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

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4.17  ·  Rating details ·  11,547 ratings  ·  741 reviews
American Prometheus is the first full-scale biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, "father of the atomic bomb," the brilliant, charismatic physicist who led the effort to capture the awesome fire of the sun for his country in time of war. Immediately after Hiroshima, he became the most famous scientist of his generation-one of the iconic figures of the twentieth century, the ...more
Paperback, 725 pages
Published December 18th 2007 by Vintage Books (first published May 1st 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
Matt
Dec 27, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: science, biography
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
Christopher Saunders
Impressive biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the nuclear physicist who went from obscurity to international fame as the director of the Manhattan Project, to ignominy and exile over his ambivalence towards nuclear weapons and leftist political views. Bird and Sherwin depict Oppenheimer throughout as a genius who, like many great men and women, is riven through with contradictions and personal foibles. He's a great lecturer and mentor to students and juniors, but somewhat ill-at-ease around pee ...more
Darwin8u
Dec 20, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: aere-perennius, 2017
“The trouble with Oppenheimer is that he loves a woman who doesn’t love him—the United States government."
- Albert Einstein, Quoted in American Prometheus

There is way too exploding in my head after reading this tonight to write a full and even meaningful review. I've always been fascinated with the Manhattan Project and last year read Rhode's amazing book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. I've also read several of Richard Feynman's memoirs that detail aspects of his work and stories, but this has
...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
Chrissie
Oct 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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 understands 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 lat ...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, ie what had been permissible came to be viewed as criminal even treacherous. Purely as a result of this Oppenheimer's younger brother ended up effectively in a fo
...more
George
Aug 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
Personally, all that I new about J. Robert Oppenheimer was his time during Project Manhattan and a few details about his show trial in 1954. This book managed to bring a lot more context to these events and show me as close it is possible the real Oppenheimer.

What else can I say, this is probably the best biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer there is and together with Richard Rhodes' Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun makes the penultimate atomic trilogy.
Lorna
American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer was the Pulitzer prize-winning book in 2006. This was a comprehensive biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the birth of Los Alamos and the atomic bomb, devised to bring the end to World War II with the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The irony of this book may be that Oppenheimer, as a young man, came to New Mexico, finding not only himself, but that he loved this beautiful country. Many years later, I think that a re ...more
George
"American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer" by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin is an outstanding biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was a fascinating individual and this book does him justice.

As I was reading this biography I was struck by the parallels between Oppenheimer's life and Alan Turing's life. They had similar backgrounds, played major roles in World War Two and in the development of modern technology, led lives filled with both triumph and tra
...more
Porter Broyles
I'm the child of the cold war. My dad was a second generation officer in United States Air Force. I graduated from High School while he was assigned to an Army Post in W. Germany in the mid 80s.

I grew up knowing that Communist were not only our enemy, but anti-God, and anti-American. I remember reading about the evil USSR and East German government. I remember watching the movie "Red Dawn" at a Church Youth group event. Afterwards, the joke was "Kill a commie of mommie."

As I've grown older, I ha
...more
Sketchbook
May 13, 2020 rated it liked it
J Robert Frankenstein : A brilliant scientist created a monster that later destroyed him. The ultimate contemporary horror story.

25 years-in-the-making, this huge, lumbering volume is a mix of good-bad writing that collects a lot of facts without any context at all. Oppenheimer lost his security clearance in 1954 at the height of the McCarthy commie hysteria -- a point the authors never make, beyond one dismissive, passing sentence. That the US was riddled w Commies and Com-Symps in the 30s-40s
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Brian
Oct 02, 2009 rated it really liked it
“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
LindaJ^
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
Brett C
Feb 02, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: biography
Fascinating story of Dr. Oppenheimer and the harnessing of nuclear energy as a weapon of mass destruction. My only gripe was the book was detailed to excess and having way too much information. This one took me a while to finish due to its length and me losing motivation to finish.
Adam Ford
Aug 27, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
Aaron Million
Jan 12, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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
Ray
Jan 17, 2008 rated it liked it
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
Douglas
Mar 18, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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
Sean Blake
A magisterial biography. A dense, deep, scholarly, informative and life-affirming look at J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the most interesting minds in history. Aptly titled, American Prometheus really is a modern Greek tragedy. Equally astounding and chilling.
Judy
Mar 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
Another long, sometimes dry, but always informative biography about a huge American figure. It took me over a month, while reading other books along with it, but was worth every minute spent.

It is truly an American tragedy. Oppenheimer, son of Jewish immigrants from Germany, a genius indulged by his parents, as complex a man as you will ever meet in history, became the "father of the atomic bomb" and thereafter spent his life in a desperate attempt to advise the American government as to how a
...more
Clif Hostetler
Jan 30, 2008 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.
Alex O'Connor
May 13, 2019 rated it liked it
DNF. Could not finish. The book was masterfully written and researched, but wow, I cannot handle a single page more about the spoiled Oppenheimer. What a brat.
Kyle
Feb 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is a well-written and well-researched biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, sometimes called the father of the atomic bomb. It covers a wide range of topics connected to his life as well, especially focusing on nuclear policy. The book begins with Oppenheimer's parents and ends with his death, following his life chronologically. It is enjoyable to read and is upfront about its viewpoint. It is strongly pro-Oppenheimer and anti nuclear weapons. The strong pro-Oppenheimer viewpoint is well expl ...more
Michael Hutchings
Apr 02, 2018 rated it liked it
Pretty interesting, but the writing (and maybe the story) got a little tedious by the end.
Pamela
If ever a man fit the phrase "his own worst enemy", it would seem that J. Robert Oppenheimer was just that. To say that his life was fascinating is to understate the obvious. A brilliant theoretical physicist who displayed a deep knowledge of poetry, history, philosophy, and psychiatry. His was an extremely complex personality and he was known to be both charming and outgoing yet subject to depression and periods of fragility. Most women loved him but a few detested him. Men admired his genius. ...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
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
M.M. Strawberry Library & Reviews
I've heard of Oppenheimer, and I also know of the 50's and the anti-Communist sentiment that ran high through that era and how people could be unfairly targeted, but this book really illustrated that. I was shocked to read about Oppenheimer's 'trial' and just how unfairly the cards were stacked against him. One can only wonder how much he could have accomplished if he had been allowed to stay in the program, and if people had actually listened to him.

This book can get really plodding at times an
...more
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NonFiction Pulitzers: American Prometheus: Jan/Feb 2016 123 39 Aug 02, 2017 10:23AM  

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Kai Bird is an American Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist, best known for his biographies of political figures. He has also won the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography, the Duff Cooper Prize, a Woodrow Wilson Center Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is a Contributing Editor of The Nation magazine.

Bird was born in 1951. His father was a U.S. Foreign Service officer
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30 likes · 21 comments
“As the sociologist Daniel Bell later observed, Oppenheimer’s ordeal signified that the postwar “messianic role of the scientists” was now at an end.” 2 likes
“The kind of person that I admire most would be one who becomes extraordinarily good at doing a lot of things but still maintains a tear-stained countenance.” 2 likes
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