American Prometheus
Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin
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Buy *American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer* by Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin online

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin
784 pages
April 2006
rated 5 of 5 possible stars
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In battle, in forest, at the precipice of the mountains
On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows,
In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame,
The good deeds a man has done before defend him.
These were verses that Robert Oppenheimer, known as the Father of the Atom Bomb, translated from the Bhagavad Gita scant hours before the first A-bomb test, which took place at a site that Oppie had spontaneously named “Trinity.” Perhaps the trinity he had in mind was the Hindu, rather than the Christian, tri-partite deity: Creator, Preserver and Destroyer. It is well known that upon viewing “the sight of the unearthly mushroom cloud soaring into the heavens,” he recalled yet another passage from the Gita: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Oppie’s life was as full of confusion and shame as of good deeds. By pushing to its inevitable conclusion the construction of two atom bombs, he and his cohorts at Los Alamos ended the Second World War, saving thousands of soldier and civilian lives. Because of Oppenheimer, there was a generation of young men left to repopulate the civilized world. It was his greatest achievement.

Born to a prosperous Jewish family who immediately recognized and coddled his genius, Robert was a thin, handsome, unearthly child who grew into a paralyzingly sexy, charismatic oddball of a teacher/mentor/chemist/physicist/administrator, the one person on the planet who could have pulled the Los Alamos initiative together and made it work under the most taxing conditions. A group of eggheads and their families confined to crude quarters in an isolated spit of sand, sworn to complete secrecy, trying to produce under enormous time constraints the worst weapon the world had ever known, for a noble purpose. Some eggs cracked making that particular omelet.

Oppenheimer visited Japan within a few weeks of the blasts. Overwhelmed by the magnitude of destruction and suffering that the bombings caused, he was reluctant to rush ahead on the production of the massive hydrogen bomb demanded by the military to enforce the coda of the Cold War. That reluctance, along with his earlier connections to the American Communist movement, would cost Oppenheimer dearly.

Riding on the accomplishments at Los Alamos, Oppie became America’s scientific darling and administrator of the think tank at Princeton, the Institute for Advanced Study, as well as the head of the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission. However, there were forces aligned against him. Possibly because he was, as far as human relationships were concerned, extraordinarily naïve, or perhaps because as one of the most prodigious intellects of his time he was extraordinarily arrogant in assuming that he could handle any puny questioning he might face, Oppenheimer went head to head with Lewis Strauss and J. Edgar Hoover, swept up in the maelstrom of the McCarthy era.

There was never any credible evidence that Oppie had participated knowingly in an active way with the Soviet Communists, though he did “fellow travel” with hard leftists in the 1930s, when his ideals demanded it. He made no secret of these associations, even to the point of confessing to an extramarital affair with a young firebrand female. His lifetime partner, Kitty, testified stolidly in his defense despite the obvious humiliation that the hearings engendered for her. Ultimately Oppie lost his position at the AEC and was hounded by the FBI for the rest of his life.

In this exhaustively researched biography, Oppie comes across as heroic and generous at times, and yet not quite human, idolized by his students in his early days as a professor at Cal Tech in Berkeley, vilified by colleagues who probably found him far too otherworldly and innately snobbish. Though he was an inclusive administrator, he had few real peers. No doubt his Jewishness and intellectual superiority played a role in the attacks on his character. Oppie once tried to give his infant daughter to her caregivers, believing that they were capable of providing her the loving home that he and Kitty couldn’t. Kitty, an alcoholic, never bonded with her two children, leaving each of them for several months shortly after they were born. Oppie tried to make them into a family but was just not father material. His son lives in anonymity near the Los Alamos test site, and his daughter committed suicide.

Albert Einstein, who doddered around Princeton and was often in disagreement with Oppie about quantum physics (Oppie once called his theories “completely cuckoo”), said something to the younger genius that perhaps explains best the phenomenon that was Robert Oppenheimer, spoken from his own life experience: “One evening in March 1950, on the occasion of Einstein’s seventy-first birthday, Oppenheimer walked him back to his house on Mercer Street. ‘You know,’ Einstein remarked, ‘when it’s once been given to a man to do something sensible, afterward life is a little strange.’”

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Barbara Bamberger Scott, 2006

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