To most, Robert Oppenheimer is familiar as the "father of the atomic bomb". This is not techically correct, since Oppenheimer didn't really make any key discoveries that made the creation of atomic weapons possible. But in a sense, Oppenheimer is definitely the "father of the American atomic program", having led the Manhattan project from its establishment and to a successful conclusion. It's very probable that without him, the United States would not have succeeded developing the weapon in time to be used in the war. A famous quote attributed to Oppenheimer was recorded when he was asked about his feelings after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:
We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." I suppose we all thought that one way or another.
But as this comprehensive biography attempts to show, Oppie (as he was called by his friends, and in most places by the authors of the book) was not only about the atomic bomb. Before the war he did some extraordinary physics research (on topics ranging from quantum wave functions to cosmic rays and black holes), and apparently didn't win the Nobel prize only because his research was scattered in too many directions. He almost single-handedly established theoretical physics research in the US after returning from Europe in the early 30s, and headed the Princeton institute for advanced study for several years after the war. After the war, Oppie was also an ardent opposer of the nuclear arms race with the USSR, a quest that eventually cost him his career. Apart from all this, Oppenheimer was also a very unusual character. Going through a difficult period during youth, he emerged as a very captivating personality that left a strong impression on anyone who's been in contact with him. The authors of the books are definitely very impressed with Oppenheimer's "people skills", but I think they under-emphasize that he was also a very mercurial personality. While he apparantly was very successful professionally and socially, his personal life left much to be desired. Not much of real substance is written on his relationship with his wife and children, but from the description of their lives it's obvious that the Oppenheimers were not a model family. I must also note that I've found the story of Oppie's childhood and youth very interesting, because it laid out nicely the situation of American Jews were in the early 20th century. I've also found the history of the financially and politically turbulent 30s eye-opening, as this is a very important period in the history of the 20th century I knew practically nothing about. All in all, this is a really well written and researched book I enjoyed reading. While at times I had to take breaks from reading it for a few days (mostly because the book is really long and occasionally a bit monotonous), I recommend it.


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