J Robert Oppenheimer: The American Century Hardcover – 20 Aug 2004
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A superbly researched biography... There is no doubt that Cassidy gives us a valuable perspective on Oppenheimer’s life. The author is shy neither of editorializing nor of making judgments about the personalities who appear in the story... These comments are almost unfailingly fair and justified by the evidence.(Times Higher Education)
Cassidy’s biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer is a concise, well-written book about the life of the famous 20th century scientist... A worthwhile read for anyone with an interest in the coming of age of American physics and how the weaknesses and strengths of one of its leaders shaped the relationship between science and the government for decades to come.(Physics and Society) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
From the Back Cover
"David Cassidy has done it again. Employing the insight and skill that made his Heisenberg biography so widely read and honored, Cassidy's new book breaks new ground, by explaining Oppenheimer's rise and fall as an important part of the social, cultural, and political turmoil of America's twentieth-century."
―Gerald Holton, Mallinckrodt Research Professor of Physics and Research Professor of the History of Science, Harvard University
"Cassidy presents a comprehensive and engaging account of the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a pivotal figure in twentieth-century physics. An excellent work of biography, scientific narrative, and historical perspective. This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the deep relationships between science, politics, and culture in the United States."
―Fred Adams, University of Michigan, author of Our Living Multiverse and The Five Ages of the Universe
"A most impressive achievement. Cassidy presents an informative, thoughtful, and very readable biography of this important, complex individual. In addition he has succeeded in giving an insightful, convincing account of Oppenheimer's actions by placing his life and work in the context of the scientific militarism that was to provide the United States with some of the means to guarantee its security―a militarism that Oppenheimer helped shape and that eventually crushed him. This book is an important work that sets new standards for scientific biography."
―Silvan S. Schweber, Professor of Physics and Koret Professor of the History of Ideas, Emeritus, Brandeis University, and Senior Research Associate, History of Recent Science and Technology, Dibner Institute, MIT
"A 'must read' for anyone interested in the development of the modern era of 'big science.' Cassidy skillfully brings to us a deep understanding of the character of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the Manhattan Project and one of the most complex and seemingly contradictory individuals of the twentieth-century."
--Gregory Tarle, Professor of Physics, University of Michigan
J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who led the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb and ended World War II, forged the alliance between science and government that made the American Century possible. David C. Cassidy's much anticipated, richly detailed, magisterial biography is not merely the life story of a brilliant physicist, it tells the hidden story of the political and social forces shaping the world in our time: the rise of American science.
In 1941, before Germany failed to build an atomic weapon, and the United States succeeded, Life published Henry R. Luce's essay "The American Century." It proclaimed that America was not at war simply to defeat the Axis powers. The United States must "exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purpose as we see fit and by such means as we see fit." Cassidy reveals such confidence, and the success of the Manhattan Project itself, were essentially by products of the rise of American science driven by burgeoning industrial prosperity and a kind of national devotion to the pursuit of knowledge. While Cassidy illuminates Oppenheimer's genius for inspiring his students and colleagues to attack and ultimately solve the hardest scientific problems of the age, he also takes the reader to the 1954 Atomic Energy Commission Security review that disgraced Oppenheimer, stripped him of his security clearance for alleged "red ties," and captured headlines across the nation. Documents that have only recently come to light regarding those ties are thoroughly and conclusively examined.
Oppenheimer, the eldest son of an aristocratic Jewish family living on the Upper West Side of New York City, attended the secular, progressive, and elite Ethical Culture School. Cassidy, building his narrative on previously untapped primary documents, shows the importance and character of Oppenheimer's early education. The liberal values he absorbed there ran counter to the culture he found at Harvard, whose president sought to foster a future managerial elite, the rulers of the new American society. These formative contrasts in values explain Oppenheimer's many seeming contradictions. Why did the scientist who correctly theorized black holes turn his back on cutting edge research? How did a gentle liberal humanist become responsible for the creation of the first real weapon of mass destruction? How could a brilliant mind like his virtually found "scientific militarism" and then let it destroy him?
