on March 16, 2008
My father spent most of his career in nuclear engineering researching the mathematics of nuclear reactors at Brookhaven. My father had visited all the national labs and got to know all the key players in nuclear physics in the period from 1950-1970. Growing up in that environment I naturally knew a bit about Oppenheimer and Teller and others. It was clear to me that my father had sympathy for Oppenheimer and a great deal of respect. Teller was viewed more as a politician looking for fame and publicity. This became even more apparent to me when in the 1980s I saw how he lobbied the Reagan administration for research on laser based strategic defense satellites.
This book is an account of Oppenheimer's life from childhood through the Manhattan Project with emphasis on the most crucial part of his career as the head of the Los Alamos Laboratory where physicists mathematicians and chemists teamed up to develop the first nuclear weapons that were used against Japan. Oppenheimer was a reserved man who did not seek the limelight. He was brilliant but his biggest asset was his management and leadership capabilities along with very good judgement, something that Teller seemed to lack. It was just these qualities of leadership that led to the succcessful development of the atomic bomb in a few short years at Los Alamos. His liberal past and pre-war affiliation with communism caused him great difficulties and some in the military feared that he was a security risk. He was continually being checked out by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. Hoover did not like the appointment of Oppenheimer to the key leadership position at Los Alamos.
After the war was over, strangely the man who was able to keep secrets during the crucial period of the Manhattan Project was not trusted after the war. He lost security clearance and struggled due to the increased fear of communism from the post-war Soviet Union including the wave of witchhunting during the Joseph McCarthy era. He was liberal and his pre-war past communist associations hurt him deeply. His philosophy on nuclear weapons and his clashes with his former colleague Joseph Teller made for a tormented post-war career. I believe Oppenheomer felt guilt over his involvement in the development of the bomb and was definitely against the arms race. This period of his life as well as his childhood was important to understand the complexities of this man. The authors do a good job of covering this and do not fall into the trap of just emphasizing the war years.
This book is engaging and very successful at portraying the life character and personality of J. Robert Oppenheimer. He was the right man for a difficult and challenging job and had what it took to get the most out of an odd group of geniuses.
on April 7, 2005
Kai Bird's and Martin J. Sherwin's biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer is a deeply researched, carefully judged and well-written examination of the life and politics of the man who directed the development of the atom bomb. The story is a complex one of murky motivations and large consequences, and to the credit of the authors, who offer their own point of view on central questions, they do not evade the complexity of the questions or the possibility that others would answer them differently. They have done the hard and thorough work on which first-rate biography depends: they have located and reviewed the primary source documents, mastered the secondary literature, and interviewed scores of those with personal knowledge and information to offer. The story they tell is of a man with huge intellectual-and as it turned out, organizational-gifts, and faults of a comparable magnitude. The book is first-rate.
Oppenheimer was a man of his time for a time and quickly became a man out of time when he warned with foresight at the dangers of nuclear proliferation. This compelling, well researched biography by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin provides the most complete picture of one of the most enigmatic, charistmatic and iconic figures of the 20th Century. Pulling from a variety of sources, the authors create one of the most complete and compelling portraits of the "father of the atomic bomb".
Following Oppenheimer and his family from his birth, through his work at UC Berkeley, involvement in protesting social injustice and ultimately his leadership of the team that develop the atomic bomb AMERICAN PROMETHUS looks at Oppenheimer flaws and all. Oppenheimer emerged at one of the most morally complex and scientifically rich times in history. His work at Los Alamos with his group of collaborators transformed our world for good and bad. Oppenheimer lived both in the glow of that success and in the shadow of the world he helped usher in for the remainder of his life. The authors present all this information with detailed accounts from Oppenheimer's life. They also relate many of the personal conflicts that Oppenheimer felt while working in one of the most promising and dangerous fields. There's plenty of excerpts from Oppenheimer's letters and comments from contemporaries he both agreed/disagreed with (Teller, Bohr, Strauss and many, many others).
When Oppenheimer had his security clearence revoked and he was betrayed by rumour, poor choices and some of his collegues, one of America's brightest and best fell from hero to possible traitor in the eyes of the American public. The controversey and circumstances were much more complex than they appeared on the surface. This book provides much needed balance to a complex life rendered simply by the idealogy that drove (and still does to some extent)America at the time. It was a complex, harsh world full of shadows and, unfortunately, Oppenheimer's reputation through both his beliefs and the beliefs of others around him was dragged gagged and bound into the shadows. Although he often disagreed with the US, he had his own unique sense of patriotism every bit as valid as those that accused him of being an unacceptable risk. When the disagreement about whether or not the Super was going on the authors quote a wonderful discussion. In discussing the moral implications of building a bomb even more destructive than those dropped on Hiroshima, Oliver Buckley (president of Bell Telephone Labs)commented that there was "no moral difference between building an atomic bomb and a super". James Conant dryly replied, "there are grades of morality". In a moral black and white world Opponheimer found his claim to fame and also lost himself.
on July 21, 2005
In their book, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin have created a biographical masterpiece that will not soon be outdone. The authors research and writing has given the reader a candid, yet complicated and conflicted portrait of one of America's leading scientific minds of the twentieth century.
