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Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma Paperback – August 4, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

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 audience—curious general readers, not those steeped in science history. 7 b&w photos not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

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 Ott
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 238 pages
  • Publisher: Ivan R. Dee (August 4, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1566636663
  • ISBN-13: 978-1566636667
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,420,201 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Curious Wavefunction VINE VOICE on August 18, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Jeremy Bernstein obviously admires J. Robert Oppenheimer. This is not surprising. Almost everyone who came in contact with his sparkling intellect idolised him. In the 1930s, as a Professor at Berkeley, his students were so awestruck by him, that they could frequently be seen imitating his mannerisms. There were a few who loathed him for his high brow attitude and sharp tongue. In fact, people who met him could roughly be divided into the above two categories. However, the latter formed an exception. The result is that he is generally considered by everyone who had known him, whether it was the janitor at Los Alamos, or Nobel Laureates, as an exceptionally brilliant intellect, and one who also had acute insight into human nature and the consequences of the atomic age.

Now in this new biography, Bernstein brings his well known skills at chronicling famous scientists to bear upon this remarkable man. There have been a few biographies of him so far. Probably the one by Peter Michelmore is most compelling. (The Swift Years: The Robert Oppenheimer Story)The closest that one can get to knowing him well is through his touching and insightful collection of letters, chronicled by Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner.(Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections) But almost forty years after his death in 1967, what made him tick still seems a mystery. Was it his innate charisma and the blue, innocent, harrowing glare of his eyes, or his lightning fast mind? Was it his incredible knowledge about all things intellectual, from physics to Dante to the Bhagavad Gita? Was it his mesmerising command over the English language, a mixture of spell binding and obscure words, that drew hundreds to his lectures? Or was it his role as the Hamlet and conscience of the atomic age?
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Tim R. Niles on July 12, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book has supplied insights and information which none of my readings on the topic of Oppenheimer or the Manhattan Project or Los Alamos (where I spent part of my childhood, hence the interest) has provided.
This is not a massive tome with large quantities of detail related to any one specific area of Oppenheimer's life, but provides information that tends to hold the massive amounts of data which has been written about him at a more personal level.
All in all, a readable, cogent, human book about a man whose life seems filled with contradictions and disparate interests.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Midwest Book Review on May 5, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Oppenheimer: Portrait Of An Enigma is the biography of the preeminent American nuclear scientist has been a long-awaited book: Biographer Jeremy Berstein spent two years at the institute where Robert Oppenheimer was director, observed him nearly daily, and is in the perfect position to blend history with personal observation. The nuclear physicist Oppenheimer was key in creating the atomic bomb, and was a genius both scientifically and otherwise: Oppenheimer's science, background, and most of all the personal talks between biographer and scientist spice up a revealing, involving, highly recommended biographical survey.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Kylo Ginsberg on February 11, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Not knowing anything about Oppenheimer, I thought I'd dive in with Jeremy Bernstein's short bio. With Bernstein's credentials as a long time writer for the New Yorker, and as a physicist who knew Oppenheimer, this looked like a great intro.

I couldn't be more wrong. Sadly, this is a poorly written, poorly edited book. Bernstein's credentials intrude embarassingly often as he frequently inserts inconsequential and irrelevant asides with anecdotes about when he perchance met someone in the narrative. He comes across as self-aggrandizing (and without merit - ouch!).

That aside, he also writes poorly, not knowing how to organize his story, when to provide details, etc. I can't imagine I've ever read a book (especially a short 200 page essay) with so many awkward forward references: "I will come back to the matter ..." occurs far too many times for readibility. On the other hand, he will detour into a technical explanation of Plutonium-239 v Plutonium-240, then not use the information for any apparent purpose.

All that said, I can imagine that real students of Oppenheimer might find this interesting precisely for the odd tidbits he may offer that aren't in any other bios or narratives of the time. Such students also will find it easier to navigate through his disorganized narrative of the hearing and so forth. More general readers should look elsewhere. I myself will be trying Brotherhood of the Bomb next.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Asha Toulmin on April 5, 2006
Format: Hardcover
From Oppenheimer's childhood days at the Ethical Culture School and the professors that influenced him to his time spent at the Institute towards the end of his life, Bernstein gives an enjoyable and easily readable overview of the physicist's life. Not only focusing on the trial and keeping a good balance between the darker and lighter sides of Oppenheimer personality, Bernstein never truly explores Oppenheimer's psychological problems or attempts to render an explanation for his unusual behavior. Although this might have brought the reader closer to the subject of the book it could be the effect that Bernstein intended as throughout the book Oppenheimer appears to be more than just a man and more of an enigma. The book is also clearly a work of passion from Bernstein who was an acquaintance and intellectual admirer of Oppenheimer's, thus his reason for wanting to write the biography, which makes the book seem biased, although the author does do a good job of distinguishing the biases of his sources. Overall the book was very enjoyable and I actually looked forward to reading it. Considering my limited knowledge of the physics behind the atomic bomb project I could understand and learn what happened relatively easy. This book is perfect for anyone wanting to know more about the contributions to the Los Alamos project and Oppenheimer's life with some understanding of physics and chemistry.
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