A highly detailed examination of the life and times of Robert Oppenheimer (1904–1967), the man who ushered in the Atomic Age and played a leading role in putting American science on the map.
Monk (Philosophy/Southampton Univ.; Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness, 1921–1970, 2001, etc.) does full justice to Oppenheimer's irreplaceable contribution to the development of nuclear energy during and after World War II. The author also addresses his less well-known contributions to nuclear physics, including “a method that is used even now for understanding the physical processes that occur in the interiors of stars.” Born to an affluent Jewish family, Oppenheimer had a privileged upbringing (private schools, Harvard University and extensive study abroad), yet he faced a rising tide of anti-Semitism even in America. Among many examples, Monk quotes a reference by George Birkhoff, Harvard's most eminent mathematician, supporting his application: “He is Jewish but I should consider him a very fine type of man.” In 1927, Oppenheimer co-authored a paper on quantum chemistry with the leading quantum physicist, Max Born, but in Europe, he faced anti-American prejudice among scientists such as Paul Dirac. Monk explains that experiences such as these prompted Oppenheimer to accept a joint teaching position in California, at Berkeley and Caltech, where he devoted himself to establishing “a world center of theoretical physics in the U.S.” The Spanish Civil War drew Oppenheimer into left-wing politics (and surveillance by the FBI), but he also had a distinguished career during WWII as head of the Manhattan Project and after, when he played a key role in shaping American nuclear policy. In 1954, renewal of his security clearance was denied, a miscarriage of justice that President John F. Kennedy reversed by awarding him the prestigious Fermi Prize.
A top-notch biography of Oppenheimer to sit alongside Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s American Prometheus (2006).