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Book Review: American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin


"Prometheus stole fire and gave it to men." -Apollodorus, The Library, book 1:7, second century B.C.

"My two great loves are physics and New Mexico. It is a pity that they can't be combined." So wrote J. Robert Oppenheimer, the enigmatic and mystic genius who managed to do just that at Los Alamos following his appointment as Scientific Director of the Manhattan Project.

The father of the atomic bomb was a unique polymath who can justifiably be credited with founding the foremost school of theoretical physics in America. Moreover, in contrast to many gifted mathematicians and physicists, Oppenheimer's intellectual curiosity extended well beyond the limits of his chosen career. He was a prolific reader and loved the arts, especially poetry. He was also fascinated by mysticism and with his remarkable facility to acquire languages with astounding ease, he learned Sanskrit so that he could study the ancient Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita.


December 08, 2007
— In 1928, during a visit to the University of Leiden in the Netherlands Oppenheimer astonished his audience by delivering his lecture in Dutch. The enthusiastic response of his audience included nicknaming him "Opje" which was later transmuted to "Oppie" and stayed with him for the remainder of his life.

Born in New York City on April 22, 1904 of German-Jewish ancestry, Oppenheimer never practiced his faith. His early education was at the Ethical Culture School in New York. The school was founded by Dr. Felix Adler, the son of a prominent Rabbi. Adler believed that to survive in the modern age, Judaism must renounce its "narrow spirit of exclusion" and the belief that the Jews were the chosen people. Rather, they should define and distinguish themselves by their manifest social concern and deeds on behalf of the laboring classes. These values were deeply instilled into Oppenheimer's character and the resulting activism they spawned on his part in the 1930's ultimately sowed the seeds of his undoing during the anti-communist paranoia the swept the country during the McCarthy era.

In 1922, in hopes of its hastening his son's recovery from an illness, Robert's father arranged a summer trip for him to New Mexico. Oppenheimer was immediately struck with the rugged beauty of the high desert and the Sangre de Cristo mountains. From then on, the desert southwest became part of his life. Despite his frail appearance, Oppenheimer possessed remarkable physical stamina. He relished the spartan challanges of long forays into the mountains on horseback carrying only a bare minimum of provisions. In 1928 Oppenheimer's father leased a small ranch in the mountains which they named "Perro Caliente" (Hot Dog). It would serve as Robert's private escape and refuge for years to come. He ultimately purchased the property in 1947.

Oppenheimer graduated summa cum laude after only three years of study at Harvard. Though his undergraduate degree was in chemistry, he had already decided to pursue physics as a career. He went on to do post-graduate work at the famous Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge under J.J. Thomson, the discoverer of the electron, and subsequently at Gottingen in Germany under Max Born. The Cavendish was, at the time, the world epicenter of experimental physics while Gottingen was its equally prestigeous theoretical counterpart.

Oppenheimer was a poor experimentalist and his frustration, for the first time in his life, of not being able to rapidly master an area of study, along with his dismal living conditions, loneliness and a number of personal stuggles precipitated a near pyschotic breakdown associated with an attempt to poison one of his tutors.

Saved from criminal charges by the intense intervention of his father with the Cambridge authorities, Robert sought professional help. Little benefit was gained however, as he complained that he knew more about his condition than his psychiatrists did, which was almost certainly the case.

Rather his epiphany came during a camping trip with friends on Corsica when he read Marcel Proust's A La Recherche du Temps Perdu "a mystical and existential text that spoke to Oppenheimer's troubled soul." One passage stayed with him for life:

Perhaps she would not have considered evil to be so rare, so extraordinary, so estranging a state, had she been able to discern in herself, as in everyone, that indifference which, whatever other names ine may give it, is the terrible an permanent form of cruelty.

The revelation for Oppenheimer seems to have been that his feelings of guilt about his indifference toward the sufferings of others was not unique and that he was not alone in the world in his struggles to reconcile these feelings and to define his own identity. "He no longer needed to despise himself."

In contrast to his experience at Cambridge, Oppenheimer flourished at Gottingen becoming enamoured with beauty, rigor, austerity and depth of theoretical physics, especially the newly burgeoning field of quantum mechanics. He published seven papers out of Gottingen that established his reputation as a leading theoretical physicist including On the Quantum Theory of Molecules, co-authored with Born which is still considered a significant breakthrough in the quantum mechanical understanding of the behavior of molecules.

