Dear Commons Community,
If you are looking for a biography to read, I would recommend, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. This Pulitzer Prize winner was published in 2005 but anyone interested in Oppenehimer’s life, the development of the atomic bomb, his emotional struggles with dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the brutal federal investigation of his Communist sympathies, will find this book riveting fare.
The authors trace Oppenheimer’s life from his boyhood in New York City, his academic work at CalTech, his associations with physicists such as Niels Bohr, I.I. Rabi, and Albert Einstein, the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, and his directorship of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. The story is told in the backdrop of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. There is also a certain amount of titillation from his personal life. Here is an excerpt from a New York Times book review reflecting on Oppenheimer’s concerns about nuclear weapons:
“Oppenheimer and Bohr understood at the beginning of the nuclear age what the nations of the world, the United States pointedly included, have not yet been willing to act on: that nuclear weapons are not weapons of war but embodiments of a new knowledge of nature, one that in the long run — before or, horribly, after they are used again — must inevitably force nations to find some other way to settle their disputes. “Two scorpions in a bottle,” Oppenheimer characterized the superpowers sardonically in 1953, “each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life.” Today nine scorpions crowd the bottle. However tragic his life, Robert Oppenheimer is the single figure who will be remembered when the history of the Manhattan Project has blurred away.”
I have to admit that I had “blurred” knowledge of Oppenheimer. This book was an illumination.