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Reviewed by James Gleick
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page BW03


The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

By Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Knopf. 721 pp. $35

Six decades have now passed since the United States first launched the quintessential weapon of mass destruction against civilian targets, twice in one week, killing two cities in a blaze of nuclear fire. No one has done it since. J. Robert Oppenheimer would be surprised that we've gotten this far.

The atomic bomb would surely have come into existence without Oppenheimer to lead the Manhattan Project, but the label "Father of the Bomb" could be attached to no one else. He felt his responsibility deeply. His self-lacerating conscience let him see with immediate and lasting clarity what his success meant for humanity. If he had done nothing else -- if nothing else had happened to him -- Oppenheimer would still be one of the 20th century's great, complex, defining figures.

But Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the end for him; he did not walk away from American science or the atomic era he had helped inaugurate. His achievement and his anguish, before the bomb and after, make him a man to whom historians and artists are continually drawn. Heinar Kipphardt's drama "In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer" transfixed international theater audiences in the 1960s, and a new opera by John Adams and Peter Sellars, "Doctor Atomic," will debut this fall in San Francisco.

Martin J. Sherwin, a historian at Tufts University, began his Oppenheimer biography 25 years ago, exploring on horseback the high desert mesas of New Mexico that his subject first fell in love with as a boy visiting a dude ranch. Since Sherwin's project lasted two decades longer than he intended -- he was eventually joined by a second biographer and historian, Kai Bird -- we can well believe him when he says it gave him "a new understanding of the complexities of biography." It was worth the trouble. American Prometheus is comprehensive, finely judged where it most matters and sometimes revelatory. "Triumph and Tragedy" is a catchphrase much abused in biography subtitles; this subject earns it.

Oppenheimer was born in 1903, the first son of wealthy and cultured German Jews living in New York City, and was almost immediately understood to be bright and sensitive. Or as he said, "I was an unctuous, repulsively good little boy." He was also lonely, prone to melancholy, fascinated by and confused about sex, and at once romantic and arrogant. He studied science at Harvard, read Dostoyevsky, Proust and T.S. Eliot's new "The Waste Land," wrote love poetry and painted landscapes in oil. These were the first, heady days of a new physics, quantum mechanics. He pursued this field to Europe, where it was gestating, sought out the pioneers of the new guard and strongly impressed all of them.

When he returned to become a professor at Berkeley, he was already known as America's most brilliant young physicist. He became the first to predict the existence of antimatter, which he realized by dint of imagination and calculation should exist; and he did groundbreaking work on neutron stars decades before astronomers were actually able to observe any. Somehow, though, he always managed to fall short of solving the greatest problems. Bird and Sherwin aptly describe him as "a productive dilettante." His near-contemporary, the physicist I.I. Rabi (whose strong, moral voice runs throughout this book), once said, "God knows I'm not the simplest person, but compared to Oppenheimer, I'm very, very simple." Oppenheimer was the sort of person who studied the Bhagavad Gita in the original Sanskrit and gave clever names to his automobiles (Gamaliel, Garuda and later Bombsight). He had strong social and political convictions, identified himself with communists and communism, supported labor organizers and contributed money to Spanish republicans fighting the fascists.

He never did win a Nobel Prize. The authors suggest that his role as bomb-maker may have been weighed against him, but perhaps Rabi's judgment -- that the very greatest achievement in physics eluded him -- is more to the point: "His interest in religion . . . resulted in a feeling for the mystery of the universe that surrounded him almost like a fog. He saw physics clearly . . . but at the border he tended to feel that there was much more of the mysterious and the novel than there actually was. He was insufficiently confident of the power of the intellectual tools he already possessed and did not drive his thought to the very end." He finished other physicists' papers when they were stuck. He possessed exquisite taste in selecting problems. With hindsight, we can see that he was meant to be an inspirer, organizer and perfecter of scientists -- and a leader.

He was shortly to leave dilettantism behind.

News came in January 1939 from two German scientists that the nucleus of a uranium atom could be split when bombarded with neutrons. Oppenheimer was not the only physicist to see what that implied. "I think it really not too improbable," he wrote a friend, "that a ten cm [centimeter] cube of uranium deuteride (one should have something to slow the neutrons without capturing them) might very well blow itself to hell."

When the time came for the United States to try building an atomic bomb, Oppenheimer both was and was not a natural choice to be director of the most ambitious scientific and industrial project in human history. He was at the pinnacle of American physics. In 1942, he was put in charge of fast-neutron research at Berkeley with an imaginative government title, "coordinator of rapid rupture." On the other hand, the government's security apparatus was nursing an antipathy to people with communist associations, and Oppenheimer's were well-known. The FBI had opened an investigation bordering on harassment (he was seldom unwatched or unwiretapped) that continued for most of his life, generating 10,000 pages of dossier. The War Department denied him a security clearance at a moment when most of the world's knowledge pertaining to atomic fission resided in his brain.

And he was no engineer. At the age of 38, he seemed ethereal. He was frail and underweight and failed his Army physical.

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