American Prometheus

“There is a dramatic moment and the history of the man, what made him act, what he did, and what sort of person he was. That is what you are really doing here. You are writing a man’s life.” –Isidor Rabi

Like many people my age and younger, I had only a vague sense of J. Robert Oppenheimer. I knew he directed the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, created the Atomic Bomb, and almost immediately regretted his creation. In the aftermath of the war, he quoted the Bhagavad Gita in declaring that he had become death, destroyer of worlds.

I knew he was a physicist associated with UC Berkeley but there my awareness stopped. I stumbled into Oppenheimer again in December at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe where there was an exhibit on the nuclear program. Between reading a couple of pages and the arresting cover image (seen at the top of this post) with Oppie (as his students called him, an Americanization of the Dutch nickname Opje) staring straight ahead, cigarette hanging loosely from his lips, I picked up a copy of Bird and Sherwin’s biography American Prometheus at the gift shop.

I should say up front that Bird and Sherwin imbue American Prometheus with a deep subjectivity and latent moralism that frequently sits in the bones of the genre biography.

Oppenheimer is the subject, so other people come into the story as they intersect with him. For some personalities (e.g. Isidor Rabi, quoted above), this is fine. For others, including his wife Kitty, it ends up flattening and trivializing their experiences that were not easy, to say the least.

Then there is the moralizing. Oppenheimer, in this telling, is a tragic hero, a deeply flawed individual whose contributions went unappreciated. This feature of biography is further heightened in that the book reaches its climax when, in 1953 at the height of the Red Scare, Oppie faces a review of his security clearance against a board conspiring to prove that he passed nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. This hearing nearly destroyed him, making it a natural climax, but as someone unfamiliar with the hearings much of the narrative felt designed to prove that Oppie was innocent to a reader who already knew how this story ended.

With those preliminaries out of the way, what to say about Oppenheimer? Born to a wealthy Jewish family in New York, this slim brilliant boy received an excellent humanistic education at the Ethical Culture School before matriculating to Harvard. A polymath with interests in history, literature, and languages, Oppenheimer wanted to study Theoretical Physics, a field that hardly existed in the US. He tried graduate school at Cambridge (a disaster; he tried to poison a tutor), and then Göttingen, before taking up a joint appointment at UC Berkeley and Cal Tech to establish theoretical physics programs in the US.

But Oppenheimer’s heart was in New Mexico. Visiting there as a frail, sickly teenage he transformed as if by magic into someone who could ride horses hundreds of miles at a stretch without giving it a second thought. Ironically it was the love of this landscape that in part let Oppenheimer to the Los Alamos lab.

Yet, the more profound transformation came in Oppenheimer’s humanism in the Great Depression-era California. Always driven by humanitarian impulses and capable of magnetic charisma, young Oppenheimer could just as easily alienate people he thought beneath him and had little time for anything but his work. Gradually this attitude changed through his work with unions and as he came to recognize the profound threat posed by Nazi Germany. Problems emerged in that the Communist Party of America organized most of the causes Oppie supported and more than one of his friends and students were party members. By the late 1940s, Oppie was a public intellectual and a celebrity weighing in on nuclear politics, but this history made him vulnerable to a cabal of personal, professional, and political enemies who did everything in their considerable power to destroy him. They failed in their ultimate goal, but succeeded in ruining the careers of many people around him, including that of his brother, and in undermining Oppenheimer’s influence.

As an academic, American Prometheus is a fascinating read. On the one hand, it provides a glimpse into higher education of yesteryear, where Oppenheimer nearly didn’t receive his PhD after completing the two year (!!) program because he had failed to register for classes. On the other, though, Oppie presents a mirror on the good and bad of intellectuals. He could be cold, distant, and even cruel if he deemed you beneath his merit, but he was also a warm and supportive mentor who frequently deferred credit for work to his students and junior collaborators. Bird and Sherwin conclude that much of Oppenheimer’s brilliance lay in his ability to see the consequences of other people’s work and push it to the next level rather than doing original work of his own, a trait that made him particularly suited to managing a lab like Los Alamos and later running the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Moreover, his intellectual generosity and ability to synthesize the ideas of others had a magnetic effect drawing into his orbit some of the most remarkable scientists of the twentieth century.

American Prometheus is a long, dense book created from twenty five years of research. I’ll admit to some boredom at times when the material felt repetitive or there was yet another chapter dedicated weighing the evidence on whether Oppie joined the Communist party, chapters that make significantly more sense if you look at the book as funneling toward that climactic hearing. Similarly, my hackles went up at extensive analysis of the psychological states of Oppie and those around him, as well as on the quality of the psychological care he received. And yet, for all of that, Bird and Sherwin open a fascinating window onto a man whose experiences and concerns were equally commonplace and unique in the middle of the 20th century while airing out the story of a man, already suspected of anti-American sentiments, charged with delivering into the world the atomic bomb.


I finished reading R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, a propulsive and largely delightful fantasy novel driven by the classic trope of wish-fulfillment, albeit this time from a female perspective. I had some issues with the book as a whole, but am very much interested in seeing what else Kuang produces. This morning I started S.A. Chakraborty’s <em>The City of Brass</em>, the first book in the Daevabad Trilogy, and am quite enjoying letting myself be taken away.