He received his PhD after only two years. James Franck, one of his oral examiners for his doctorate observed, "I got out of there just in time. He was beginning to as me questions."

With his doctorate in hand and a series of brilliant contributions to quantum physics, Oppenheimer received numerous job offers from prestigious academic institutions. He chose to take a joint appointment at UC Berkeley and Caltech. He rapidly gained a following among the best and brightest of America's aspiring physicists who affectionately mimicked their mentor by adopting his dress, mannerisms, affectations and regrettably, his chain-smoking habit.

Throughout the 1930's he published a string of papers ranging from nuclear to astro-physics. Though he was never awarded the distinction of a Nobel Prize, a 1939 paper entitled "On Continued Gravitational Contraction" was precient in its prediction of the existence of "black holes" and considered by many to be "one of the great papers in twentieth-century physics". It took more than thirty years for Oppenheimer's prediction to be confirmed and it is likely that the work was worthy of the Nobel.

It was also during the mid-1930's that two things happened in Oppenheimer's life with the first begetting the second; he met and fell in love with Jean Tatlock and he began to actively support causes of the disenfranchised and the working classes.

"Beginning in late 1936, my interests began to change...I had a continuing smoldering fury about the treatment of the Jews in Germany...I saw what the Depression was doing to my students. Often they could get no jobs, or jobs which were wholly inadequate. And through them, I began to understand how deeply political and economic events could affect men's lives, I began to feel the need to participate more fully in the life of the community."

The catalyst for this affirmation was Jean Tatlock. She was an attractive, free spirited, yet complicated woman with an acute sense of the psychological. When Oppenheimer met her, she was a medical student aspiring to become a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. She was, "worthy of Robert in every way." The two carried on an intense but turbulent relationship which was ultimately ended by Jean, despite proposals of marriage from Robert. Throughout the years that followed and despite Robert's marriage to Kitty Puening, they remained in contact. Jean ultimately committed suicide under strange, if not bizarre circumstances, but she was...."Robert's truest love. He loved her the most. He was devoted to her." (Robert Serber).

Jean was a member of the Communist Party and spurred Robert from talk into action regarding his Ethical Culture engendered social beliefs. He began to participate in, and contribute to, a number of left-wing causes in the hope of improving the plight of the post-depression disenfranchised and under priviledged working classes. These activities put Oppenheimer in contact with numerous declared and undeclared party members. Yet much to the the chagrin of the FBI, who began to monitor Oppenheimer as a result of his activism and associations -- particularly with Haakon Chevalier, there is no evidence that he himself was ever a Communist party member.

Informed in January, 1939 by a physics student at the Berkeley Radiation Lab named Luis Alvarez that two German chemists, Otto Hahn and Fritz Straussman had successfully split the uranium atom, Oppenheimer immediately grasped the profound significance of the discovery. Alvarez had successfully repeated the Hahn/Straussman experiment and upon demonstrating it to Oppenheimer, Alvarez said of him....

"In less than fifteen minutes he not only agreed that the reaction was authentic but also speculated that in the process extra neutrons would boil off that could be used to split more uranium atoms and thereby generate power to make bombs. It was amazing to see how rapidly his mind worked..."

The Hahn/Straussman discovery ultimately prompted the Hungarian expatriot physicist Leo Zilard to persuade Albert Einstein to sign an August, 1939 letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt which warned "that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may be constructed." While Roosevelt established an ad hoc "Uranium Committee" as a result if the letter, little action was taken until the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) was created nearly two years later. Roosevelt replaced the "Uranium Committee" with a high-powered group called the "S-1 Committee" that reported directly to the White House. The S-1 men now believed they were in a race with the Germans that might well determine the outcome of the war. Oppenheimer was officially placed in charge of "fast-neutron" research at Berkeley.

Oppenheimer's comprehension of the issues was profound and although he was considered to be "decidedly left-wing politically" his input to the project was judged to be indispensible. Following the appointment of General Leslie R. Groves as Commanding Officer of the Manhattan Engineering District in September, 1942, Groves picked Oppenheimer to be its Scientific Director despite considerable opposition from virtually all quarters. But Groves was a man used to getting his way and getting things accomplished and who had little respect for channels of authority or diplomacy. Though they were complete opposites in virtually all ways, Groves chose Oppenheimer both because he genuinely liked him and because, "He is a genius."

