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

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

Kai Bird


Hard to imagine a better scientific and political biography.

I had a rough understanding of Oppenheimer's story: his management of the Manhattan project, his victimisation during the McCarthy witchhunts, and his directorship of the Institute for Advanced Study. What I hadn't realised was his own scientific standing: his association with Born, Bathe, Dirac, Heisenberg, and others, and the fact that his own contributions rank alongside theirs, including his first formulation of the equations describing black holes. Despite not entering at all into the technicalities, the authors make clear how deeply embedded he was into the initial descriptions and elaborations of quantum mechanics.

The book is squally strong when dealing with the development of the bomb and with the aftermath, the lead-up to Oppenheimer's trial as a security risk brought about in part by his principled opposition to the development of the "Super", or hydrogen bomb. The treatment is well-balanced, making no attempt to hide the part Oppenheimer played in his own downfall (although still being somewhat at a loss to describe many elements of his behaviour).

The picture that emerges is of a profound scientist and humanist who was destroyed at least in part by his own fragilities and complexities: aspects of his character that undoubtedly helped in his greatness as we as leading to his downfall. That this element of Greek tragedy would have been deeply appreciated by Oppenheimer himself only adds to the sense of a contribution spoiled by the actions of men who failed to understand what drove him and what he could give.

5/5. Finished 01 January 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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