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American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

by Kai Bird

Library Journal: Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in the life, career, achievements, and trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the "father" of the atomic bomb. In 2004, there were two new biographies by significant science writers—Jeremy Bernstein's Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma and David C. Cassidy's J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century. In addition to this current title, another is scheduled for publication in 2005, Abraham Pais and Robert Crease's Shatterer of Worlds: A Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer. This collaboration between writer Bird and English professor Sherwin is an expansive but fast-paced and engrossing work that draws its strength from the insights provided into Oppenheimer's thoughts and motives and the many anecdotes. The book's five parts cover his youth and education, his early career and dalliance with communism, the Manhattan Project, his return to academe and growing political influence, and, finally, his dealings with the FBI and eventual retreat from public life. The emphasis throughout is on Oppenheimer's personality and how he navigated the sociopolitical minefields of the era, with relatively less discussion of his scientific work. For a readable and well-researched biography of the man, this suffices quite well. However, with so many other biographies available, not to mention histories of the Manhattan Project, it provides little new information here. For general readers in larger public and academic libraries.—Gregg Sapp, Science Lib., SUNY at Albany

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. Distributed by Syndetic Solutions Inc. Terms

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. Distributed by Syndetic Solutions Inc. Terms