Cassidy opens up a life story that is emblematic of the transformation of America over the last three generations. It offers, as the best history can, an insight into the future technological and moral progress of a nation.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Cassidy takes Oppenehimer to task on a number of points: That he was a snob, that he was fickle, that he was aloof, that he was cowardly, and that he failed to realize his potential as a physicist, to name a few. In fact, Oppenheimer only succeeds after he has been skewered at the hands of the Gray committee. He then enters- and only just- Cassidy's hagiography. Moreover, Cassidy holds Oppenheimer to modern academic standards which include a healthy disdain for government in all its manifold guises. For example, while it may be fair to criticize Oppenheimer for not having been more vociferously opposed to the H-bomb, can Cassidy really fault him for having run the Mnahattan project at a time when Hitlerism threatened to engulf the world? Is it fair to assume that the war against Japan could have been won without the A bombs and still have avoided staggering losses?
Cassidy also minimizes the fear generated by Stalin's usurpation of all eastern European governments save Yugoslavia. He has ostensibly forgotten that Stalin was a bona fide madman who had eliminated at least 20 million of his own people. Casidy suggests instead that there was an equation of sorts between the USSR and USA. I am not interested in apologizing for the lunatic extremes of McCarthyism, but I do think that one ought to look at the whole picture and not just those parts one wants to see.
All in all this is a lackluster performance strewn here and there with occasional discussion about Oppenheimer's science and very little more about the man. Cassidy wants to berate Oppenheimer more than comprehend him. Oppenheimer may not have become all that he might have and he may have been riddled with flaws. All the more reason to grasp the essence of the man.
This biography is a detailed and beautifully written work. Cassidy expands beyond the traditional scope of a biography and expertly explores the surrounding environment that shaped Oppenheimer's life. He draws upon previously untapped primary documents, and shows the importance and character of Oppenheimer's early education on the rest of his life. Cassidy examines the conflicts between Oppenheimer's liberal education from the Ethical Culture School and the culture that he found at Harvard. Oppenheimer's time in Europe is also recounted.
The book does not become overly focused on the Manhattan Project, but covers the time on "The Hill" in enough detail to keep the story in context. He instead offers insights to the periods before the war, when Oppenheimer taught at Berkeley and Cal Tech. Oppenheimer's genius and ability to inspire his students is shown, allowing us to gain insight into the man before the events that would be the foundation of his legacy.
The 1954 Atomic Energy Commission security review that disgraced Oppenheimer, and stripped him of his security clearance for alleged "red ties," are explored with the same thoughtful insight. Recent documents and information regarding those events are thoroughly and conclusively discussed.
Oppenheimer: and the American Century is a welcome addition to the history of science. (by atomicarchive.com)
Growing up in New York, Robert attended the Ethical Culture School, a school whose strikingly moral looking philosophy believed in the inherent importance of ethics and the noble constraints of morality aimed at the betterment of mankind, independent of creed and religion. However, this institution was torn between the dictums of morality and the callings of practicality when war broke out in Europe. It had to reconcile itself with the Wilsonian Ideal of 'the morality of the victors'. Cassidy lucidly depicts this institution, and the changes which forced it to revisit its professed philosophy, something which has been rarely seen in detail elsewhere. Young Robert was also affected by this philosophy, and later on, coupled with the austere messages from the Bhagavad Gita which he read, it turned his personality into a strange and at many times, tortous, conglomerate of right and wrong.
In the 1920s, Oppenheimer was most fortunate, and well poised to participate in perhaps the greatest revolution that science had seen, the twin package of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. In those days, the focus of scientific excellence was in Europe, with Copenhagen, Cambridge and Gottingen being the greatest centers of learning in the world. There, people like Niels Bohr, Ernest Rutherford, Arnold Sommerfeld and Max Born were training an entire generation of outstanding physicists and chemists, and Oppenheimer was fortunate to be one of them. However, war leaves its deep and far reaching scars, and as the shadow of totalitarianism extended across this magnificent continent, the reins of science became free to be harnessed by men and women who were causing ripples in the scientific world. The practical mindedness and 'can-do' spirit of the American psyche first became apparent in those times. A country that was struggling with depression slowly but surely rose to the cause. The foresight and action that has always characterised American science and business first emerged during those times. Foundations like the Rockefeller foundation started sending promising young men to Europe to quarry in the exquisite knowledge that was being created there. These men and women came back to their country, with a determination to make it second to none in science. Universities forged alliances with industry, unheard of amounts of money started to be donated by wealthy philanthropists for scientific research. The University became the archetypal epitome of discovery and scientific freedom. Men like Oppenheimer and his colleague, Ernest Lawrence, were among the initiators of this wave of technological excellence that can be seen today. Everything suddenly became big; 'big science', 'big machines', like Lawrence's magnificent cyclotron, 'big money', and big America. Cassidy profiles this period of unprecedented progress very well.