What happened over the ensuing 3 years is now largely a matter of public record. Oppenheimer successfully gathered together and led the world elite of physics and needed allied disciplines to the remote mesa of Los Alamos, NM to construct the "gadget". They conducted their Faustian bargain under the belief that they were in a life and death race with the Germans to construct what all understood would be terrifying weapon. He took the name "Trinity" for the first test of the atomic bomb from the first line of a sonnet by the poet John Donne; "Batter my heart, three-person'd God..." which had been introduced to him by Jean Tatlock years before.

At 5:30 in the morning of Monday, July 16th 1945, in a remote valley aptly called the Jornada del Muerto---the "Journey of Death" in southern New Mexico near Alamogordo, the world changed forever. trinityshotWith the first successful detonation of a nuclear fission bomb, the modern Prometheans had once again stolen fire and the Cold War had its beginnings. upshot-knothole-blast-1953

Given that Germany had surrendered and many believed that Japan was close to capitulation, controversy, which remains to this day, surrounded the actual use of both the uranium "gun" and the plutonium "implosion" bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively the following month. Anticipating the post-war consequences of an arms race with the Soviets, Oppenheimer had tried to persude his superiors in the point of view of "openness" advocated by his respected mentor, the Danish Nobelist Neils Bohr. Bohr believed that it would be impossible to contain the nuclear secret and any attempt to do so would only accelerate mutual distrust and inevitably, an arms race with the potential to destroy everyone and everything. Prior to testing or using the bomb, the Russians should be fully informed. It never happened.

Though Oppenheimer did not advocate for the majority of his fellow scientists at Los Alamos who felt that the bomb should either be demonstrated to the enemy or not used at all, following its use he immediately began to feel an enormous burden of guilt. He began to champion the "openness" doctrine and tried to use his newly minted celebrity status and access to the corridors of power in Washington to influence post-war policy to prevent a nuclear arms race.

At the same time, J. Edgar Hoover took it upon himself to muster all of the forces at his disposal within the FBI to systematically discredit Oppenheimer and to attempt to label him a communist. Oppenheimer's phones were taped illegally and his every move was monitored by agents.

A meeting with President Truman, less than two months after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended in disaster. To Oppenheimer, Truman exposed himself as a naive dilletant, "... a man who compensated for his insecurities with calculated displays of decisiveness." When asked by Truman when he thought that the Russians would develop their own atomic bomb and Oppenheimer responded that he did not know, Truman confidently said that he knew the answer: "Never." The arrogance, absurdity and profound incomprehension of this declaration was proven in less than four years, when on August 29, 1949 the Soviet Union successfully exploded their own atomic bomb.

It was said of Oppenheimer that he spoke too well for his own good. While he could easily command virtually any situation when he was at ease, time and again when under pressure he would say things that he would come to deeply regret later.

"As Harold Cherniss had observed, his facile articulateness was dangerous -- a lethal double edged sword. It was often a sharp instrument of persuasion, but it could also be used to undercut the hard work of research and preparation. It was a form of intellectual arrogance that periodically led him to behave foolishly or badly, an Achilles' heel of sorts that would have devastating consequences. Indeed, it would eventually provide his political enemies with the opportunity to destroy him."

More than twenty years in the making, American Prometheus is probably the definitive work on the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer. It is extensively researched and draws from thousands of documentary records and personal interviews. And yet is is neither pedantic nor prosaic. It is an eminently readable, personal and engrossing account of the man, his journey and his times.

For anyone with an interest in Oppenheimer, the history of the seminal events of the mid-20th century, the emergence of science as a pivotal determinant of man's fate as well as in the politics of fear, this book is a must. Highly recommended.

For those with a particular interest in the people and events surrounding the development of the atomic bomb, American Prometheus serves as a worthy companion to Richard Rhodes' outstanding history The Making of the Atomic Bomb which, definitive as it is, might leave its reader yerning for more about Oppenheimer.

"We knew that the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another." J. Robert Oppenheimer, NBC interview, 1965 on his thoughts following the successful "Trinity" atomic bomb test at Alamogordo, NM, July, 1945
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