Kirkus Reviews QR Code


The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

by Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin

Pub Date: April 10th, 2005
ISBN: 0-375-41202-6
Publisher: Knopf

The second greatest scientific mind of the atomic era gets respectful but revealing treatment by political journalist Bird (The Color of Truth, 1998) and literary scholar Sherwin (A World Destroyed, 1975).

That Oppenheimer (1904–67) was a rare genius is beyond doubt; his colleagues at CalTech, Göttingen and Los Alamos were impressed to the point of being cowed by his intellect, and “Oppie” was far ahead of even his professors in the new world of quantum theory. He was a rare bird in other ways as well. A child of privilege whose very luggage excited discussion among his cash-strapped European colleagues, he identified early with left-wing causes and was reportedly better read in the classics of Marxism than most Communist theoreticians; and, though a leftist, he expressed enough fondness for the U.S. that those European colleagues sometimes thought him a chauvinist. Worldly in many ways, he was something of a naïf. In time, he shed some of his clumsiness and became the model of a committed intellectual, unusually generous in sharing credit with students and colleagues and able to wear his achievements lightly. (“I can make it clearer,” he once remarked of a thorny physics problem, “but I can’t make it simpler.”) The authors lucidly explain Oppenheimer’s many scientific accomplishments and the finer points of quantum mechanics. More, they examine his life in a political context, for, though one of the fathers of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer warned against its proliferation and noted, as early as 1946, that our major cities were now susceptible to terrorist attack, the only defense being a screwdriver—to open “each and every crate or suitcase.” His prescience and conscience cost him dearly: Oppie was effectively blacklisted for more than a decade and rehabilitated only at the end of his too-short life.

A swiftly moving narrative full of morality tales and juicy gossip. One of the best scientific biographies to appear in recent years.