The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
Publication Date: April 5, 2005
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American Prometheus is the first full-scale biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, “father of the atomic bomb,” the brilliant, charismatic physicist who led the effort to capture the awesome fire of the sun for his country in time of war. Immediately after Hiroshima, he became the most famous scientist of his generation–one of the iconic figures of the twentieth century, the embodiment of modern man confronting the consequences of scientific progress.
He was the author of a radical proposal to place international controls over atomic materials–an idea that is still relevant today. He opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb and criticized the Air Force’s plans to fight an infinitely dangerous nuclear war. In the now almost-forgotten hysteria of the early 1950s, his ideas were anathema to powerful advocates of a massive nuclear buildup, and, in response, Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss, Superbomb advocate Edward Teller and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover worked behind the scenes to have a hearing board find that Oppenheimer could not be trusted with America’s nuclear secrets.
American Prometheus sets forth Oppenheimer’s life and times in revealing and unprecedented detail. Exhaustively researched, it is based on thousands of records and letters gathered from archives in America and abroad, on massive FBI files and on close to a hundred interviews with Oppenheimer’s friends, relatives and colleagues.
We follow him from his earliest education at the turn of the twentieth century at New York City’s Ethical Culture School, through personal crises at Harvard and Cambridge universities. Then to Germany, where he studied quantum physics with the world’s most accomplished theorists; and to Berkeley, California, where he established, during the 1930s, the leading American school of theoretical physics, and where he became deeply involved with social justice causes and their advocates, many of whom were communists. Then to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where he transformed a bleak mesa into the world’s most potent nuclear weapons laboratory–and where he himself was transformed. And finally, to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, which he directed from 1947 to 1966.
American Prometheus is a rich evocation of America at midcentury, a new and compelling portrait of a brilliant, ambitious, complex and flawed man profoundly connected to its major events–the Depression, World War II and the Cold War. It is at once biography and history, and essential to our understanding of our recent past–and of our choices for the future.
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.
Martin J. Sherwin is the Walter S. Dickson Professor of English and American History at Tufts University and author of A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies, which won the Stuart L. Bernath Prize, as well as the American History Book Prize. He and his wife live in Boston and Washington, D.C.
—"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."
"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."
“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.”
“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