AMERICAN PROMETHEUS (2005,) by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin.
This monumental and greatly detailed text about a titan of nuclear science
in the day, and as to one whose life was as varied and colorful
as that of a scientist could be, whose life again had been a blessing and a
curse but that nonetheless fit the bill of anyone who modeled and romanticized
popular science; depicts the human side of a once deified public figure who was
at once an unassuming scientist and at the same time an extraordinary and
political and organizational charmer. J.
R. Oppenheimer was a gifted son of a gifted businessman with strong ties to the
old countries of Europe, especially pre – world war Germany. Though JRO was born in New York and raised in
its Upper West Side, his father had emigrated from the Frankfurt area of FRG and
his mother’s family was from Maryland.
JRO was raised in New York and shone in the scientific area and in
mathematics as a young person. His
parents were able to cultivate his genius by sending him to study at various
technical centers including those in U.K. and in Germany on and off again until
late in the 1930’s.
Throughout most of JRO’s adult life there were two major themes that included nuclear science and communism. He and his generation of scientists are responsible for the birth of the nuclear arms race as many of us know it today. His trials about communism also fulfill our image and how many remember the 1950’s U.S. anti – liberal movement. The nuclear bombing of Japan, and his judicial trial during 1953 – 54 brought public attention, sometimes greatly negative in nature, into the personal realm for him, things that would disrupt the life of any responsible and bright character as he was, attributes and foibles at the same time. Science at the time of Oppenheimer was a practical and political jungle full of mythical beasts, imaginary and real, benign and greatly threatening. It is strange the public figure of the day most responsible for popularizing nuclear science and the related dilemmas of the arms race was subject to, and this in the U.S., the ominous forces of society gossip and social pressures among his friends and colleagues that led to the end of his career as a scientist, essentially when he lost his security clearance in the 1950’s.
Perhaps more to blame here than his 1954 bureaucratic trials was the overall deterioration of U.S. / soviet politics at the time: this agonized and humiliated many, and provoked the castigation and ruin of a number of public figures vulnerable to such things. For many as well, the attack on liberalism at the time comprised an attack on America’s values, and this presumed assault exposed the bureaucracy at the time as more and more paternalistic and condemning of the character and personalities of some. For many of those examined and even subject to trial proceedings, their brilliance, stoicism, and personal self – assurance and integrity led frequently to bewildering and defeating, magically destructive antagonisms, first from officialdom and then from everybody. This is / was perhaps due, and this on most pages of this definitive and again detailed text, to JRO’s personal life informing his scientific studies, achievements, and overall scientific work before his audiences, and those who watched and monitored the Oppenheimers closely. An outstanding book.