Language & Composition

Mr. Eure | Brewster High School

Oppenheimer ETA: Parallelism with Purpose

Oppenheimer (LIFE Portrait)

On February 21, you took a multiple-choice test on studying the following passage:

The problem of doing justice to the implicit, the imponderable, and the unknown is of course not unique in politics.  It is always with us in science, it is with us in the most trivial of personal affairs, and it is one of the great problems of writing and of all forms of art.  The means by which it is solved is sometimes called style.  It is style which complements affirmation with limitation and with humility; it is style which makes it possible to act effectively, but not absolutely; it is style which, in the domain of foreign policy, enables us to find harmony between the pursuit of ends essential to us, and the regard for the views, the sensibilities, the aspirations of those to whom the problem may appear in another light; it is style which is the deference that action pays to uncertainty; it is above all style through which power defers to reason.

This comes from J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the scientists charged with creating the world’s first atomic bomb.  He was also a student of history and something of a poet; at the moment of the first successful detonation, he was reminded of a line from the Bhagavad-Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”  To Oppenheimer, power wasn’t an abstract concept; watch him here, twenty years after the Trinity test, and notice how deeply his memories seem to move him.

The passage we are studying is from The Open Mind, a speech published around 1949, when Oppenheimer was one of the most prominent physicists in America.  It is a definitional argument in miniature, offering a series of assertions about the word style.  There is also a problem that this kind of style solves: “[t]he problem of doing justice to the implicit, the imponderable, and the unknown.”  For Oppenheimer, that problem was at the heart of the physical sciences.

Your task is to take the structure of this passage and build onto it your own definitional argument in miniature.  You will choose your own central term, like Oppenheimer’s style, and build a paragraph around it that emulates the arrangement here: four sentences, the third much shorter than the others, and the last a series of five parallel clauses that define the term.  You must post this paragraph in the comments section of this post.

Here are the directions for writing the paragraph:

  1. Choose a term that you would like to work with.  You can use any noun, from the abstract (e.g., powerstylegracebeauty) to the concrete (e.g., homeworkrainsickness).
  2. Determine what purpose your first three sentences will serve.  You can emulate Oppenheimer (i.e., introduce a problem, contextualize it, and then explain how your term solves that problem), or you can construct your own three-sentence approach.
  3. Brainstorm about the term itself: what it does, how it is viewed, what it affects, and so on.
  4. Construct five parallel clauses for your final sentence.  The first four must begin the same way: “it is [noun] which…”  The final clause must begin with a superlative qualification, exactly as Oppenheimer’s does: “it is above all [noun]…”

I will break down Oppenheimer’s paragraph for you in a moment.  First, since it’s been a while since we talked on here, let’s go over the directions for posting in the comments section below:

  1. Begin by saving your paragraph in a Word document or text file.  If WordPress crashes, you will have a backup.
  2. At the bottom of this post, you will find a place for you to leave comments.
  3. Fill in the required information, using your school email address. Use your full name, not a nickname.
  4. Paste or retype your paragraph in the comment box. Edit your work; this is a formal writing assignment, not an Internet chat forum.
  5. Click “Notify me of follow-up comments via email.”

Ignore the box for website, and be careful of logging in through Twitter or Facebook—unless you’d like that account public, that is. Then follow the usual rules for adversarial conversation, leaving feedback and replies as you see fit. Here is last year’s version, and another from the previous year; you can seek inspiration from them, if you like. Focus on saying something meaningful and insightful with your mini argument.  To help, here is a breakdown of what Oppenheimer does:

The problem of doing justice to the implicit, the imponderable, and the unknown is of course not unique in politics.
The first sentence presents a problem, and offers us the context that it is “not unique in politics.”  This implies that the solution to the problem, while applicable to politics, could also be applied elsewhere.  Notice that Oppenheimer uses no active verbs here; this focuses us on the complex ideas introduced, from what it means to do justice to the distinction between implicitimponderable, and unknown.

It is always with us in science, it is with us in the most trivial of personal affairs, and it is one of the great problems of writing and of all forms of art.
The second sentence contextualizes the problem, offering three fields in which it must be solved: science, our personal affairs, and “writing and all forms of art.”  These assertions could be said to add gravity to the problem, and therefore to its solution.  Notice also that Oppenheimer has juxtaposed science with “the most trivial of personal affairs,” and those quotidian concerns with the lofty ideals of literature and art.

