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American Prometheus [Audio CD]

Kai Bird , Martin J. Sherwin , Jeff Cummings
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Feb. 1 2007
J. Robert Oppenheimer is one of the iconic figures of the twentieth century, a brilliant physicist who led the effort to build the atomic bomb for his country in a time of war, and who later found himself confronting the moral consequences of scientific progress. In this magisterial, acclaimed biography twenty-five years in the making, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin capture Oppenheimer’s life and times, from his early career to his central role in the Cold War. This is biography and history at its finest, riveting and deeply informative.
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Robert Oppenheimer's work as director of the Manhattan Project--bringing hundreds of iconoclastic nuclear physicists together in the New Mexico desert to design and build the first atomic bomb--remains one of the most remarkable feats, both triumphant and tragic, of the twentieth century, but as this definitive biography makes clear, it was only one chapter in a profoundly fascinating, richly complex, and ineffably sad American life. Bird and Sherwin set the stage beautifully, detailing Oppenheimer's young life as a multidisciplinary child prodigy at the progressive Ethical Culture School in Manhattan. The young Oppenheimer was a tangled mix of precocity and insecurity--a far cry from the charismatic leader who would emerge at Los Alamos. Funneling more than 25 years of research into a captivating narrative, the authors bring needed perspective to Oppenheimer's radical activities in the 1930s, and they reprise the familiar story of the Manhattan Project thoroughly, though without attempting the scope and scientific detail of Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1987). Where Bird and Sherwin are without peer, however, is in capturing the humanity of the man behind the porkpie hat, both at Los Alamos and in the tragic aftermath, when Oppenheimer's tireless efforts to promote arms control made him the target of politicians and bureaucrats, leading to the revoking of his security clearance by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1954, during a hearing that the authors portray convincingly as a kangaroo court. That Oppenheimer both helped father the bomb and was crucified for lobbying against the arms race remains the fundamental irony in a supremely ironic story. That irony as well as the ambiguity and tortured emotions behind it are captured in all their intensity in this compelling life story. Bill Ott
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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5.0 out of 5 stars A remarkable life for remarkable times Oct. 7 2010
Could the bomb have been built without Oppie? There is no answer to this, but this excellent biography convinced me that History was right to pick him for the job, so to speak. Baird and Sherwin successfully portray this most colourful character in his private as much as his public life. My only disappointment, perhaps, is that the biography seems to unravel towards the end, in sync with Oppenheimer's. Is this intentional, or a result of too many years spent on the project? I can only venture a guess, but the reader, out of breath, wishes Oppenheimer had lived longer.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Book Sept. 30 2010
This is an excellent biography on Oppenheimer. I throughly enjoyed it. Includes in one package all that I have read on Oppenheimer in other articles in bits and pieces. Highly recommended.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliance laced with tragedy April 30 2010
Falling in love with physics is the most dangerous kind of love, because it makes everything else in life boring in comparison. Oppenheimer is one of those passionate physicists who love what they are doing without any expectation of prestigious prizes or popularity, a breed of intellectuals that are very hard to come by nowadays. A great physicist with a colorful life, full of adventures, who also had to deal with a big injustice later in his life. The recipe for a great biography is not only the subject of the book but also the style and insight of the biographer who in this case is just impeccable! Detailed, deep and brings you very close to Oppenheimer. After reading this book you'll feel as if you've known Oppenheimer all your life, and even played with him in the backyard of your home when you were both little kids!

I've read about other physicists' interest in poetry but Oppenheimer is the first I know of who also wrote them. Some of his poems not only imprints, but burns, a vivid impression in your mind. To combine such a delicate appreciation for beauty and also an extraordinary mind for the abstracts of physics is phenomenal.

Great book and I recommend it to anyone interested in the lives and times of last century great physicists.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.5 out of 5 stars  169 reviews
159 of 171 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How the bomb got built here first March 16 2008
By Michael R. Chernick - Published on
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.
96 of 104 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Sharp, Lucid Look at Oppenheimer April 7 2005
By R.F.Bauer - Published on
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.
84 of 96 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A compelling portrait of a complex man May 7 2005
By Wayne Klein - Published on
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.
29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Science, Evolution, and Conscience Sept. 21 2013
By Keith McCullough - Published on
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... 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.

25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Price of Genius July 21 2005
By Edward P. Matos - Published on
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.
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