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Bookmarks Issue: 
17-July-Aug-2005
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The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

A-AmericanPrometheusBased on 25 years of research, American Prometheus examines in meticulous detail the life of the father of the atomic bomb (1904-1967), from his brash and prodigious youth through his regretful and persecuted later years. The authors focus more on Oppenheimer’s abrasive personality and unpopular politics than his brilliance at physics and the controversial Manhattan Project. Fully half of the book examines Oppenheimer’s postwar trepidation at having delivered such power to an administration hostile to his opinions, his public humiliation at being deemed a security risk of questionable loyalty, and the ramifications of placing science in the service of government. The title’s allusion to the god who was punished for giving humanity the sacred fire stolen from Zeus is a particularly apt description for this man’s life.
Knopf. 719 pages. $35. ISBN: 0375412026

Miami Herald 4.5 of 5 Stars
"There have been numerous books and a popular European play written about Oppenheimer, but they can’t touch this extraordinary book’s impressive breadth and scope. It is in the same league with William Manchester’s epic American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964, one of the finest biographies ever penned." Ike Seamans

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"American Prometheus is a work of voluminous scholarship and lucid insight, unifying its multifaceted portrait with a keen grasp of Oppenheimer’s essential nature. … [It] is a thorough examination and synthesis, sometimes overwhelming in its detail." Janet Maslin

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"… American Prometheus [is] a portrait nuanced and exacting enough to make the authors’ quarter-century chase worthwhile. If Bird and Sherwin’s magnum opus leads us to debate the level of control scientists should have over their creations and to decry the kind of witch-hunt mentality that stifles dissent, Oppie’s larger-than-life legacy will not have been squandered." Elizabeth Svoboda

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"American Prometheus is comprehensive, finely judged where it most matters, and sometimes revelatory. … Bird and Sherwin capture all the drama and exhilaration and ironic glory."
James Gleick

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"What Bird and Sherwin take great pains to narrate … is the slippery truth behind the man and the events that led to his downfall, the ambiguities that would trouble both his supporters and his enemies. If Bird and Sherwin skimp on the science, they’ve done it at the great expense required to flesh out the life of an extraordinary man and the monumental tempests of his times." Joel Turnipseed

Philadelphia Inquirer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"American Prometheus is excessively detailed, sometimes long-winded and repetitious. But this redemptive book, a major contribution to American history, offers a judicious interpretation of the evidence, incisively portrays Oppenheimer’s personal life and character, and is very exciting when describing the development, testing and dropping of the bomb, and the postwar inquisition about his loyalty."
Jeffrey Meyers

Critical Summary

The story of the Manhattan Project has been told so often that this biography appropriately concentrates on Oppenheimer’s formative years and the aftermath of his work, rather than on the scientific achievement itself. Nobody disputes the authors’ thoroughness or their nuanced understanding of their subject’s personality and beliefs. If anything, the research is so detailed that the narrative sometimes drags. With two more biographies of Oppenheimer due out soon, it is premature to call American Prometheus the definitive work on the father of the atomic bomb. Critics agree, however, that the book’s scope transcends the usual bounds of biography and illuminates a critical time in American history, with important implications for our present and future.