The means by which it is solved is sometimes called style.
A simple sentence that moves us into a definition of style.  Notice that “style” is the only word here with any new or significant meaning; the others serve merely to direct us toward the next sentence.

We should break down the next sentence clause by clause.  As we do that, notice how the parallel construction focuses us on each aspect of the definition, and how the final clause is both the simplest and most important one.

It is style which complements affirmation with limitation and with humility;
We start with abstract concepts and a subtle verb (“complements”) that connects them.  Oppenheimer suggests that style manifests itself as limitation and humility; style, in other words, prevents us from seeming arrogant in victory.

it is style which makes it possible to act effectively, but not absolutely;
Again, style is defined as a way of tempering an action.  Effective actions are contrasted with absolute ones, with several ways to interpret the latter adjective: unrestrained, unchecked, implacable, and so on.

it is style which, in the domain of foreign policy, enables us to find harmony between the pursuit of ends essential to us, and the regard for the views, the sensibilities, the aspirations of those to whom the problem may appear in another light;
A long clause like this prevents parallelism from becoming repetitive.  Notice that the construction of the first two clauses (“it is style which [verb]”) is broken up by an adverbial phrase (“in the domain of foreign policy”) that grounds us.  The abstract ideas of the first two clauses are now given context: international relationships and policies.  Notice also that Oppenheimer uses an asyndeton to suggest the countless ways in which we differ from foreign nations and individuals (“the views, the sensibilities, the aspirations”).

it is style which is the deference that action pays to uncertainty;
This penultimate clause sets up the final one by suggesting that, in the context of politics and foreign policy, we should be more uncertain—less swift to act and more willing to debate our motivations.  Consider this idea in the context of the last ten years of U.S. politics, where rationality and reasoned debate are at war with impatience and immediacy; perhaps Oppenheimer would say that we have stopped respecting the power of uncertainty out of fear that inaction equals failure.

it is above all style through which power defers to reason.
In adapting Oppenheimer’s structure for your own paragraph, you might borrow that last phrase (“above all”) verbatim.  It tells us that we’ve arrived at the most important definition of style, and the most important purpose it serves.  The previous ideas of uncertainty and harmony fit under this last one, and the switch from a noun (“deference”) in the penultimate clause to a verb (“defers”) here emphasizes the need for respect.  This is the crux of the miniature argument: that our actions on the world’s stage can break harmony and balance if we lack the style that allows for strength through uncertainty and reason, and that our power must be tempered through humility and nuance.

Okay, then—your turn.


130 responses to “Oppenheimer ETA: Parallelism with Purpose

  1. Liam Lonegan February 25, 2013 at 9:50 pm

    We walk along the path set out for us, each stepping stone setting us into a kind of robotic track called conformity. While we walk these paths, we become similar, dressing in the accepted fashion, using the accepted slang words, and thinking and speaking with the accepted viewpoints stuck in our heads. In the instance of this tragedy, we use opinions. It’s opinion that gives us a chance to live our lives only as ourselves; it is opinion that gives us a new path that may be divergent from the accepted one; it is opinion that gives us discussion in a situation which would otherwise be dry as a bone; it is opinion that shows how fact has affected our realities and above all it is opinion that helps us to understand, make mistakes, and grow into even more learned men and women.

    • Joseph Oliveri February 26, 2013 at 11:13 am

      The way you speak about the paths we take in life is really interesting. It reminds me of how we’re always hearing about how we need to to dream big and aspire so that our futures will be individualist, bright and prosperous, while we are forced into molds that have already been designed for us. All the while, we ruin ourselves trying to fit into these molds. Your inclusion of the topic of opinions is clever, because of just talking about how we should break the bonds of our peers’ and society’s norms and “be yourself”, its is opinions, what you actually think and how you apply it to what you do in life and with other people that makes us who we are. Individuality is found in ourselves, not in whatever’s around us.

