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

Kai Bird , Martin J. Sherwin
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)

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Book Description

1 Jan 2008
Physicist and polymath, 'father of the atom bomb' J. Robert Oppenheimer became the most famous scientist of his generation. One of the iconic figures of the 20th century and the embodiment of modern scientific man's Faustian compact, Oppenheimer confronted the moral consequences of scientific progress. Already a notable young physicist before WWII, during the race to split the atom, 'Oppie' galvanized an extraordinary team of international scientists while keeping the FBI at bay.Years later, haunted by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer became a staunch opponent of plans to develop the hydrogen bomb. It was a battle he was to lose, faced by powerful advocates for massive nuclear profusion. In response, the US Atomic Energy Commission and the FBI worked behind the scenes to have a hearing find that Oppenheimer could not be trusted with America's nuclear secrets."American Prometheus" is a compelling portrait of a brilliant, ambitious and flawed man, and of the major events of the twentieth century. It is at once biography and history, and essential to our understanding of our recent past - and our future choices.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 736 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Books (1 Jan 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 184354704X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1843547044
  • Product Dimensions: 23.1 x 16.3 x 6.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 734,089 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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`Certainly, much has been written about Oppenheimer but none of it comes close to matching these two writers' titanic attempt to delineate his character and to put it into its full historical and political perspective. Already acclaimed in the US, American Prometheus is, quite simply, a giant among biographies, a life story that at times reads like a thriller but which is also deeply authoritative and persuasively informative... As part of their research, the authors interviewed dozens of Oppenheimer's friends and relatives, visited scores of archives and libraries and gathered tens of thousands of letters, memoranda and government documents... Even more impressive, however, is the manner in which Bird and Sherwin have exploited this avalanche of material, extracting the most revealing nuggets before combining them in a manner that is often gripping, sometimes moving and occasionally shocking... In the end, [Oppenheimer] was treated in a thoroughly shabby manner by his country, an injustice that has at least been offset by this magisterial biography.' -- Robin McKie, Observer

`Fascinating revelations... Enthralling... Impeccably authoritative... The writers grippingly recreate the scenes in which Oppenheimer marks the sight of the mushroom cloud created by the first test bomb with a now celebrated quote from Hindu scripture - Now I am become death the destroyer of worlds... The attempt in the Fifties to paint Oppenheimer as a traitor... is just as detailed and readable as the more obviously grabby Manhattan Project period... All previous works on the topic are, in the nicest possible sense, blown out of the sky by a book which is, in both the proper and metaphorical meanings, monumental.' -- Mark Lawson, Esquire

About the Author

Kai Bird is the author of several works of political journalism and also a contributing editor at The Nation. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and son. Martin J. Sherwin is Professor of English and American History at Tufts University and author of A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies. He and his wife life in Boston and Washington, D.C.

