“American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin: A little more levity would have well served the authors of this intentionally epic tale. But spending 25 years working on one biography, as Sherwin did, seems to force a more serious tone than living your life under the threat of thermonuclear annihilation.
This book on the life of the father of the atomic bomb has the perfect title: It takes a Promethean effort to plow through this well-documented life story.
We learn more than anyone should want to know about Oppenheimer’s sickly childhood, his controlling mother, his womanizing and his Communist connections, but it’s hard to tell what any of that had to do with forming the scientist who drove his colleagues to success at Los Alamos. It’s hard to find a path through the onslaught of disconnected details to the successful Trinity atomic test, and that’s why most of us want to learn about Oppenheimer.
The authors do a nice job of showing us that the man known to his friends as Oppie was a brilliant, intuitive theoretical physicist who was great at the big picture but never was big on such details as accurate math. If you can avoid being caught up in the drudgery of security investigations and personal feuds, you might get a sense of why he was the right man for the A-bomb job. (For a more enjoyable read with more insight into how the Manhattan Project worked, wait for Jennet Conant’s “109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos,” due out in May.)
Still, Oppenheimer’s life didn’t end in 1945. Bird and Sherwin wisely use his security-clearance hearing for the Atomic Energy Commission in 1954 as the climax, for it marked his transformation from history’s atomic villain to one of the leading victims of McCarthyism. It’s the point at which their Prometheus achieves tragic-hero status, brought down by hubris and the twisted attitudes of the world he helped forge.
Just start the story with Part 3 and save the first 200 pages for reference.
Rating: Borrow it. Reviewed by Michael Jacobs (originally appeared in USA TODAY)
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