Saturday, October 25, 2008

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

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird, Martin J. Sherwin was originally published in 2005. My paperback copy has 719 pages, including notes and index. Winner of the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2006 Pulitzer Prize, for Biography, this is the definitive biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. It is a great example of a well researched and carefully written biography, however, it is also a massive, very thorough biography. If you are simply mildly curious about Oppenheimer, then you might want to consider a less detailed account of his life. Excellent biography Rating: 5

personal note: It was quite interesting to note that the Oppenheimer family originally owned the Van Gogh painting, First Steps (After Millet) and later brother Frank had to sell it due to his being black listed and unable to find work as a physicist. I have had a print of this painting in my home for years.

Description from cover:
J.Robert Oppenheimer is one of the iconic figures of the twentieth century, a brilliant physicist who led the effort to build the atomic bomb for his country in a time of war, and who later found himself confronting the moral consequences of scientific progress. In this magisterial acclaimed biography twenty-five years in the making, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin capture Oppenheimer's life and times, from his early career to his central role in the Cold War. This is biography and history at its finest, riveting and deeply informative.

"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. Opening sentence, preface pg. ix

"As the tide of anticommunism rose in postwar America, Oppenheimer became increasingly aware that 'a beast in the jungle' was stalking him. His appearances before Red-hunting congressional investigative committees, the FBI taps on his home and office phones, the scurrilous stories about his political past and policy recommendations planted in the press made him feel like a hunted man. preface pg. ix

"Those years were some of the finest of his life. That they were so easily used to silence his voice a decade later is a reminder of how delicately balanced are the democratic principles we profess, and how carefully they must be guarded." preface pg. xi

"Some knew him as their gentle teacher and affectionately called him 'Oppie.' Others knew him as a great physicist, a man who in 1945 had become the 'father' of the atomic bomb, a national hero and emblem of a scientist as a public servant. And everyone remembered with deep bitterness how, just nine years later, the new administration....had declared him a security risk - making Robert Oppenheimer the most prominent victim of America's anti-communist crusade." pg. 3

" 'I was an unctuous, repulsively good little boy...My life as a child did not prepare me for the fact that the world is full of cruel and bitter things.' " pg. 21

"Robert's seemingly brittle and delicate shell actually disguised a stoic personality built of stubborn pride and determination, a characteristic that would reappear throughout his life. pg. 21

"Robert seemed to divide the world into people who were worth his time and those who were not." pg. 72

"His physics was good, but his arithmetic awful." pg. 88

"Students felt free to interrupt Oppie with a question. 'He generally would answer patiently....unless the question was manifestly stupid, in which event his response was likely to be quite caustic.' " pg. 170

"Years later, Oppenheimer claimed wryly that, 'The government paid more to tap my telephone than they ever paid me at Los Alamos.' " pg. 405

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