American Prometheus Audio CD – Feb 1 2007
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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 alternate Audio CD edition.
*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 alternate Audio CD edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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.
I encourage everyone to read this book, especially those who were dissatisfied with previous attempts to define the man. Prometheus gives a good balance to all the issues, childhood, education, Berkeley, Cal Tech, Communist affiliations, the bomb, and his later life tragedies. Agreed, the authors had access to more material than previous writers, but American Prometheus employs eminently readable prose with the skill to explain highly technical concepts in understandable layman's terms. As a layman, I appreciate that.
This biography was 25 years in the making, with Sherwin's research beginning in 1979. Many of Oppenheimer's contemporaries were still alive and extensive interviews help flesh out this engaging look at a true genius. This thoroughly documented and annotated work is a joy to read.
Special note: The authors credit material used from Jon Else's documentary "The Day After Trinity." If you want to hear Serber, Bethe, Rabi, Frank Oppenheimer and others in the flesh, check out the DVD version of this film, a good companion to American Prometheus.
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