Then came war. First and foremost, it brought the United States a windfall of the most brilliant scientists of the time; Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe, John Von Neumann, Edward Teller, and the biggest fish of them all, the austere sage Albert Einstein. As someone said, 'The Pope of Physics has moved'. His home became the new Vatican of physics. All of these great men and women came to their adopted country to escape the ravages of racial discrimination and fanatic nationalism initiated by Hitler and Mussolini. Europe, as they knew it, was on the wane. Their beloved continent was never to be what it was before. On the other hand, they had arrived in the new land of opportunity. American science would start booming, and American leaders of science would be ecstatic. A whole group of 'scientific managers' (another creed that would be the legacy of big science) took the administrative responsibility of steering their country's scientific resources, in their hands. Among these were Robert Millikan and Arthur Compton, both Nobel Laureates, Vannevar Bush, a close confidant of Roosevelt, and James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard. They made sure that research was well-funded and scholarships were doled out to bright young people without reservations. Promising American men and women of science would no longer have to leave their nation in order to become scientific apprentices at the meccas of learning. They could now rely on their own leaders, extraordinary men who were poised for breakthroughs in science and technology. Undoubtedly leading this remarkable generation, at least in physics, was Robert Oppenheimer. Under his tutelage and guidance at the University of California, Berkeley, America's best physicists now had a home of their own, and a father figure whom they idolized. Almost every theoretical physicist of the time who later went on to high deeds, sometime trained under Oppenheimer.
Then came war, and ironically, it brought the United States good tidings, at least in the beginning. More brilliant emigres. And more money to fuel the great machine of technological progress. War production suddenly galvanized into action all that work force that had laid dormant during Depression times. The United States had become the most resource rich and advanced nation in the world. All that 'big science' that had begun could now be put to good use. As if being called to such a cause, an event came to the notice of scientists, one that would change America and the world forever. Fission, and then Pearl Harbour gave an impulsive and unforseen impetus to the nation's scientific and political establishment. The rest is history. Oppenheimer became the head of the world's most top secret laboratory. The war amassed the American work force and capital power as never before. The most expensive project in history produced the most destructive weapon the world had ever seen, obliterating entire generations in a heartbeat. Although it ended the war, it stirred up many more problems and questions than it had solved or answered. Politics had finally become inextricably enmeshed with science, another legacy of the American century. America was a superpower now, although the threat of communism would always be a thorn, in no measure small, in her side. The state of the times was also driven home when Oppenheimer had his security clearance taken away by men from the Government having a perverse sense of patriotism, another instance of the unfortunate but permanent amalgamation of politics and science.
Cassidy's book portrays this century well. It WAS an American century, there is no doubt about that. It changed many things forever. Scientific research would no longer be the same, requiring and engendering intense competition between giant institutions for unheard of funds, a trend that is all too obvious today. It also produced technology that we have yet to psychologically come to terms with, and maybe never will. And it raised eternal and tortous questions of morality that continue to be harrowing. Robert Oppenheimer, in a way, epitomized all of this, many times as an initiator. He and his avuncular predecessor Niels Bohr, both struggled to cope with the paradoxical nature of the most destructive weapon that would possibly end all wars. It did not turn out to be that simple, though, as the years showed, and we permanently became mortals walking a devious precipice. Oppenheimer's brilliance, versatility, and moral persona put him in a position where he could influence the world around him, and he did. But he raised many many questions that he would grapple with till the end, regarding the complex and deep repurcussions which his science had produced in the form of a terrible weapon. Because of his unusual intelligence and foresight, he was in a unique position to be a part and a questioner of those important times. The American century, inspiring as it is, is also sobering. Oppenheimer's life is a telling representative of the problems that we have solved in our quest for scientific as well as moral truth, and the many more new problems that we have created. Most importantly, Cassidy's book and Oppenheimer's life both tell us that whatever else happens, we must never cease to explore.
Stanley R. Schneider
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