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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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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.

Review

“The definitive biography. . . . Oppenheimer’s life doesn’t influence us. It haunts us.” –Newsweek“A masterful account of Oppenheimer’s rise and fall, set in the context of the turbulent decades of America’s own transformation. It is a tour de force.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review“A work of voluminous scholarship and lucid insight, unifying its multifaceted portrait with a keen grasp of Oppenheimer’s essential nature. . . . It succeeds in deeply fathoming his most damaging, self-contradictory behavior.” –The New York Times“There have been numerous books about Oppenheimer but they can't touch this extraordinary book's impressive breadth and scope.” –The Miami Herald“The first biography to give full due to Oppenheimer’s extraordinary complexity . . . Stands as an Everest among the mountains of books on the bomb project and Oppenheimer, and is an achievement not likely to be surpassed or equaled.”–The Boston Globe --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From the Back Cover

—"Four decades after his death, J. Robert Oppenheimer has finally received the indepth, insightful, and judicious biography he deserves. This book is a fascinating portrait of a brilliant and tragic life, and of America in the nuclear age."
—Eric Foner

"This fascinating and thoughtful book brilliantly captures the political and scientific struggles of the early atomic age. Oppenheimer's triumphs and trials show how public policy, scientific genius and private character become interwoven. Bird and Sherwin have triumphed in turning their prodigious research about the father of the bomb into a poignant narrative."
—Walter Isaacson

“This superb biography provides fresh revelations and penetrating insights about the complex and fascinating personality of Robert Oppenheimer. American Prometheus, is meticulously researched, eloquently written and a joy to read. The account of his 1954 trial is spellbinding.”
—Robert S. Norris, author of Racing for the Bomb, General Leslie R. Groves the Manhattan Project’s Indispensable Man

“American Prometheus is the best--most thoroughly researched and most convincingly argued--study of J. Robert Oppenheimer to date. It is not only a great biography but also a cautionary tale about the excesses of government in a time of fear. No one interested in 20th-century America can afford to ignore this book.”
—Robert Dallek


“The political drama is enhanced by the close attention to Oppenheimer’s personal life,...restoring human complexity to a man who had been both elevated and demonized.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Compelling, definitive...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...Where Bird and Sherwin are without peer, however, is in capturing the humanity of the man behind the porkpie hat.”
Booklist, starred review

“A swiftly moving narrative full of morality tales and juicy gossip. One of the best scientific biographies to appear in recent years.”
Kirkus, starred review

“A masterful account—a tour de force, 25 years in the making—of Oppenheimer’s rise and fall, set in the context of the turbulent decades of American’s own transformation.”
—Gerald Holton, Front page, Los Angeles Times

“Comprehensive, finely judged where it most matters, and sometimes revelatory . . . Bird and Sherwin capture all the drama and exhilaration and ironic glory (of Los Alamos) . . . and show how well he anticipated our own world, where nuclear materials and technologies percolate through shadowy networks.”
—James Gleick, Front page, Washington Post Book World

“A nuanced and exacting portrait.”
—Elizabeth Svoboda, Front page San Francisco Chronicle

“The definitive biography...Oppenheimer’s life does not influence us. It haunts us.”
–Malcom Jones, Newsweek

“A work of voluminous scholarship and lucid insight, unifying its multifaceted portrait with a keen grasp of Oppenheimer’s essential nature...charm and bravado on the surface, Dostoyevskian darkness underneath.”
–Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“In this stunning blockbuster, two accomplished Cold War historians have come together to tell Robert Oppenheimer’s poignant and extraordinary story.”
–Lawrence D. Freedman, Foreign Affairs

“Superb...A vivid portrait is painted of a charismatic, immensely human theoretical physicist, who was as talented as he was complex.”
–Ike Seamans, The Miami Herald

"A masterpiece of scholarship and riveting writing that brings vividly to life the complicated and often enigmatic Oppenheimer."
—Eric Arnesen, The Chicago Tribune --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Kai Bird is the author of The Chairman: John J. McCloy, The Making of the American Establishment and The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy, Brothers in Arms. He coedited with Lawrence Lifschultz Hiroshima’s Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy. A contributing editor of The Nation, he lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and son. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1
In the first decade of the twentieth century, science initiated a second American revolution. A nation on horseback was soon transformed by the internal combustion engine, manned flight and a multitude of other inventions. These technological innovations quickly changed the lives of ordinary men and women. But simultaneously an esoteric band of scientists was creating an even more fundamental revolution. Theoretical physicists across the globe were beginning to alter the way we understand space and time. Radioactivity was discovered on March 1, 1896, by the French physicist Henri Becquerel. Max Planck, Marie Curie and Pierre Curie and others provided further insights into the nature of the atom. And then, in 1905, Albert Einstein published his special theory of relativity. Suddenly, the universe appeared to have changed.