Their research is comprehensive and their writing intelligible as can be seen as Bird and Sherwin recreate Oppenheimer's grand yet tragic life from his lecture at the New York Mineralogical Club at age twelve, to the 1954 security hearings in Washington that altered his later life. The question of Oppenheimer's affiliation with and membership in the American Communist Party is factually covered in detail along with his battles against the American political system and government powerbrokers.
Bird and Sherwin remind the reader that while Oppenheimer may not have won the Noble Prize in physics, he should certainly be given the credit for opening the door for other physicist, such as Ernest Orlando Lawrence, to win the coveted Nobel Prize. While Oppenheimer had a dark side to his personality, the authors show us that Oppenheimer was not only a genius in theoretical physics, but was remarkably well versed in many fields including poetry, art, music, books. . . . He also loved camping in the wilds of New Mexico, and horseback riding near his beloved Pierro Caliente Ranch. Oppenheimer's love affairs with country, wife, children, friends, science and women are also well documented.
"American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer" was a great read. It also puts to rest many unanswered and troubling questions concerning the life and times of J. Robert Oppenheimer. This masterpiece of literary work will not be outdone any time soon.
on April 24, 2005
Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin have produced a masterpiece in "American Prometheus." This is the truest, deepest portrait of J. Robert Oppenheimer we have ever known. This is the genius-physicist with a human face.
I encourage everyone to read this book, especially those who were dissatisfied with previous attempts to define the man. Prometheus gives a good balance to all the issues, childhood, education, Berkeley, Cal Tech, Communist affiliations, the bomb, and his later life tragedies. Agreed, the authors had access to more material than previous writers, but American Prometheus employs eminently readable prose with the skill to explain highly technical concepts in understandable layman's terms. As a layman, I appreciate that.
This biography was 25 years in the making, with Sherwin's research beginning in 1979. Many of Oppenheimer's contemporaries were still alive and extensive interviews help flesh out this engaging look at a true genius. This thoroughly documented and annotated work is a joy to read.
Special note: The authors credit material used from Jon Else's documentary "The Day After Trinity." If you want to hear Serber, Bethe, Rabi, Frank Oppenheimer and others in the flesh, check out the DVD version of this film, a good companion to American Prometheus.
on April 15, 2005
i've read 90% of it by now. it's all good and thorough and especially enjoyable before he falls out of favor with the the dr. strangeloves that want to make the much bigger hydrogen bomb. he doesn't see the need so gets hung out to dry in federal hearings. in the beginning Oppenheimer has just wowed his physics PhD committee at Gottingen into awarding him a doctorate with distinction after only 2 years, preceded by an undergraduate degree in chemistry earned at harvard, then returns to cambridge (mass.) before moving on to Cal Tech to his first teaching job, giving his younger brother Frank in the meantime raw advice on how to deal with women. not unlike richard rhoades in "the making of the atomic bomb" the authors give a good sense of what it was like being j. robert oppenheimer and being with him. you get to watch him evolve, do intellectual things that are beyond comprehension, and deal with the conflict set by his idealistic roots and the conservative, militaristic world he lived in. if you like reading detailed, intimate biographies of brilliant, psychologically interesting people you may like this one. i personally can't put it down.
on September 29, 2005
The six hundred-page biography covers minute detail of JRO's life and circumstance. He is made mortal by good reporting and many examples of his humanness. I wouldn't have learned more if we were contemporaries. A complex man with many talents is unmasked with his many contradictions and agendas.
I've enjoyed shorter articles, movies and TV biographies that missed JRO's nature and intimate personal details. You might better enjoy this book if your interests are more historical than scientific, more personal than abstract. JRO was presented as a real person over a my previous perception as genius, aloof and elite.
The books minor downside was the heavy emphasis on his pre-war (II) socialist connections and dealings that eventually discredited his contributions to the Manhattan project. I would have enjoyed more emphasis on his life after the AEC 1953 trial. His life as director at Princeton's institute of advanced study from 1947 till 1965 gets scant coverage.
