Conrad's Reviews > American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

American Prometheus by Kai Bird
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Dec 06, 07

bookshelves: owned, science, history-of-science, biography
Read in December, 2007

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 always to refocus the reader's attention from physics to the indignities Oppenheimer suffered in the 50s (presumably because no one understands quantum mechanics). This is reasonable on the surface, but in a biography of the second most famous physicist of the 20th century, physics might be hard to avoid. Anyway, to this end, we also hear about Eisenhower being elected president before we hear about Oppie traveling to Europe to have a conversation with - wait, what's this - Supreme Commander of NATO Allied Forces Eisenhower? This doesn't happen once, but many times; instead of leaving a few threads to dangle for a little while and assuming that the reader is not so obtuse as to have forgotten them, the authors chose to leapfrog around, often needlessly. Doing so might have put the stress on Oppie's political difficulties, but those were not the most interesting parts of the book, for me, anyway.

What is great about this book is the panoply of intellects and historical figures you encounter, everyone from George Kennan to Hermann Gödel to T.S. Eliot. The book also changed my opinion of Truman, who is portrayed here as an obstinate and dull man. Sometimes these people are reduced to other people's apothegms about them, but at least they're clever apothegms.

One thing the book also does that is invaluable is provide a little backstory on the various military figures who were pivotal in the development and use of the bomb as well as the excesses of the anticommunist 50s. Lo and behold, the military establishment was far from univocal in these years, and there was more than enough animus between generals, joint chiefs, and the branches of the military to go around. This point is usually glossed over by other historians, who sometimes see the American military as a complex, instead of a complex. You don't get to read about the well-respected, highly decorated peaceniks in the Army (!) very often, even though they were definitely there after WWII.
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Mr. Genie (new)

Mr. Genie the title was very well chosen though...


message 2: by Conrad (last edited Dec 07, 2007 03:04AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Conrad Don't you think it was a little melodramatic? And also, I loathe book titles that start with "American" anything. It reminds me of the pompous husband in the movie of Wonder Boys who calls his book "An American Marriage." You rarely see Estonians writing books called An Estonian x. It's a unnecessary tic meant to give the book a mythical dimension outside the events themselves, and it's cheating, as far as I'm concerned.


message 3: by Kate (new)

Kate Um, hello, mister "my favorite book is American Pastoral."


Conrad If you're going to call your book American something, you'd better write like Philip Roth.


message 5: by W. (new) - rated it 4 stars

W. Joshua I rather like the nonlinear/nonchronological style. Linear narrative history is terribly boring to me, and I think the authors are assuming a familiarity with the age to tell us about an unfamiliar individual. Also, I don't know of many biographies, even of Einstein or Feynmann that delve into many scientific details. Oppenheimer had a talent for understanding things, but he's not known for creating new theories or making clever measurements.


cameron This book was perfect for me. Much more physics and I would have tired. Chronology isn't necessary for me to understand well written prose and the insight into his genius and the credit given to those around him was fair and informative. I couldn't put it down.


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