Book Review

The ‘father of the atomic bomb’ was a complex and tragic figure

By Donna Bruno
Posted 10/3/23

‘American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer’ By Kai Bird

Given the popularity of this summer’s blockbuster film, this biography of J. Robert …

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Book Review

The ‘father of the atomic bomb’ was a complex and tragic figure


‘American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer’
By Kai Bird

Given the popularity of this summer’s blockbuster film, this biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” should generate interest. Born to Jewish immigrants, he was into books and science at an early age, teased and ridiculed for being unlike other boys.

His parents encouraged his interest in rocks and minerals. As a teen, he completed Harvard in three years, followed by Cambridge, where he studied quantum physics. There he sought psychiatric help after injecting a poisonous substance into an apple intended for the head steward.

He was often morose and depressed about sexual inadequacy in relationships with women. Relocating to Gottingen University, Germany, he came into contact with leading scientists at that time, and his published papers garnered attention. His success there renewed his confidence and self-worth, earning a doctorate on the hydroelectric effect in hydrogen and x-rays.

After accepting a double appointment at both Caltech and Berkeley, he published 16 papers on theoretical physics and achieved breakthroughs in the calculations of absorption coefficient of x- rays and the elastic and inelastic scattering of electrons. In future years, quantum physics would open the doors to the modern personal computer, nuclear power, genetic engineering, and laser technology.

Oppenheimer’s life would follow a path of intense intellectual work followed by near exhaustion. He was a difficult personality who once said, “I need physics more than friends.”

Although extremely handsome and capable of tremendous personal charm, his classmates found him arrogant and out-of-touch. Eventually he would marry Kitty Harrison, whose communist sympathies, along with those of his brother and many friends, would lead to suspicion about his allegiance to the US. even after Col. Leslie Grove chose him to lead the Manhattan Project, where scientists from far and wide were selected to develop an atom bomb at labs in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Those colleagues said that director Oppenheimer never dictated what needed to be done but brought out the best in them. In New Mexico this diffident, hesitant man underwent a metamorphosis to become a decisive executive. In 1943 he was joined by noted physicist Neils Bohr, who had been working on a uranium reactor that could produce a runaway chain reaction, thereby creating an immense explosion. Also joining his team were Nobel-Prize winning physicists and unbeknownst to him a Soviet spy.

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had Oppenheimer’s phones tapped and planted an agent inside the facility to monitor Oppie’s actions. Once a successful bomb was created and tested, some, like scientist Bob Wilson, were heard to say, “It is a terrible thing that we made.” Oppenheimer shared his feelings so that when it was used to decimate Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he remarked to Wilson about the Japanese victims, “Those poor little people. Those poor little people.”

He was so distressed that he resigned his job as scientific director, plunging into depression, aware that this weapon of mass destruction had profoundly changed the character to physics, and international control was needed over atomic energy, or the human race was in dire peril.

Pres. Harry Truman, however, did not agree. When meeting with Oppenheimer, who lamented “he felt blood on his hands,” Truman facetiously offered him a handkerchief to wipe it off. The President further indicated to his Secretary of State Dean Acheson that he “did not want to see that cry-baby son-of-a bitch scientist ever again.”

While Oppenheimer continued to preach about the dangers of nuclear proliferation, Truman announced a program to determine the technical feasibility of a hydrogen bomb. The scientist’s reservations about this contributed to suspicion about his loyalty. When Dwight D. Eisenhower became president, he was favorably impressed with Oppenheimer’s concern that the US and USSR were akin to two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of its own life.

Despite this, FBI agents seized his files, revoked his security clearance, and brought a case against him, which devastated him. Einstein said of his colleague, “The trouble with Oppie is that he loves a woman who doesn’t love him back – the U.S. government.”

It was an unfair hearing; certain facts were suppressed; witnesses with classified documents were ambushed; hearsay was allowed as evidence; hypothetical questions that were unanswerable were posed. Syndicated columnist Joe Alsop declared that although the country owed Oppenheimer a great debt, they made him a victim of the hysteria of McCarthyism. His spirit was broken; his hair turned white prematurely; he was only 50 but looked aged; he retreated, succumbing to throat cancer at age 62.

This is a thorough assessment of not only the career of a genius scientist, but also personal glimpses into the man himself: a father who loved his children; a citizen devoted to his country; a scientist concerned about international implications of his invention; a man persecuted for his association with family and friends who were communists.

In addition, it poses questions: Is criticism of government policies equal to disloyalty to county? Can democracy survive in an atmosphere that demands sacrifice of personal relationships to state policy? Should a man be judged by his associations or his actions? This entire story has Shakespearean themes, hence the very apt title, “The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” — somewhat akin to “King Lear” or “Macbeth.” Resembling the traditional heroic but tragic figure, Einstein said of Oppenheimer, “I admire him not only as a scientist, but also as a human being.” This biography allows the reader to be the judge.

Donna Bruno is a prizewinning author and poet recently recognized with four awards by National League of American Pen Women.

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