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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Summer Reading Book Review - American Prometheus

Book Title: American Prometheus 

Author: Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin

Reviewed By: Thomas P.

Bird and Sherwin seem to have reviewed or interviewed someone who was present at just about every moment of their subject's life. That subject is the man most responsible for the development of both the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was a person of multiple personalities, far beyond the complexities that most of us manage to weave into our lives. Oppenheimer was usually the smartest man in the room and clearly made others know that. His personality flashed to opposite ends, often appearing welcoming and friendly in one set of circumstances and yet nearly as frequently appearing so cold and aloof as to isolate himself from the rest of humanity.

A genius of the first order, Oppenheimer moved from theoretical physics in academia in pre-World War II to practical physics in World War II itself. It is no overstatement to say that without his brilliance, the practical mechanics of the creation of the atomic bomb would have been delayed until after the war. Despite some personal reservations about the use of the bomb, particularly after Germany has been defeated, he led his team to the successful test on July 16, 1945, and its two uses against the Japanese in August, 1945. Throughout the creation of the bomb, Oppenheimer fits in seamlessly with multiple Nobel-level scientists including Neils Bohr, Enrico Fermi, and Edward Teller. Yet some darker corner of his personality ultimately alienates himself from Teller, leading to Teller's later actions that blacken Oppenheimer's name in House Un-American Activities meetings in the 1950s.

Throughout Oppenheimer's life, we see some elements of a quasi-self-destructive wish, as he flirts with communists in various academic circles. This begins innocently enough with various academics, including Oppenheimer, sending money to various republican elements in Spain fighting the fascists during the Spanish Civil War. More and more funds are collected, much a which will be heavily influenced by, or outright diverted to the American Communist Party. In addition, Oppenheimer himself creates his own problems by carrying on multiple affairs including two that will have classically tragic repercussions. First, he will have a long and passionate affair with the daughter (Jean Tatlock) of a fellow professor at Berkley. Her later estrangement and suicide will darken his already manic-depressive personality. Simultaneous with the latter stages of this self-destructive behavior, he will also have an intimate relationship with Katherine 'Kitty" Puening, resulting in her conceiving a child (apparently by Oppenheimer). Regardless of the parentage, Kitty uses the knowledge of her pregnancy to obtain an immediate divorce from her third husband (who was otherwise opposed to the divorce) and forces Oppenheimer with apparently no little amount of blackmail involved to marry her. She will remain his wife throughout the balance of his life, but that will not limit him from other romantic entanglements. Kitty herself harbors decidedly communistic leanings (her second husband dies fighting for the Abraham Lincoln brigade in Spain, all the while brandishing his open love affair with communism). While not quite as openly supportive of communism as her second husband, Kitty is clearly captivated by the idea of communism. As well, Oppenheimer will make statements that are, at best, unwise and potentially treasonous. This will not bode well for Oppenheimer's status as a loyal American.

Robert has a brother, Frank, who becomes a professor at the University of Minnesota. In the 1930s, with proceeds from their father's legacy, Robert and Frank buy a ranch in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range in New Mexico. They will use the ranch to escape from their respective academic environs and relax in the summers. It is this chance purchase that leads to the determination as to where the headquarters for the US research for the atomic bomb will occur. When General Leslie Groves is searching for the headquarters, Robert mentions that a boys' school in another section of the Sangre de Cristo range would be a possible site. Thus was Los Alamos formed.

Turning back to Oppenheimer's life, we see multiple examples of his commitment to the ideals of the United States, but he also still carries the blackened remnants of his dalliance with communism. While Groves attempts to ferret out real German and communist efforts to learn about the bomb or sabotage its completion, Oppenheimer comes under more and more suspicion, in no little part because of his wife's reputation.

Following the war, Oppenheimer's one-time associate, Edward Teller, develops the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, which takes the ascendancy in the development of the hydrogen bomb. Teller wishes to be removed from the influence of Los Alamos and Oppenheimer, but begins a campaign of innuendo (some justified, but most, probably not) against Oppenheimer. In turn, Teller's comments lead to calls for Oppenheimer's presence before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). This, in turn, and probably unjustifiably, leads to revocation of Oppenheimer's security clearance.

The balance of Oppenheimer's life is spent back in academia, this time on the opposite side of the country in Princeton, New Jersey. Here Kitty devolves into an ugly alcoholic with a waspish and increasingly paranoid personality. Robert turns inward, but some part of his personality keeps him at arms length from his son Peter (born of the assignation mentioned earlier) and daughter Toni. Each child will fail to develop completely, leading to broken marriages and, in Toni's case, suicide. Robert's habit of near-continuous chain-smoking will ultimately lead to his early death at age 62 from throat cancer.

In short, the book is a complex interweaving of professional accomplishment and personal failure. It is a disturbing and curious look at that which comprises the best and the worst of us in the same human being.

Find American Prometheus in print & digital formats in our catalog. 

Summer Reading program participants, what are you reading?
Submit a review of one of the books you read this summer. Your review will get you an entry into a special prize drawing in addition to the drawings for all program finishers. More prizes! Yay!

All you have to do is fill out our online form or email a short review (at least 5 thoughtful sentences - without giving away the ending!) to

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Interesting review! Thanks

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