10/09/2006

Book Review: American Prometheus

In honor of yet another country breaking through the kiloton (maybe) barrier, getting all nukyler and making the world just a little less stable, a mini-review:

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

Wow, this was quite a book. It is approximately 1 million pages in 5 point text with virtually no margins. Even though it had more words than the OED, I found it fascinating. No exaggeration though, if you have trouble reading small tightly spaced text, this book could be borderline illegible, go for the hardback, it is slightly more readable.



The book traces Oppenheimers life from childhood, to his troubled physics prodigy years, onto his time as a pinko physics professor in berkeley, to father of the atomic bomb, to his post war life as a influential science advisor to the whitehouse, and then on to his high profile loss of his security clearance in a kangaroo court and the sad ending of his life, a broken man.

Being a liberal, a scientist and a los alamoosan it was a very interesting and highly relevant read. Seeing the genesis of the town where I live and the lab where I work was great. It was also very interesting seeing Oppenheimer's transition from borderline communist to perhaps the most influential scientist in the post quantum era.

Obviously there are huge political and moral issues raised in the book. I think book treats the complexity of development, testing and deployment of the first nuclear weapons superbly. It concentrates on oppenheimer, but gives a nice context for the political climate duiring the second world war and how the attitudes of the scientists and politicians evolved in the post war period. It is striking the degree of political influence that Oppenheimer had after the war, especially compared to how little influence scientist have in the current administration.

This book is very sympathetic to Oppenheimer and is written from a liberal perspective, I think. I am not sure if it is enough to anger current right wingers, but I would not be suprised. It certainly does not gloss over his foibles, but it does dismiss his trial as a political sideshow from the McCarthy era. I think I would have preferred the book to be slightly less blindly supportive of Oppenheimer. His work and the absurdity of the trial against him probably would speak for themselves without the taint of oversupportive bias.

If you like good non-fiction and biographies, this is a good one, even if you don't live in these fertile atomic lands.

Get it at yer local book shop or amazon

3 comments:

scott said...

I've been looking to get my hands on that book.

If you're interested, maybe we can work out an intersinglespeeder's library exchange.. In my alwaystoosparce literary collection, I have Brotherhood of the Bomb by Gregg Herken. An excellent read, albeit a little shorter than the American Prometheus at only 430 pages (including acknowledgments). It's a seemingly thorough treatment of the accomplishments and interactions of Oppenhimer, Teller, and Lawrence, and that's as much of a book review as you're going to get from me here....

Omar said...

"I am become death, destroyer of worlds"

scott said...

according to an old interview with his brother, Frank, he actually said "It worked".. The other, more famous quote, came much later...