    • Jessica Lau March 3, 2013 at 5:30 pm

      I think it’s very brave of you to write about the power of opinion. These days, it seems that people with opinions that are “different” from “normal” or “acceptable” opinions often face scrutiny and oppression or conflicts, although difference in opinion is common in all humans. Yes, I admit that I sometimes scrutinize people with so-called “bad” opinions, even though I shouldn’t be, but people need to be accepted for having a different opinion because it is completely a normal thing. Yet, the media and society often try to squash people who believe differently, but I think we should all try to embrace differences (especially because of what I learned from Rachael’s Challenge) to make the world a better and more peaceful place for everyone.

  2. Kathryn Schubert February 25, 2013 at 10:06 pm

    The problem with humans is that we learn early in our lives to not trust others with our secrets, our personal lives, our wishes… But our trust, which we hold so tightly within ourselves, is the fundamental key to friendship, and love, and most importantly, our happiness. Things that we need every day to get us by. Trust is the reason behind all the generous families that greet you at home, for the warmth your friendships have and for your small victories every day, whether it involves trusting yourself, or others, or even the whole world. The main problem is that it takes us to long to trust and we don’t know how (or when) to take chances. Those suspicions of strangers, odd things people say, all the differences; they are all misleading. Trustworthiness is only gained through trust. And trust is trust; no matter how much of it is given out. How long does it take someone to open up and finally share their secrets with their best friend? Or to actually make a new friend that is allowed to know the minor details about you? In all circumstances, it takes too long. When we finally allow ourselves to trust each other, it is a chance taken for the sole purpose of forming a bond with someone. For sharing small parts of you with others so they can share with you theirs. When we finally allow ourselves to trust one each other, we normally don’t regret it. So above all- learning to be a better friend, being kinder to those who care for you- it is important to go back to the basics, and actually learn to trust. To take a chance, to not be afraid, and to let the world know who you really are. Why should we hold back?

    • Kathryn Schubert February 25, 2013 at 10:08 pm

      trust one another**

    • Natalie Jara February 26, 2013 at 12:26 am

      Kathryn, I really enjoyed reading your piece. It was meaningful and beautifully put together. Your point is very clear here in that trust is a major part to any relationship and needs to be shown more often than it is being shown. It also is the key to creating a stronger relationship with that special person you can call your friend. One thing I would add is the parallelism that Oppenheimer used. It would reinforce your overall main idea by showing how certain events, where trust plays a role, are connected and relate to one another. Even though you didn’t use the parallelism, you used another great rhetorical device, rhetorical questions. The questions you asked really helped the reader see what you were thinking and exposed where you were coming from in this topic. I agree that this world could use a little more trust but it does involve taking risks. One question I have is that, is revealing yourself to the world really worth giving up those little secrets and hidden parts of your life that make up who you are individually? Well done either way!

  3. Joey Blasco February 26, 2013 at 7:25 am

    The problem of defining the human mind, the understanding of one’s thoughts and actions, and its unknown depths and limitations are not unique in history. It is with us even in the most significant and trivial affairs, in science and philosophy, and is one of the great problems and answers in all forms of thinking and behavior. The means by which the mind is defined is sometimes called psyche. It is psyche that allows infinite possibilities, but limits us; it is psyche that expresses our true motives, but conceals them; it is psyche that determines our emotions that may make us content, but can cause despair; it is psyche that causes us to make clear and ration decisions, but can be illogical at times; it is psyche that separates us from everyone else, but allows us to be relatable and compatible with one another.

  4. Michael Kubenik February 26, 2013 at 10:34 am

    Knowledge is not a goal. Knowing is a process. Knowing is the act of learning. In order to gain this knowledge you have to accept you don’t have it. You need to donate your time, no more than that, your life to seek this knowledge. Many people claim that Algebra is useless after high school, but I claim otherwise. Algebra isn’t about “solving for X,” it’s about why and how we solve for X. Why must we solve these problems? They simply better us though our society. Despite our social problems such as hunger or criminals. These problems won’t be solved through a simple solution, but we can use many simple solutions to solve the problems facing today. We learn to learn, not to know.

