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American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

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4.16  ·  Rating Details ·  7,657 Ratings  ·  543 Reviews
J. Robert Oppenheimer is one of the iconic figures of the twentieth century, a brilliant physicist who led the effort to build the atomic bomb for his country in a time of war, and who later found himself confronting the moral consequences of scientific progress. In this magisterial, acclaimed biography twenty-five years in the making, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin capture O ...more
ebook, 784 pages
Published December 18th 2007 by Vintage (first published 2005)
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Cassy
Let’s do the numbers.

599 pages of text
256 books read for research
44 articles and dissertations consulted
41 manuscript collections pillaged
10 government document collections accessed
1 Pulitzer Prize
6 newspapers/magazines named it best book of the year
19 quality blurbs
41 listed abbreviations
20 page-long index
83 pages of notes
112 people interviewed (several more than once)
2 authors
25 years in the making
38 days to read across 3 cities
23 corners folded by this girl to mark something fascinating

To d
...more
Jackie "the Librarian"
This is a very thorough book in some respects, and yet it is so narrow in scope I almost want to run out and read another Oppenheimer biography, and some histories that cover the same time period to get the personal details and background history the authors assumed you knew in THIS book. Almost.

Sure, I'm familiar with the basic details of WWII, the McCarthy Era, and the atomic bomb, but if I wasn't this book wouldn't have helped much. Instead, the authors follow J. Robert Oppenheimer's life in
...more
Matt
Apr 26, 2016 Matt rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, science
J. Robert Oppenheimer is called "the father of the atomic bomb," which is a shorthand way of saying that we know he did something important as the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, but we just aren't sure what that was. What I mean is that Oppenheimer never made a great discovery or proposed a great theory. He wasn't Rutherford explaining the atom's nucleus. He wasn't Bohr, modeling the atom. He wasn't Lawrence, inventing the cyclotron to smash atoms. And he wasn't Fermi, developing ...more
Chrissie
Oct 29, 2013 Chrissie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I am in the middle of moving from one country to another, so I just do not have the time to write a decent review of this excellent, marvelous book! Please, if you are at all interested in either history or amazing people grab this book soon. On closing this book the reader truly understand the atmosphere that swallowed up America during the era of McCarthyism and the Cold War. The reader comes to understand Oppenheimer - his creativity, his imagination and his failings too. The list of the latt ...more
Brian
Jan 16, 2011 Brian rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Such are the lines attributed to Oppenheimer (quoting from his own translation of the Bhagavad Gita) upon viewing the explosion of the first atomic weapon. Even with such a foreboding sentiment, however, pages later Oppenheimer is not only approving the use of the bomb against Japan, he is actually involved of the selection of the targets, and displays no qualms about what he is doing. He would only find out years later that Japan had been days or we ...more
Conrad
This book disappointed me on a few counts. First of all, its authors opted never to allow chronology to get in the way of a good story. There are all too many sentences that go something like this: "The conversation Oppie had with Chevalier that night would become very important twelve years later when, while testifying before HUAC..." etcetera. Only in the book, the spoilers are even more portentous.

I would have preferred more physics and less politics. The authors, on the other hand, wanted a
...more
Adam Ford
Aug 27, 2013 Adam Ford rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
As good a biography as I have read in years. A very well researched book where the author is wise enough to tell the reader when there is ambiguity in the record and smart enough to quote the actors a lot allowing the reader to make up their own mind about the events. This book deserved to win a Pulitzer Prize.

A few thoughts:

1. He was one weird dude as a kid and into his 20s. Very unstable, trying to poison one of his lab supervisors at Cambridge and once tried to strangle a friend. Very very u
...more
Clif Hostetler
Jan 30, 2008 Clif Hostetler rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
A well written biography about an interesting person. It also gives insight into the anti-communist hysteria of the early 50s.
Aaron Million
Feb 03, 2015 Aaron Million rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
From a literary standpoint, this book was a true pleasure to read. A thorough biography of the brilliant but flawed physicist. Yet, from the view of being an American, I found it revolting. Oppenheimer, despite his propensity to be arrogant to the wrong people at the wrong times, deserved a far, far better fate than what ultimately came his way.

Sherwin and Bird tell a fabulous story. At almost 600 pages, I feel like they have exhaustively covered all of Oppenheimer's life, yet not a single page
...more
Douglas
May 28, 2016 Douglas rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: best-of-2016
Man alive. The U.S. Government did Oppenheimer dirty. Such a sad, yet important tale, especially in light of our current political culture. If anyone is interested to see how history can repeat itself or wants a prediction of what's to come under a presidency or leadership motivated by fear, read this book. It does not matter what your political affiliation is, Oppenheimer's life and ultimate destruction, as outlined in this absorbing biography, serves as a warning to us today about the perils o ...more
Linda
While not the best written non-fiction, this book contained some fascinating history about the politics behind the production and use of the atomic bomb. While styled as a biography of Robert Oppenheimer, the director of Los Alamos, where the atomic bomb was developed, the book focused on the witch hunt by the FBI against Oppenheimer and the details of 1954 faux hearing that ultimately ended in Atomic Energy Hearing revoking Oppenheimer's security clearance.

