American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird & Martin J Sherman - review by John Gribbin

John Gribbin

Playing With Fire

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer


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What ought to be the definitive biography of ‘the father of the atom bomb’ has been long awaited in more ways than one. Martin Sherman started work on the book in 1979, and it was eventually published in the United States in 2005. But it failed to find a British publisher at that time, and only now, garlanded with a Pulitzer Prize, has it formally crossed the Atlantic. As is all too often the case, the anticipation was better than the reality: American Prometheus is a fine, scholarly work, but it is not, after all, the definitive biography of Robert Oppenheimer. There is too much politics and too little science, even allowing for the huge political importance of the man and his work. And the man himself remains in many ways an enigmatic figure.

Oppenheimer was born in 1904, the son of non-practising Jewish immigrants. His father had made a substantial fortune in the clothing business, and Robert had a privileged childhood and youth. He was offered an undergraduate fellowship at Harvard, but he declined because he didn’t need the money, enrolling as a

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