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American Prometheus: the Triumph and Tragedy…

American Prometheus: the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2005)

by Kai Bird, Martin J. Sherwin

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Showing 1-5 of 21 (next | show all)
Well written, engaging story. Also an extremely tough read if you have no understanding of physics. I read a review on another site that said this was written for the lay person. I disagree. I struggled to let go of my neurotic need to understand every word written to enjoy this book. The physics was just beyond me. In fairness to the authors I also have zero interest in physics so I'm sure that didn't help, but I did try. Once beyond Oppenheimer's education and into the cold war and politics of the time I found it much more enjoyable. Still, not a light read by any means. To sum it up, science and politics. I think a reader needs some interest in one or both to get through this one.
On a side note this is most definitely a hagiography. The respect the authors have for Oppenheimer is well deserved, I agree with that. The author's spin on a few things didn't sit well with me. Not that anything Oppenheimer did was terrible, after all he was human, I just didn't like the authors pushing the reader to see everything in a positive light. ( )
  flippinpages | Jun 27, 2014 |
This is the finest biography I've ever read. B. Ramirez
  SFCC | Jun 5, 2013 |
I'm in a daze after reading this. The brilliance, naivete, and guilt of this man - it is unimaginable. How can it even be comprehended? ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
I am old enough to remember the 1954 hearings in the matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, but I was too young to understand that there was more to this story about a supposed Communist in the nuclear weapons program than was being reported in the Los Angeles newspapers of the time. Much later I read Philip Stern's 1969 book, The Oppenheimer Case: Security on Trial and even the Atomic Energy Commission's transcript of the hearings, a tome of over 1000 pages that one once could buy from the US Government Printing Office (no longer available). Focusing as they did on only the tragic end of his career in the AEC, I did not understand the connection between the trial and the rest of the career of this charismatic genius, known to chemists for the Born-Oppenheimer approximation. Now comes American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, an insightful and engaging, National Book Critics Circle Award-winning biography. This book is written so well that you feel as if you come to know its subject - a complicated and troubled soul. The man that emerges is not simply the opponent of the development of fusion weapons, the advocate against secrecy that appeared on Edward R. Murrow's "See It Now" television program, or the captain of the Manhattan Project. He is very human in American Prometheus, which is recently available in a paperback edition. ( )
  hcubic | Feb 1, 2013 |
Oppenheimer was a privileged, awkward prodigy who grew into a privileged, awkward scientific star. Devoted husband to a troubled wife, adulterer, distant parent, devoted friend, capable of great charm and great vitriol and using the latter instead of the former at the worst possible moments, he was clearly a complex figure. He comes off in the book as more amanuensis than self-sufficient scientist, capable of generating great ideas but not interested in working them through, able to see (and show other people) the greatest potential in others’ scientific ideas even though his own individual scientific contributions may not have been as striking. Initially an idea man, he made himself into an excellent administrator at Los Alamos apparently just by realizing that he was in charge now and that it needed to be done. Hailed as the father of the atomic bomb, he then began to worry about its implications (though while opposing the hydrogen bomb he became a serious advocate of strategic nuclear bombing on the battlefield, so he wasn’t exactly a purist), and this as well as his lefty history, combined with his habit of making politically powerful enemies, led to the humiliation of having his security clearance revoked at the height of the anticommunist hysteria of the 1950s. It’s a fascinating story of a contradictory man across a tumultuous period in American society. ( )
  rivkat | Jul 13, 2011 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Kai Birdprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Sherwin, Martin J.main authorall editionsconfirmed
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Modern Prometheans have raided Mount Olympus again and have brought back for man the very thunderbolts of Zeus.
-- Scientific Monthly
September 1945
Prometheus stole fire and gave it to men. But when Zeus learned of it, he ordered Hephaestus to mail his body to Mount Caucasus. On it Prometheus was nailed and kept bound for many years. Every day an eagle swooped on him and devoured the lobes of his liver, which grew by night.

-- Apollodorus, The Library, book 1:7,
second century B.C.
for Susan Goldmark and Susan Sherwin
and in memory of
Angus Cameron
Jean Mayer
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Robert Oppenheimer's life -- his career, his reputation, even his sense of self-worth -- suddenly spun out of control four days before Christmas in 1953.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375726268, Perfect Paperback)

In American Prometheus, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin delve deep into J. Robert Oppenheimer's life and deliver a thorough and devastatingly sad biography of the man whose very name has come to represent the culmination of 20th century physics and the irrevocable soiling of science by governments eager to exploit its products. Rich in historical detail and personal narratives, the book paints a picture of Oppenheimer as both a controlling force and victim of the mechanisms of power.

By the time the story reaches Oppenheimer's fateful Manhattan Project work, readers have been swept along much as the project's young physicists were by fate and enormous pressure. The authors allow the scientists to speak for themselves about their reactions to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, avoiding any sort of preacherly tone while revealing the utter, horrible ambiguity of the situation. For instance, Oppenheimer wrote in a letter to a friend, "The thing had to be done," then, "Circumstances are heavy with misgiving."

Many biographies of Oppenheimer end here, with the seeds of his later pacifism sown and the dangers of mixing science with politics clearly outlined. But Bird and Sherwin devote the second half of this hefty book to what happened to Oppenheimer after the bomb. For a short time, he was lionized as the ultimate patriot by a victorious nation, but things soured as the Cold War crept forward and anti-communist witchhunts focused paranoia and anti-Semitism onto Oppenheimer, destroying his career and disillusioning him about his life's work. Devastated by the atom bomb's legacy of fear, he became a vocal and passionate opponent of the Strangelovian madness that gripped the world because of the weapons he helped develop.

Twenty-five years of research went into creating American Prometheus, and there has never been a more honest and complete biography of this tragic scientific giant. The many great ironies of Oppenheimer's life are revealed through the careful reconstruction of a wealth of records, conversations, and ideas, leaving the clearest picture yet of his life. --Therese Littleton

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:02:57 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

The first full-scale biography of the "father of the atomic bomb," the brilliant, charismatic physicist who led the effort to capture the fire of the sun for his country in time of war. After Hiroshima, he became the most famous scientist of his generation--an icon of modern man confronting the consequences of scientific progress. He created a radical proposal to place international controls over atomic materials, opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb and criticized the Air Force's plans to fight a nuclear war. In the hysteria of the early 1950s, his ideas were anathema to powerful advocates of a massive nuclear buildup, and people such as Edward Teller and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover worked behind the scenes to obtain a finding that he could not be trusted with America's nuclear secrets. This book is both biography and history, significant to our understanding of our recent past--and of our choices for the future.… (more)

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