American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

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9780375412028: American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

American Prometheus is the first full-scale biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, “father of the atomic bomb,” the brilliant, charismatic physicist who led the effort to capture the awesome fire of the sun for his country in time of war. Immediately after Hiroshima, he became the most famous scientist of his generation–one of the iconic figures of the twentieth century, the embodiment of modern man confronting the consequences of scientific progress.

He was the author of a radical proposal to place international controls over atomic materials–an idea that is still relevant today. He opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb and criticized the Air Force’s plans to fight an infinitely dangerous nuclear war. In the now almost-forgotten hysteria of the early 1950s, his ideas were anathema to powerful advocates of a massive nuclear buildup, and, in response, Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss, Superbomb advocate Edward Teller and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover worked behind the scenes to have a hearing board find that Oppenheimer could not be trusted with America’s nuclear secrets.

American Prometheus sets forth Oppenheimer’s life and times in revealing and unprecedented detail. Exhaustively researched, it is based on thousands of records and letters gathered from archives in America and abroad, on massive FBI files and on close to a hundred interviews with Oppenheimer’s friends, relatives and colleagues.

We follow him from his earliest education at the turn of the twentieth century at New York City’s Ethical Culture School, through personal crises at Harvard and Cambridge universities. Then to Germany, where he studied quantum physics with the world’s most accomplished theorists; and to Berkeley, California, where he established, during the 1930s, the leading American school of theoretical physics, and where he became deeply involved with social justice causes and their advocates, many of whom were communists. Then to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where he transformed a bleak mesa into the world’s most potent nuclear weapons laboratory–and where he himself was transformed. And finally, to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, which he directed from 1947 to 1966.

American Prometheus is a rich evocation of America at midcentury, a new and compelling portrait of a brilliant, ambitious, complex and flawed man profoundly connected to its major events–the Depression, World War II and the Cold War. It is at once biography and history, and essential to our understanding of our recent past–and of our choices for the future.

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Review:

In American Prometheus, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin delve deep into J. Robert Oppenheimer's life and deliver a thorough and devastatingly sad biography of the man whose very name has come to represent the culmination of 20th century physics and the irrevocable soiling of science by governments eager to exploit its products. Rich in historical detail and personal narratives, the book paints a picture of Oppenheimer as both a controlling force and victim of the mechanisms of power.

By the time the story reaches Oppenheimer's fateful Manhattan Project work, readers have been swept along much as the project's young physicists were by fate and enormous pressure. The authors allow the scientists to speak for themselves about their reactions to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, avoiding any sort of preacherly tone while revealing the utter, horrible ambiguity of the situation. For instance, Oppenheimer wrote in a letter to a friend, "The thing had to be done," then, "Circumstances are heavy with misgiving."

Many biographies of Oppenheimer end here, with the seeds of his later pacifism sown and the dangers of mixing science with politics clearly outlined. But Bird and Sherwin devote the second half of this hefty book to what happened to Oppenheimer after the bomb. For a short time, he was lionized as the ultimate patriot by a victorious nation, but things soured as the Cold War crept forward and anti-communist witchhunts focused paranoia and anti-Semitism onto Oppenheimer, destroying his career and disillusioning him about his life's work. Devastated by the atom bomb's legacy of fear, he became a vocal and passionate opponent of the Strangelovian madness that gripped the world because of the weapons he helped develop.

Twenty-five years of research went into creating American Prometheus, and there has never been a more honest and complete biography of this tragic scientific giant. The many great ironies of Oppenheimer's life are revealed through the careful reconstruction of a wealth of records, conversations, and ideas, leaving the clearest picture yet of his life. --Therese Littleton

About the Author:

Kai Bird is the author of The Chairman: John J. McCloy, The Making of the American Establishment and The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy, Brothers in Arms. He coedited with Lawrence Lifschultz Hiroshima’s Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy. A contributing editor of The Nation, he lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

Martin J. Sherwin is the Walter S. Dickson Professor of English and American History at Tufts University and author of A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies, which won the Stuart L. Bernath Prize, as well as the American History Book Prize. He and his wife live in Boston and Washington, D.C.

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Bird, Kai; Sherwin, Martin J.
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