    • Joey Blasco February 28, 2013 at 1:09 pm

      Your topic surrounding knowledge brings up a great point. However, your sudden jump from discussing knowledge to algebra could use some type of transition to improve the connection between these two ideas and make your overall statements seem smoother and well connected. Other than that, I agree with the fact that we must learn how to solve problems in order to learn other than receiving the answer for the sake of information and being correct.

  5. Mishell Pacheco February 26, 2013 at 11:34 am

    Unfulfilled needs and dissatisfaction has forever turned sons against fathers and daughters against mothers. Frustration has many friends. It is always with us, torn between this selfishness that is desired and a problem that is involved with daily life. It is frustration that holds a thin line between self awareness and an altruistic feel. It is frustration that has faought through your own will of even going against your family. It is frustration that the means by which anger or acceptance of failure has been outcomes due to this tug of war, the war fought is featured with many emotions, you are faced with your personal satisfaction versus the pleasing of someone else’s desire; the domain of our own decisions based on feelings and possible effects; our own self awareness has the greater outcome; the least risk, the most diminished way to cause your own harm.

  6. Anthony Palmerini February 26, 2013 at 2:03 pm

    As we approach a corner, we turn into the corner. The sharper the corner, the sharper the turning. But when we drive along, we don’t feel the slight curves and bends in the road. As we go through our lives, the continuum of time continues to work the universe, we never realize the change. This continuum works to change everything at a very slow slow rate, usually for the better, and there is no recognition. Technology is changing and improving at an exponential rate, and we continue our lives as nothing had happened. Continuums create a sorites paradox, where when does change actually occur. For example, when you take a grain of sand off of a heap of sand, is the pile still a heap even when there is one grain of sand left? It is continuum which works the universe, it is continuum which disguises change, it is continuum which works discreetly, it is continuum that changes technology, it is above all continuum that creates the greatest changes.

  7. Will Kelmenson February 26, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    In forming one’s own personal views on a topic, a problem likely to be encountered is the question of what to base any potential findings on. The solution to this problem is found not from the pressures of society, not from the influences of any surrounding individuals, but from what we know to be true, certain, and free from bias. Yes, it is factual information which leads us to answers. Facts are that which we can trust; facts are that which bypass uncertainty; facts are that which we know to be uncorrupted by the imperfections of the human mind; facts are that which can guide us on our path to the truth; more than anything facts are that which enable us to make a truly informed decision.

  8. Katie Tassi February 26, 2013 at 5:26 pm

    The problem with settling is that it forces us to give up our dreams, and is not unique in our world. It is always with us in our lives, it is with us in our work, it is with us in our relationships, and it is one of the biggest problems of our lives and our futures. The means by which this is solved is passion. It is passion which reminds us that our dreams are our future; it is passion which battles desire with action; it is passion which is the key to unlocking the ideas found deep down inside us; it is passion which encourages us to be the best version of ourselves possible; it is above all passion that pushes us to be the people we want to become.

  9. Caralyn Tassi February 27, 2013 at 9:43 pm

    The problem with society’s standards is that there is an expectation to look and act a certain way. These seemingly superficial standards surround us in the newspaper, in magazines, on the internet, on TV, plastered on billboards, influencing us to fall into the trap of wanting to be perfect. By being different and not dressing, looking or acting up to society’s standards you become an outcast- a target for judgement. Embracing our imperfections is the solution to aiming to fit society’s standards. It is imperfections which allow us to find ourselves in a world centered around an ideal image; it is imperfections which give us the courage to stand out amongst others whose only goal is to fit in; it is imperfections which guide us to learn from our mistakes, to become a better person, to become the perfect you; it is imperfections which drive us to see through our faults, to look beyond and reach for happiness; it is above all imperfections through which you can infatuate someone by holding on to your flaws and accepting you for you.

  10. Will Henningsen March 10, 2013 at 3:07 pm

    Humans are creatures of feelings. Happiness, shock, mirth, all these move us to act and react in certain ways. One emotion strikes us to the core of our being. It is love that empowers us, and makes us feel connected with others. It is love that lifts our spirits up through the worst days. It is the consummation of love that creates life, and love that gives life a purpose. It is love that sparks jealousy and anger. It is love that can drive us to live, to smile, to hurt, to laugh and to act. Love is the most human of emotions. It is above all love that commands us.

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