighing 65 pounds at the end, because his bizarre insanity refused to allow him to eat. And what about Ramanujan? The greatest and most audacious mathematician in history… who died an sudden death―due to an entirely undiagnosable disease at age 32…”
He trailed off.
“According to ancient Middle Eastern tradition, beginning with the Egyptians, knowing the names of a god gave one power over that god,” continued Oppenheimer with unabated intensity. “That’s why the Lord told Moses ‘I am what I am’ when the prophet asked his name. It was an evasive answer.”
The Japanese physicist listened in intrigued silence.
“In Talmudic times,” continued Oppenheimer, “the great Rabbis would only teach their disciples the secret pronunciation of the names of god once every seven years. All other times, the supreme being was referred to as Adonai. The ancient Jews knew at least four of the hidden names, those of four, seven, forty-two and seventy-two letters.”
“What are you saying?” asked Yukawa with burgeoning disbelief. “That you somehow discovered one of the secret names of god and so now he wants revenge? You can’t possibly be serious!”
“I know how it sounds,” said the American dolefully. “I know it seems ridiculous. But there is no question that I… that von Neumann and Lawrence… that all of us… investigated things that we never should have. Not even Moses could look God full in the face like we have.”
“So let me get this straight,” his Japanese friend began again. “You think that your research has somehow offended the sensibilities of the divine… and now he has sent the devil after you… and you need to… (he searched for the word) …propitiate him in order to…”
“Not the devil. The angel of death.”
“Alright, the angel of death.”
“Albert always used to say that curiosity was holy,” mused Oppenheimer. “That the desire to know and learn was the one unquestionable glory of the human race. And I used to think the same. But recently I’ve started to lose my faith. You know, I could have stopped the building of the hydrogen bomb just by letting the other project members investigate it the way they had been planning to. I only had to let Lawrence keep building his ridiculous MTP accelerator. I knew it would never work. Or I could have let Teller become the head of the Los Alamos research facilities. He was so widely disliked, the project would have fallen apart. I would have avoided all the conflict and stopped thermonuclear development cold. But I didn’t.”
“Because I would have known that bad science was being done. It would have been like deforming my own child.”
“So what kind of tikkun, what kind of retribution, did you have in mind? Building another New York City synagogue?”
“No,” said Oppenheimer dolefully. “A trade. My life for the life of someone even worse. An even bigger killer.”
There was a weighty pause as the American waited for his friend’s reaction.
“Ok, let me see, again, if I understand,” said Yukawa with slow deliberation. “You want to find and capture someone responsible for more deaths than you, and then somehow turn him over to god, in the hopes that he will pardon you for your sins?”
“But Robert, even if I agreed with your logic… which I certainly do not… Nearly three hundred thousand people are estimated to have died from the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Who do you propose to go after? There’s nobody on the planet directly responsible for more civilian deaths than that!”
“Oh yes there is,” said Oppenheimer quietly. “There is one.”