From Publishers Weekly
In his preface to this portrait, Bernstein (Cranks, Quarks, and the Cosmos, etc.) is up front with his intentions; "I make no pretense of trying to write a 'definitive' biography of Oppenheimer." Bernstein, a physicist who was a staff writer at the New Yorker for 39 years, is known for his profiles of top scientists, and this book is best understood as an extended magazine profile rather than an exhaustive portrait of the controversial J. Robert Oppenheimer. The author hits all the high (and low) points of Oppenheimer's life, from his role as director of the Los Alamos team that developed the atomic bomb to his struggles with the government during the McCarthy era, but we never really understand what made the physicist tick. Throughout, our view of Oppenheimer is firmly rooted in Bernstein's perspective, fleshed out in part through personal anecdotes of the rare occasions that their paths crossed. Though an interesting window into the physics community through the 20th century, the result is a relatively shallow biography that holds its subject at arm's length, filled with awe and the kind of whispered stories that graduate students pass back and forth about the paramount figures in their field. Bernstein's characterization of this as the New Yorker profile he never wrote may indicate its audiencecurious general readers, not those steeped in science history. 7 b&w photos not seen by PW.
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Bernstein is the author of a series of celebrated New Yorker
profiles of well-known scientists, but he never tackled Robert Oppenheimer. This essay, Bernstein says, should not be regarded as a full biography but rather as the Oppenheimer profile he never wrote. A physicist himself who studied briefly with Oppenheimer, Bernstein brings a mixture of scientific knowledge and journalistic accessibility to the task of explaining the enigma behind the man who brought the world the atomic bomb yet, less than 10 years later, at the height of the cold war, had his security clearance revoked by the Atomic Energy Commission. Drawing on trial transcripts, Bernstein recaps Oppenheimer's security case effectively and provides brief background on his work before the war and at Los Alamos. All of that information is available elsewhere, of course, but what makes this little book worthwhile is its personal view of the conflicted genius, happiest when surrounded by formulas on a chalkboard but never comfortable when the theoretical became the political. A fine introduction to an ever-fascinating man. Bill OttCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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