American Prometheus is the first full-scale biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, "father of the atomic bomb," the brilliant, charismatic physicist who led the effort to capture the awesome fire of the sun for his country in time of war. Immediately after Hiroshima, he became the most famous scientist of his generation-one of the iconic figures of the twentieth century, the embodiment of modern man confronting the consequences of scientific progress.
He was the author of a radical proposal to place international controls over atomic materials-an idea that is still relevant today. He opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb and criticized the Air Force's plans to fight an infinitely dangerous nuclear war. In the now almost-forgotten hysteria of the early 1950s, his ideas were anathema to powerful advocates of a massive nuclear buildup, and, in response, Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss, Superbomb advocate Edward Teller and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover worked behind the scenes to have a hearing board find that Oppenheimer could not be trusted with America's nuclear secrets.
American Prometheus sets forth Oppenheimer's life and times in revealing and unprecedented detail. Exhaustively researched, it is based on thousands of records and letters gathered from archives in America and abroad, on massive FBI files and on close to a hundred interviews with Oppenheimer's friends, relatives and colleagues.
We follow him from his earliest education at the turn of the twentieth century at New York City's Ethical Culture School, through personal crises at Harvard and Cambridge universities. Then to Germany, where he studied quantum physics with the world's most accomplished theorists; and to Berkeley, California, where he established, during the 1930s, the leading American school of theoretical physics, and where he became deeply involved with social justice causes and their advocates, many of whom were communists. Then to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where he transformed a bleak mesa into the world's most potent nuclear weapons laboratory-and where he himself was transformed. And finally, to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, which he directed from 1947 to 1966.
American Prometheus is a rich evocation of America at midcentury, a new and compelling portrait of a brilliant, ambitious, complex and flawed man profoundly connected to its major events-the Depression, World War II and the Cold War. It is at once biography and history, and essential to our understanding of our recent past-and of our choices for the future.
- Pulitzer Prize
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April 10, 2006
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Excerpt from American Prometheus by Kai Bird
In the first decade of the twentieth century, science initiated a second American revolution. A nation on horseback was soon transformed by the internal combustion engine, manned flight and a multitude of other inventions. These technological innovations quickly changed the lives of ordinary men and women. But simultaneously an esoteric band of scientists was creating an even more fundamental revolution. Theoretical physicists across the globe were beginning to alter the way we understand space and time. Radioactivity was discovered on March 1, 1896, by the French physicist Henri Becquerel. Max Planck, Marie Curie and Pierre Curie and others provided further insights into the nature of the atom. And then, in 1905, Albert Einstein published his special theory of relativity. Suddenly, the universe appeared to have changed.
Around the globe, scientists were soon to be celebrated as a new kind of hero, promising to usher in a renaissance of rationality, prosperity and social meritocracy. In America, reform movements were challenging the old order. Theodore Roosevelt was using the bully pulpit of the White House to argue that good government in alliance with science and applied technology could forge an enlightened new Progressive Era.
Into this world of promise was born J. Robert Oppenheimer, on April 22, 1904. He came from a family of first- and second-generation German immigrants striving to be American. Ethnically and culturally Jewish, the Oppenheimers of New York belonged to no synagogue. Without rejecting their Jewishness they chose to shape their identity within a uniquely American offshoot of Judaism--the Ethical Culture Society--that celebrated rationalism and a progressive brand of secular humanism. This was at the same time an innovative approach to the quandaries any immigrant to America faced--and yet for Robert Oppenheimer it reinforced a lifelong ambivalence about his Jewish identity.
As its name suggests, Ethical Culture was not a religion but a way of life that promoted social justice over self-aggrandizement. It was no accident that the young boy who would become known as the father of the atomic era was reared in a culture that valued independent inquiry, empirical exploration and the free-thinking mind--in short, the values of science. And yet, it was the irony of Robert Oppenheimer's odyssey that a life devoted to social justice, rationality and science would become a metaphor for mass death beneath a mushroom cloud.
Robert's father, Julius Oppenheimer, was born on May 12, 1871, in the German town of Hanau, just east of Frankfurt. Julius' father, Benjamin Pinhas Oppenheimer, was an untutored peasant and grain trader who had been raised in a hovel in "an almost medieval German village," Robert later reported. Julius had two brothers and three sisters. In 1870, two of Benjamin's cousins by marriage emigrated to New York. Within a few years these two young men--named Sigmund and Solomon Rothfeld--joined another relative, J. H. Stern, to start a small company to import men's suit linings. The company did extremely well serving the city's flourishing new trade in ready-made clothing. In the late 1880s, the Rothfelds sent word to Benjamin Oppenheimer that there was room in the business for his sons.
Julius arrived in New York in the spring of 1888, several years after his older brother Emil. A tall, thin-limbed, awkward young man, he was put to work in the company warehouse, sorting bolts of cloth. Although he brought no monetary assets to the firm and spoke not a word of English, he was determined to remake himself. He had an eye for color and in time acquired a reputation as one of the most knowledgeable "fabrics" men in the city. Emil and Julius rode out the recession of 1893, and by the turn of the century Julius was a full partner in the firm of Rothfeld, Stern & Company. He dressed to fit the part, always adorned in a white high-collared shirt, a conservative tie and a dark business suit. His manners were as immaculate as his dress. From all accounts, Julius was an extremely likeable young man. "You have a way with you that just invites confidence to the highest degree," wrote his future wife in 1903, "and for the best and finest reasons." By the time he turned thirty, he spoke remarkably good English, and, though completely self-taught, he had read widely in American and European history. A lover of art, he spent his free hours on weekends roaming New York's numerous art galleries.