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The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller

by Gregg Herken

Pub Date: Sept. 9th, 2002
ISBN: 0-8050-6588-1
Publisher: Henry Holt

The dramatic story of physicists who put science at the service of the state, with momentous results for themselves and the world.

Drawing on private papers, personal interviews, and information from recently declassified FBI files, Herken, a curator and historian at the Smithsonian Institution, draws vivid portraits of three scientists whose nuclear research ultimately created the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs and the arms race that followed: Berkeley experimentalist and Nobelist Ernest Lawrence, theoretician Robert Oppenheimer, and refugee scientist Edward Teller. Solidly researched, much of Herken’s story reads like a detective story in which the central question—was Robert Oppenheimer, one of the intellectual fathers of the Manhattan Project, once secretly a member of the Communist Party?—remains unanswered. Herken also explains the theoretical debate over whether atomic weapons were feasible and the scientific issues that emerged in developing them, and uses declassified information to describe the USSR’s shockingly successful espionage program against British scientists and the laboratory at Los Alamos. Ultimately, Oppenheimer lost his security clearance after an agonizing hearing in which he admitted lying to federal investigators about possible contacts with the Soviet Union. Both Lawrence and Teller turned against Oppenheimer in the end, though Lawrence declined to testify against him. Yet in Herken’s account, Oppenheimer emerges as a complex, even noble figure who may have lied to save his brother, Frank, a committed Communist. And beyond Oppenheimer’s personal tragedy, Herken shows the broader implications of the Oppenheimer case—the brutal treatment of Oppenheimer, who was widely respected in the scientific community, set back recruitment for nuclear research. Meanwhile, Oppenheimer’s moral opposition to the development of ever-more-potent thermonuclear bombs gave way to an arms race that resulted in the production of over 250,000 nuclear weapons in both the US and USSR over three decades.

Thoughtful and important.