I have no regrets buying this book as a science buff and engineer. Shorter biographies will miss the intimate "Oppie" presented in American Prometheus.
on September 21, 2013
1. Deserving winner of a Pulitzer Prize; a true human story of science, evolution, and conscience
2. Knowledge threatens political power; especially when it has a liberal mind that doesn't pander to government
3. Respect (from practitioners) vs. Reprimand (by politicians) - Oppenheimer battled bureaucrats to his grave
1. "Damn it, I happen to love this country." (pg 3) #truth, Oppenheimer wasn't the communist his haters wanted him to be
2. "He received every idea as perfectly beautiful" (pg 9) #objective research defined
3. "Well, neither one of us came over on the Mayflower" (pg 25) on being Jewish, Oppie to his Scotch-Irish friend at #Harvard
4. "The notion that I was travelling down a clear track would be wrong" (pg 29) #honesty about learning (1922 enrolled @Harvard)
5. Proust's "A La Recherche du Temp Perdu" (pg 51) a book that left an impression on him in college #introspection
6. "Becoming a scientist, Oppenheimer later remarked, is like climbing a mountain in a tunnel" (pg 67) #Gottingen 1927 Germany
7. "Quantum mechanics describes nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense" -Feynman (pg 79) #Oppie liked
8. "Oppie" = title of Chapter 6 (Oppenheimer's nickname, humanizes the man as he moved on to teach in California)
9. "How far is it wise to respond to a mood?" -Oppenheimer in #1930 (pg 95), we was 26 yrs old, #mentoring brother Frank
10. "In 1936 my interests began to change" -Oppie (pg 111) met his 1st love, young #communist party member, Jean Tatlock
11. "FBI would never resolve the question of whether or not Robert was a CP member" (pg 142) b/c he wasn't a #communist
12. "devoted to working for social and economic justice... he chose to stand with the left" (pg152) left isn't Russian Communist
13. "By the end of 1939, Oppenheimer's often stormy relationship with Jeadn Tatlock had disintegrated" (pg 153)
14. "I'd had about enough of the Spanish cause... there were more pressing crises in the world" (pg 178) #1941 post Pearl Harbor
15. "Only an atomic bomb could dislodge Hitler from Europe" -Oppenheimer to #Teller in #1942
16. "Groves is a bastard but he's a straightforward one" -Oppenheimer (pg 185) on his boss at #LosAlamos
17. "He's a genius, a real genius" -Groves on Oppenheimer (pg 185) #1942, peer #respect
18. "Robert was beginning a new life. As the Director of a weapons laboratory..." (pg 205) #1942, he was 38 yrs old
19. "No, no, you're crazy... that's nuts" -Dick Feynman (pg 217) Feynman, Bethe, Bohr + Oppenheimer = genius collaboration
20. "Oppenheimer is telling the truth..." (pg 236) people may have not liked the #truth, but he was usually telling it; that's life
21. "I am disgusted with everything" -Jean Tatlock (pg 249), in #1944 Oppenheimer's 1st love committed #suicide
22. "December 1943, Niels Bohr arrived at Los Alamos" (pg 268) Oppie was his #prophet
23. "If Bohr was convinced, then Oppenheimer must have realized that German physicists were in all likelihood far behind" (pg 276)
24. "Everyone sensed Oppie's presence. He drove himself around The Hill in an army jeep" (pg 277) #leader amongst peers
25. "Well, Roosevelt was a great architect, perhaps Truman will be a good carpenter" -Oppenheimer (pg 290) he respected POTUS
26. "I feel I have blood on my hands" -Oppenheimer (pg 323) October 16, #1946 to #Truman (and Truman didn't like the honesty)
27. "Oppenheimer arrived in Princeton in mid-July 1947" (pg 369) he was appointed Director of Einstein's Institute #thinktank
28. "After Einstein, Oppenheimer was undoubtedly the most renowned scientist in the country" (pg 390) #1948 (so he was a #threat)
29. "Our atomic monopoly is like a cake of ice melting in the sun..." -Oppenheimer (cover of Time Magazine 1948) (pg 418)
30. "The Administration now supported a program to build a bomb 1,000x as lethal as the Hiroshima weapon" (pg 430)
31. "You probably don't know to what extent you have become my intellectual conscience" -George Kennan to Oppie #1950 (pg 431)
32. "We may be likened to 2 scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life" -Oppenheimer (pg 462)
33. In 1953 Oppenheimer sent the new Eisenhower Administration a report "urging a policy of candor" (pg 463) #transparency
34. "I must reveal its nature without revealing anything" -Oppenheimer on #nuclear weapons in 1953 #candor (pg 463)
35. "The President had read Oppie's essay and had found himself to be in general accord with its argument" (pg 468) #Strauss was enraged
36. Strauss and the anti-Oppenheimer hawks went after Oppie (ultimately he "collapsed on his bathroom floor") (pg 484) #pressure 1953