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Customer Reviews

4.0 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
This is a well crafted and detailed story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and in general it is an impressive effort by the authors - being almost 750 pages long. I guess in an era of sales hype I did find the book jacket inside notes a bit annoying in that the people marketing the book claim that this is the first comprehensive biography on Oppenheimer. Technically speaking one can debate that fine point, and perhaps it is true in narrow terms, but a quick GOOGLE search will show that there are many books and articles on Oppenheimer going back at least 40 years. Plus there have been books and articles on the Oppenheimer-Lawrence relationship. I had already read at least two books including the 1968 book Lawrence and Oppenheimer by Nuel Pharr Davis, and I read it decades ago, plus there are many others, so long ago that I now forget which book I read and which I did not, but I did read the Davis book and it had a lot of similar information.
Now for the present book, it is definitely a well researched and it is a comprehensive book that covers the mostly complete story from his birth to the end and his throat cancer. There are many excellent photographs, lots of notes, and much documentation. It is well written and well crafted as a book and presents the human side of the man along with all the political pressures.
In an era of The Patriot Act, I thought that the book had a number of very important points and lessons for humanity, and also the price of dissent in our free society. Here we follow the story of Oppenheimer and how his worked and sweated under a lot of pressure to make the first few weapons, but having made them he realized the implications and their danger.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars weighty but rewarding 12 Dec 2008
This is a hefty tome that grips in a way that few biographies do. A book of 3 acts, the first covers Oppenheimers early years and rise through academia as well as events on a personal level that shape his later life. The second act deals with Manhattan, Trinity and Hiroshima but it is arguably the 3rd act concentrating on Oppenheimers fall from political grace that is the most satisfying.
The true genius of this book is that it succeeds in placing the man in the broader political picture of the time and revealing a character that was as much ahead of his own time as he was misunderstood and perhaps naive.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Was Oppenheimer a scientist? 15 Feb 2011
By DiveDoc
This book is interesting, even essential, reading for anyone interested in Robert Oppenheimer, but deeply flawed because it more-or-less ignores his development as a scientist and emphasises his rise and fall as a political figure. Some authors have suggested that Oppenheimer's early work in quantum physics, particularly on stellar physics, was good enough to have justified a Nobel laureate; it is certain that his physics was respected by his peers and that Nobel laureates respected his judgement, a vital contribution to his leadership at Los Alamos.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Prometheus unbound? 30 Jan 2012
I have read the other reviews and would just like to say that Oppenheimer is a subject that I have always found fascinating. It would take more than one one volume to assess and explain this very complex character. However, I now have a better understanding of the demons that both drove and plagued him.I must add that the way that the American Establishment comes across is that it was no better than that of nazi Germany and that back stabbing and unfounded gossip were the common points. The book is written in a style that I found rivetting.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Oppenheimer - a man of his times. 25 Mar 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I have not yet finished this (fat) book, but it is well written and provides a fascinating insight into one of the most interesting figures of the 20th century. Robert Oppenheimer's story has all the elements that tie him to the troubled history of his times - he was of German Jewish origin and yet his liberal upbringing and education somehow set him apart from his true cultural identity. Anti-semitism flourished in the United States of the time and his family's attempted assimilation, did not spare them from experiencing prejudice. His family was prosperous at a time when many were unemployed and hungry in both Germany & the US where he studied and lived. He was a protagonist in the drama of 20th century physics not simply because of the huge advances in knowledge made in that field, but also because science played an integral part in the moral collapse that occurred in the West. I have not got to the part where he was persecuted during the shameful period of American history - McCarthyism, but I am looking forward to it !
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By rob crawford TOP 1000 REVIEWER
It is rare to read a biography that is so rich in detail, so clear in ideas, and so beautifully written that it can be counted as literature. For the past week, I have been deliciously absorbed in this book, feeling an alternation of awe and disgust. Oppenheimer is a unique figure in American history: starting as an academic, he became a master administrator for one of the most important technological breakthroughs in the history of mankind - harnessing the atom - and then a "wise man" insider in politics, only to be cast down and ruined in the McCarthy era because his views diverged from those of the powerful. It is an amazing journey.

Oppenheimer came from privilege: not only was he gifted with an absolutely first rate mind and great wealth, but he was in the right place at the right time, during a revolution in science and then in technology. He started out as a sheltered prodigy, a polymath in science and in literature, who wound up studying theoretical physics at the moment that quantum mechanics was in its final phase of development. His mentors were the discoverers themselves, and he studied alongside Heisenberg and virtually all of the greats in that field. He then went on to a professorship at Cal Tech and Berkeley, where he built the best department of physics in the US while in his 20s. Without exaggeration, I believe that this period will be regarded as profoundly influential as the Renaissance or Enlightenment.

However, as the authors relate, his ascent was not at all easy. Oppenheimer suffered from some form of mental illness, either a depression or worse.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Extraordinary omissions
The central fact of Oppenheimer's life was his management of the Manhattan Project and the creation of the first atomic weapons. Read more
Published 2 months ago by John Frum
3.0 out of 5 stars Mixed
The delivery time was short and the book did arrive quickly. However on some pages there are scribbles and crossed across the whole page in red parker. Read more
Published 9 months ago by Cerry
5.0 out of 5 stars A Good Read
If you are into biographies, then this is excellent. Extensive research must have gone into it. A very long work, many pages of small print.
Published 10 months ago by M C Wyatt
2.0 out of 5 stars dreadful
Firstly I was left wondering what did Oppenheimer had to do with the development of the bomb secondly a book of 600 hundred pages of small print should surely have had more than... Read more
Published 12 months ago by zargos
3.0 out of 5 stars Less politics more physics
I was a little disappointed with this. Though well written, undoubtedly well researched I was worn down with the political theatre that was played out in Oppenheimers life. Read more
Published on 23 July 2011 by paperbackliker
2.0 out of 5 stars Well Researched but Poorly Delivered
Informative and exhaustive account of the life of Oppenheimer. However I found the biographical narrative disorganised and disjointed. Read more
Published on 23 Sep 2010 by Stephen Andrew Keogh
5.0 out of 5 stars A great biography!
Sorry, don't have time to do a full review, but I picked this up at the airport, and it gripped me throughout the holiday! A great biography!
Published on 31 Aug 2009 by A. McCaddon
5.0 out of 5 stars american prometheus Robert Oppenheimer
A well researched and evocative book. It has a cinematic narrative, a screenplay feel, which takes the reader back to those worrying yet exciting political times, not as a mere... Read more
Published on 9 May 2009 by Baz
3.0 out of 5 stars tiny print makes reading difficult
Of course this is a well written account of Robert Oppenheimer's life but why have the publishers been so mean as to produce a large book in such tiny text? Read more
Published on 2 Feb 2009 by J.M.R.
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