This was a very long book, and some i
...more
Ray
Jan 17, 2008 Ray rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
At the risk of getting slammed with lots of negative votes on this review, can I offer a mild note of objection?

First of all, I agree with most of the previous reviws. This is well-written, thoroughly researched, the most detailed ever produced on Op., etc. But I am unconvinced by the authors' take on the Communist issue. Nobody much is talking about this because its been a given for 40 years that McCarthy and crew were nuts or evil or both -- but... the new evidence from the Russian archives a
...more
Anthoney
Have forward to reading this book for quite a long time. Have been fascinated by Oppenheimer, and the book seemed to be a good biography of him. It is satisfactory but not as exceptional as i expected it to be. I was hoping it would be a good mix of science and politics, but ultimately leaned more towards politics and it's machinations, expectedly so.

While the writing on politics and the 'Inquisition' to revoke Oppenheimer's security clearance reads like a good thriller, the reasons that led to
...more
John and Kris
As I fell asleep last night I couldn’t shake Dr. Edward Teller from my mind, is this normal?

Teller, the brilliant and attention seeking physicist that pushed hard for nuclear weapons advancements all while kicking anyone that disagreed under the bus by labeling them a communist, is known as the Father of the Hydrogen Bomb.

Yesterday, I watched a couple of interviews with the late Teller and he was backpedalling from his early fanatical push for more and more technologically advanced weapons by pr
...more
Sue
What a story!

For those of my generation, the story is almost like reading our own history. For younger persons, it's a history that may shock them. Our near past is a complicated affair.

Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin have pieced together details, including transcripts from the FBI and many other sources, in such a way that reading (or listening, in my case, to the audio version) this story is like reading a novel.

If I were to have one complaint about the story, it would be that some details are r
...more
Ben
Feb 09, 2010 Ben rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Co-written by a Carleton alum, won the Pulitzer prize in 2008(?). I didn't know much about Oppenheimer before reading the book other than that he helped create the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project. He was a great physicist, but even more than that a great communicator and facilitator.

Like "Team of Rivals," which I just read, "American Prometheus" is a great biography in that it doesn't just illuminate the life of a man, but also the times in which he lived. Sure, I learned about the
...more
Nick DD
May 14, 2013 Nick DD rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: hard-copy
I was extremely excited when I finally pulled this book off the self to read after literally years of it collecting dust. I am a social studies teacher with a background in the Cold War and was at the bookstore the day this book was released in order to add it to my collection. Unfortunately, this book was not what I expected. Although I sporadically enjoyed a few chapters or sections, most of the book felt a bit repetitive. When I first heard that I book would be written about J. Robert Oppenhe ...more
Caitlyn Borghi
Aug 09, 2015 Caitlyn Borghi rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was the first Oppenheimer biography I have ever read, and I'm afraid I've been spoiled. American Prometheus was so well-written and obviously painstakingly researched, it's hard to believe I'll come across another Oppenheimer biography that could compare. History already holds the most riveting stories, and this book is a great demonstration of that. While knowing biographies invariably end in death, I could not stop myself from shedding a few tears at the end of this book. After spending t ...more
Ernest Spoon
Nov 02, 2015 Ernest Spoon rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
What a sad but wonderful biography about the father of the atomic bomb who was abused because he foresaw the suffering and, for lack of a better word, evil it brought to the world.

The early chapters are J. Robert Oppenheimer as the prototype for current television sit-com protagonist Sheldon Cooper, an awkward, irrepressible polymath. The middle section is Oppenheimer at the greatest as the scientist-administrator of the Manhattan Project. The final act is the destruction of one of the Twentieth
...more
MG
Jul 25, 2013 MG rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An impressive book about an impressive and tremendously complex and brilliant man. That said, it comes up a bit short on the science and the scientific explanations, something I would have enjoyed. That he was reading Baudelaire while nervously awaiting the detonation of the first atomic blast near Los Alamos is the kind of stuff I relish. I will probably read more about Oppenheimer. Surprisingly, despite the fact that the book is over 700 pages, I agree with one reviewer that there is so much m ...more
Don
Jul 20, 2016 Don rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
It was an education. A little too much detail on the whole red scare hearings. It is not the history we were taught in school. Learning that the government worships the wholesale murder of civilians as a tool of diplomacy should not surprise. Every documented incident, from Nagasaki to Yemen, of justifying collateral damage to children should remind us that war is a business. It is one of our most successful corporate exports.