37. Einstein, not impressed, thought Oppenheimer "a man who was easily hurt and intimidated" (pg 498) #fair assessment
38. "The Oppenheimer hearing thus represented ... the narrowing of the public forum during the early Cold War" (pg 550)
39. "It achieved just what his opponents wanted to achieve; it destroyed him" -I.I. Rabi (pg 551) #1954
40. "How can the independent experimental mind survive in such an atmosphere?" -The New Statesman (pg 556) #1954
41. "By the early 1960s, with the return of Democrats... Oppenheimer was no longer a political pariah" (pg 574) #JFK
42. "I think it is just possible Mr. President that is has taken some charity and some courage to make his award" (pg 574)
43. "In 1963, Oppenheimer learned that President Kennedy gave him the prestigious Fermi Prize" (pg 575) #validation
44. "In 1965, Oppie visited his doctor for a physical... 2 months later his smoker's cough became noticeably worse" (pg 581)
45. "Robert has cancer" -Kitty (pg 582) #1966
46. Oppenheimer's Memorial Service was in Princeton on February 25, 1967 (pg 588)
47. "Kitty took her husband's ashes in an urn to Hawksnest Bay... and dropped the urn overboard" (pg 588) #St.John
48. "That's where he wanted to be" -Kitty (pg 588)
This book typifies the complexity of the human mind but, at the same time, simplifies the predictable behavior of politicians. In many ways Oppenheimer's story reminds us how fragile our freedoms can become.
on November 18, 2008
November 18, 2008
I don't know how a biography of Oppenheimer can be written without any real discussion of Physics or the engineering achievements of the Manhattan Project, but that's what this did. I assume the authors decided technical discussions would not appeal to readers. I found this omission disappointing.
I saw the book quite differently than most of the other reviewers. The man revealed in this biography is hardly a man I would label great or near great. Shockingly, over the course of his life Oppenheimer attempted to murder one of his teachers, was at least an enthusiastic near communist, encouraged his troubled wife's alcoholism, was a serial liar, was a multiple adulterer, had an affair with the wife of a close friend, offered his infant daughter to a friend for adoption because he was too busy with work and more. Call me old fashion, but this was too much for me.
The authors repeatedly point out Oppenheimer's sense of social justice, often equating communism with the fight for social justice. (It is curious that I never got that social justice = communism formula when reading "Gulag Archipelago.") Do 1930 American supporters of communism bear any responsibility for the atrocities of Stalinist Russia? Didn't all those great minds of the 1930's have some responsibility to investigate the reality of life in the Soviet Union?
Oppenheimer is lauded in the book for his depth of knowledge. In the 1930's and 1940's he supported the communists in the Spanish Civil War and regaled those veterans. Did he never read Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia?" It was released soon after Orwell's return from Spain.
Multiple times in this biography the question is asked: Why did we drop the bomb on an essentially defeated enemy?" Have the authors not read Eugene Sledge's gripping autobiography "With the Old Breed" about his nightmarish experiences on Okinawa with the USMC? If you have the courage, read of this Alabaman's experiences fighting that same "defeated" Japanese foe.
I believe the authors allowed their sympathy for Oppenheimer to cloud their vision. They excused horrible behavior and judgment. They were quick to slander General Groves, President Truman and others. These men were unjustly represented and given a one dimensional mention, all negative.
There is much to learn of the tragic figure of Oppenheimer in this book. It is a worthwhile book, but I do not believe worthy of either a Pulitzer prize or space on your bookshelf.
on May 29, 2009
I was disappointed by this book. Maybe that is my own fault. I went in knowing a lot about Oppenheimer. He was a family friend and his fall from grace was a topic of much discussion.
I was expecting a book that would link him with his ideas, his physics, and with the nitty gritty of the physics that was done at Los Alamos. What I really did not want to read was a rehash of the evidence regarding his political affiliations and the removal of his Q clearance.
To me the tragedy of this man was that he could never sit still long enough to do the physics that he was truly capable of doing and which a little self-discipline would have ensured. It is quite possible he could have eclipsed them all and, quite possibly, have brought quantum mechanics closer to the theory of relativity.
The book is superbly, written and eminently engaging. But the story is not new.