Around the globe, scientists were soon to be celebrated as a new kind of hero, promising to usher in a renaissance of rationality, prosperity and social meritocracy. In America, reform movements were challenging the old order. Theodore Roosevelt was using the bully pulpit of the White House to argue that good government in alliance with science and applied technology could forge an enlightened new Progressive Era.

Into this world of promise was born J. Robert Oppenheimer, on April 22, 1904. He came from a family of first- and second-generation German immigrants striving to be American. Ethnically and culturally Jewish, the Oppenheimers of New York belonged to no synagogue. Without rejecting their Jewishness they chose to shape their identity within a uniquely American offshoot of Judaism—the Ethical Culture Society—that celebrated rationalism and a progressive brand of secular humanism. This was at the same time an innovative approach to the quandaries any immigrant to America faced—and yet for Robert Oppenheimer it reinforced a lifelong ambivalence about his Jewish identity.

As its name suggests, Ethical Culture was not a religion but a way of life that promoted social justice over self-aggrandizement. It was no accident that the young boy who would become known as the father of the atomic era was reared in a culture that valued independent inquiry, empirical exploration and the free-thinking mind—in short, the values of science. And yet, it was the irony of Robert Oppenheimer’s odyssey that a life devoted to social justice, rationality and science would become a metaphor for mass death beneath a mushroom cloud.

Robert’s father, Julius Oppenheimer, was born on May 12, 1871, in the German town of Hanau, just east of Frankfurt. Julius’ father, Benjamin Pinhas Oppenheimer, was an untutored peasant and grain trader who had been raised in a hovel in “an almost medieval German village,” Robert later reported. Julius had two brothers and three sisters. In 1870, two of Benjamin’s cousins by marriage emigrated to New York. Within a few years these two young men—named Sigmund and Solomon Rothfeld—joined another relative, J. H. Stern, to start a small company to import men’s suit linings. The company did extremely well serving the city’s flourishing new trade in ready-made clothing. In the late 1880s, the Rothfelds sent word to Benjamin Oppenheimer that there was room in the business for his sons.

Julius arrived in New York in the spring of 1888, several years after his older brother Emil. A tall, thin-limbed, awkward young man, he was put to work in the company warehouse, sorting bolts of cloth. Although he brought no monetary assets to the firm and spoke not a word of English, he was determined to remake himself. He had an eye for color and in time acquired a reputation as one of the most knowledgeable “fabrics” men in the city. Emil and Julius rode out the recession of 1893, and by the turn of the century Julius was a full partner in the firm of Rothfeld, Stern & Company. He dressed to fit the part, always adorned in a white high-collared shirt, a conservative tie and a dark business suit. His manners were as immaculate as his dress. From all accounts, Julius was an extremely likeable young man. “You have a way with you that just invites confidence to the highest degree,” wrote his future wife in 1903, “and for the best and finest reasons.” By the time he turned thirty, he spoke remarkably good English, and, though completely self-taught, he had read widely in American and European history. A lover of art, he spent his free hours on weekends roaming New York’s numerous art galleries.

It may have been on one such occasion that he was introduced to a young painter, Ella Friedman, “an exquisitely beautiful” brunette with finely chiseled features, “expressive gray-blue eyes and long black lashes,” a slender figure—and a congenitally unformed left hand. To hide this deformity, Ella always wore long sleeves and a pair of chamois gloves. The glove covering her left hand contained a primitive prosthetic device with a spring attached to an artificial thumb. Julius fell in love with her. The Friedmans, of Bavarian Jewish extraction, had settled in Baltimore in the 1840s. Ella was born in 1869. A family friend once described her as “a gentle, exquisite, slim, tallish, blue-eyed woman, terribly sensitive, extremely polite; she was always thinking what would make people comfortable or happy.” In her twenties, she spent a year in Paris studying the early Impressionist painters. Upon her return she taught art at Barnard College. By the time she met Julius, she was an accomplished enough painter to have her own students and a private rooftop studio in a New York apartment building.

