Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2005, xiii + 721 pages. $35.00. (cloth).
(published in Physics in Perspective, 8, 226 (2006)
This biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer was twenty-five years in the making. It is mainly the work of
Martin Sherwin, who took on Kai Bird as coauthor five years ago, probably (I’m only guessing) because
Sherwin was getting too bogged down in coming to grips with the complexity of Oppenheimer’s life and
needed a fresh partner to finally wrap it up. Bird is the author of earlier biographies of John J. McCloy
and the Bundy brothers, and Sherwin is the author of the well-known book, A World Destroyed: The
Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975), recently republished in a
third edition. Since neither of the authors are physical scientists, it is not surprising that this particular
Oppenheimer biography focuses more on his personality, his statesmanship, scientific leadership, and
the role he played in post-World War II U.S. weapons’ policymaking rather than on his actual scientific
achievements. For this you would have to go elsewhere.
This volume is a truly exhaustive exploration of Oppie’s (if I may take the liberty) life.This ground
has been thoroughly covered in earlier biographies, especially David C. Cassidy’s J. Robert Oppenheimer
and the American Century (New York: Pi Press, 2005), but I dare say that no one has probed into
every corner of his life to the extent these authors have. This is the place to find out just about everything
that is publicly available, from his childhood years, through his Ethical Culture schooling, his Har-
vard and then his European education in physics, learning from many of the early twentieth-century
masters, then his Berkeley and Caltech years, when his physics and his graduate-student involvements
were at their peak, then Los Alamos, then the AEC security hearing, and finally his later years at the
Institute for Advanced Study.We are reading here about the most iconic American physicist, and it
should be evident therefore that all of this material is truly riveting.We learn just about everything
there is to know about his pre-Los Alamos political activities, about his various love affairs and deep
emotional involvements; we learn about the communist leanings of some of his closest friends and
lovers; and we learn about his character flaws, his sometimes irrational behavior under stress, his less
than kindly treatment of some of his students, and his not entirely admirable handling of himself under
the attacks of his adversaries during the AEC security hearing.
This is no hagiography; Sherwin and Kai present all of Oppie’s blemishes and character defects.
Even so, after reading the entire volume it is impossible to come away without experiencing a deep
fondness and admiration for him, and without being deeply moved by this man, in full.
One could think of Oppenheimer’s life as a classic drama in three acts, containing elements of heroism,
tragedy, and even comedy. The height of the drama is the second act, the security, clearance hearing
held by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1953; the first and third acts refer to his early life –
his distinguished early career – and his life after he was denied clearance.
This is a very thorough book. If you read it all you will learn almost everything you could possibly
want to know about Oppie and his extraordinary life – all, except perhaps the details of the physics that
made him famous in the first place. An inevitable characteristic of biographies of physicists written by
nonphysicists is that they deal mainly with the person, rather than probing deeply into his or her scientific
accomplishment. I found it instructive to compare this book with the much shorter, and much more
informal book by Jeremy Bernstein, Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2004),
which Bernstein himself declines to define as a biography, but rather as an aborted “profile” that was
to appear in The New Yorker magazine but somehow did not. Bernstein, both a talented writer and a
physicist, actually describes Oppenheimer’s contributions to physics in more detail than does Sherwin
and Bird (for example, his seminal work on black holes) but leaves out many of the details, including
some juicy ones, of Oppenheimer’s life. I found it worthwhile to read both of these books at the same
time; the Sherwin-Bird volume, although exhaustively researched, is almost exclusively derived from
secondary sources and conversations with just about every person still alive who had significant contact
with him, while Bernstein, who knew Oppenheimer fairly well, brings him more vividly to life, with
many first-hand anecdotes and reminiscences. But in the Sherwin book you will find the full record of