The United States is still the only country to have employed nuclear
...more
Raghu
The "trial" of J. Robert Oppenheimer is the prism through which this highly-readable biography presents most of the events of his high-flying life. This constant foreshadowing is, however, completely vindicated in the gut-wrenching portrayal of his famous security clearance hearing (I had to stop listening a few times). Needless to say this is a highly sympathetic book to "Oppie" even when describing his flaws and curious mistakes in judgement. Ultimately, as the title of the book suggests, his ...more
krad
- if a writing style ever liked to hear itself talk, this one did. While informative, it could be a third of the size and be a much more clarifying read. For a much more informative and entertaining (not to mention shorter) summary of the man for a casual reader; check out the archives of http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/

+ Having said that, the author obviously did their work in researching Oppenheimer's entire history, and spared no expense in dredging up letters and personal comments from a vast
...more
Kevin
Feb 18, 2015 Kevin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
One reader reviewed this biography as being narrow in scope. And then she went on to write a 2,000-word review recounting every major facet of the book. Ironic. It wasn't compelling enough a review to read completely, frankly, but the first paragraphs told me she'd consumed a very fine whisky and then criticised it for not being crunchy enough.

This is one of the most exhaustive, comprehensive biographies I've read, if not the most. Its detail is painstakingly etched out as Oppenheimer's life and
...more
Grace
Jul 30, 2014 Grace rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
I want to be clear that the four-star rating is in no way a judgment of the life of J.R. Oppenheimer, only of the writing of the book. I must first say I thought the book superlatively researched and written. There is no doubting the scholarship. I fault only the story-telling.

The book did a great job developing JRO's development as an intellectual. It did not do a great job of developing or explaining him as a man--and this is what I was looking for. Here is an example: JRO went from this gawk
...more
Genia Lukin
To be honest, I had serious trouble rating this book, and I have similar trouble reviewing it.

If I were rating it entirely by a subjective scale, it would probably receive a one-star rating from me, a rating which I am loathe to give, because I am not at all certain it is deserved.

This book might be absolutely amazing and staggeringly interesting for someone who is genuinely curious about the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer or about the Left-Right politics in America and its relations to the Commu
...more
Andrew
"They paid more to tap my phone than they paid me to run the Los Alamos Project."
– J. Robert Oppenheimer

"The German calamity of years ago repeats itself: People acquiesce without resistance and align themselves with the forces of evil."
- Albert Einstein

This book is fantastic. Oppenheimer was a brilliant man who lived in an interesting time, and his life story is full of grandiose achievements and setbacks. It is easy to see why this book won the Pulitzer Prize – the narrative is thorough, yet
...more
Jan-Maat
It was an interesting read and an interesting life though during the course of it I realised that Oppenheimer didn't appeal to me at all as a person.

The background is interesting, particularly the role of Communism in the USA during the Popular Front period of opposition to Fascism before WWII and how that then panned out in the 1950s. Oppenheimer's younger brother ended up effectively in a form of internal exile unable to work at all in physics purely as a result of this.

Oppenheimer emerges as
...more
Julie
I liked this book for so many reasons. I have a lay person's fascination with physics and this book opened a window into the mind of one of those rare individuals able to master this most modern of sciences. I enjoyed the descriptions of the back-and-forth that went on between the great physics minds of the day, including such superluminaries as Bohr and Einstein. The process of coordinating the work of the secret team that developed the atomic bomb was also interesting, although I wish the book ...more
Jee Koh
Jun 23, 2013 Jee Koh rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a thoroughly researched, rigorously argued biography about this one-time controversial titan of American history. The biographers, a newspaper editor and a history professor, focused on the politics of the Life. I wish there were more about the science. The prose is actually serviceable, but surrounding as it does the eloquent words of Oppenheimer himself, the lover of Baudelaire and the Bhavagad Gita, it looks as wooden as the frame around an oil painting. My favorite quote by Oppenheim ...more
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Martin J. Sherwin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian. His scholarship mostly concerns the history of the development of atomic energy and nuclear proliferation.

Sherwin received his B.A. from Dartmouth College and his Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Los Angeles. He was the long-time Walter S. Dickson professor of English and American history at Tufts University until
...more
More about Martin J. Sherwin...

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“He was always very kind and considerate to anybody below him,” recalled Harold Cherniss. “But not at all to people who might be considered his intellectual equals. And this, of course, irritated people, made people very angry, and made him enemies.” Wendell” 0 likes
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