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American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer Hardcover – April 5, 2005


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 721 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (April 5, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375412026
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375412028
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.6 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (191 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #343,641 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Though many recognize Oppenheimer (1904–1967) as the father of the atomic bomb, few are as familiar with his career before and after Los Alamos. Sherwin (A World Destroyed) has spent 25 years researching every facet of Oppenheimer's life, from his childhood on Manhattan's Upper West Side and his prewar years as a Berkeley physicist to his public humiliation when he was branded a security risk at the height of anticommunist hysteria in 1954. Teaming up with Bird, an acclaimed Cold War historian (The Color of Truth), Sherwin examines the evidence surrounding Oppenheimer's "hazy and vague" connections to the Communist Party in the 1930s—loose interactions consistent with the activities of contemporary progressives. But those politics, in combination with Oppenheimer's abrasive personality, were enough for conservatives, from fellow scientist Edward Teller to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, to work at destroying Oppenheimer's postwar reputation and prevent him from swaying public opinion against the development of a hydrogen bomb. Bird and Sherwin identify Atomic Energy Commission head Lewis Strauss as the ringleader of a "conspiracy" that culminated in a security clearance hearing designed as a "show trial." Strauss's tactics included illegal wiretaps of Oppenheimer's attorney; those transcripts and other government documents are invaluable in debunking the charges against Oppenheimer. The political drama is enhanced by the close attention to Oppenheimer's personal life, and Bird and Sherwin do not conceal their occasional frustration with his arrogant stonewalling and panicky blunders, even as they shed light on the psychological roots for those failures, restoring human complexity to a man who had been both elevated and demonized. 32 pages of photos not seen by PW. (Apr. 10)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Customer Reviews

The book is beautifully written and remarkably easy to read.
E. Klumpner
The book also follows Oppenheimer through his surreal experience in the McCarthy era 1950s when he was stripped of his security clearance.
Brian Lewis
This book is engaging and very successful at portraying the life character and personality of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Michael R. Chernick

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

180 of 193 people found the following review helpful By Michael R. Chernick on March 16, 2008
Format: Paperback
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.
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101 of 109 people found the following review helpful By R.F.Bauer on April 7, 2005
Format: Hardcover
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.
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87 of 99 people found the following review helpful By Wayne Klein HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 7, 2005
Format: Hardcover
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.
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32 of 37 people found the following review helpful By Keith McCullough on September 21, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Summary Thoughts

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

Content Highlights

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...
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