All this was unusual enough for a woman at the turn of the century, but Ella was a powerful personality in many respects. Her formal, elegant demeanor struck some people upon first acquaintance as haughty coolness. Her drive and discipline in the studio and at home seemed excessive in a woman so blessed with material comforts. Julius worshipped her, and she returned his love. Just days before their marriage, Ella wrote to her fiancé: “I do so want you to be able to enjoy life in its best and fullest sense, and you will help me take care of you? To take care of someone whom one really loves has an indescribable sweetness of which a whole lifetime cannot rob me. Good-night, dearest.”

On March 23, 1903, Julius and Ella were married and moved into a sharp-gabled stone house at 250 West 94th Street. A year later, in the midst of the coldest spring on record, Ella, thirty-four years old, gave birth to a son after a difficult pregnancy. Julius had already settled on naming his firstborn Robert; but at the last moment, according to family lore, he decided to add a first initial, “J,” in front of “Robert.” Actually, the boy’s birth certificate reads “Julius Robert Oppenheimer,” evidence that Julius had decided to name the boy after himself. This would be unremarkable—except that naming a baby after any living relative is contrary to European Jewish tradition. In any case, the boy would always be called Robert and, curiously, he in turn always insisted that his first initial stood for nothing at all. Apparently, Jewish traditions played no role in the Oppenheimer household.

Sometime after Robert’s arrival, Julius moved his family to a spacious eleventh-floor apartment at 155 Riverside Drive, overlooking the Hudson River at West 88th Street. The apartment, occupying an entire floor, was exquisitely decorated with fine European furniture. Over the years, the Oppenheimers also acquired a remarkable collection of French Postimpressionist and Fauvist paintings chosen by Ella. By the time Robert was a young man, the collection included a 1901 “blue period” painting by Pablo Picasso entitled Mother and Child, a Rembrandt etching, and paintings by Edouard Vuillard, André Derain and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Three Vincent Van Gogh paintings—Enclosed Field with Rising Sun (Saint-Remy, 1889), First Steps (After Millet) (Saint-Remy, 1889) and Portrait of Adeline Ravoux (Auvers-sur-Oise, 1890)—dominated a living room wallpapered in gold gilt. Sometime later they acquired a drawing by Paul Cézanne and a painting by Maurice de Vlaminck. A head by the French sculptor Charles Despiau rounded out this exquisite collection.*

Ella ran the household to exacting standards. “Excellence and purpose” was a constant refrain in young Robert’s ears. Three live-in maids kept the apartment spotless. Robert had a Catholic Irish nursemaid named Nellie Connolly, and later, a French governess who taught him a little French. German, on the other hand, was not spoken at home. “My mother didn’t talk it well,” Robert recalled, “[and] my father didn’t believe in talking it.” Robert would learn German in school.

On weekends, the family would go for drives in the countryside in their Packard, driven by a gray-uniformed chauffeur. When Robert was eleven or twelve, Julius bought a substantial summer home at Bay Shore, Long Island, where Robert learned to sail. At the pier below the house, Julius moored a forty-foot sailing yacht, christened the Lorelei, a luxurious craft outfitted with all the amenities. “It was lovely on that bay,” Robert’s brother, Frank, would later recall fondly. “It was seven acres . . . a big vegetable garden and lots and lots of flowers.” As a family friend later observed, “Robert was doted on by his parents. . . . He had everything he wanted; you might say he was brought up in luxury.” But despite this, none of his childhood friends thought him spoiled. “He was extremely generous with money and material things,” recalled Harold Cherniss. “He was not a spoiled child in any sense.”

By 1914, w... --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From AudioFile

J. Robert Oppenheimer used his brilliant mind to organize and build the first atomic bomb. At war's end he faced a harder battle--suffering the '50s pogroms of Senator Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover for his and his wife's ties with the Communist Party. Oppy's life brought him into the spheres of the great intellectuals and politicos of the time. Although Jeff Cummings moves briskly, his phonetics never soften. Cummings faces a prodigious text with more facts, quotes, and testimony than fuzzy stories. He could have used theater voices for the rapid-fire Senate interrogations, but the tempo and detachment he assumes fit the task. He uses an unstudied gringo accent for the occasional Spanish names and words. J.A.H. © AudioFile 2007, Portland, Maine-- Copyright © AudioFile, Portland, Maine
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