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Summer Edition
Volume 100, Number 1


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American Prometheus


Sail into summer reading (continued)

In the shadow of the mushroom cloud

Haunting biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer reveals the complexities and paradoxes of this brilliant scientist and his era

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Winner of a Pulitzer Prize, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of Robert Oppenheimer—exhaustively researched and flawlessly written by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin—is a compelling story at two levels. The first is that of biographical history. Oppenheimer—who was director of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the bomb was developed—was a brilliant physicist, a natural–born leader, and a gifted speaker. By the end of the war he was world famous, appearing on the cover of Time in 1948. Yet within a few short years he would be brought low by the post-war anticommunist witch hunt led by Senator Joe McCarthy and abetted by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, despite the lack of any firm evidence that he was a communist.

Although named in 1947 as director of Princeton’s famed Institute for Advanced Study, where he remained for the rest of his career, he was progressively marginalized from the national stage. Life was never the same. A heavy smoker, he died a miserable death from throat cancer at 62

When the book is read at a second level—as a morality tale—it is even more powerful. Oppenheimer’s life poses the question of human responsibility for good and evil in its starkest terms. From the start of the atomic bomb project, Oppenheimer was acutely aware of the unprecedented devastation its use would unleash. He knew, as did other nuclear scientists, that after the bomb there would be no going back; human history would forever be threatened by the potential for a nuclear holocaust. He urged that atomic explosives be placed under international control in order to prevent their use by nation–states or terrorists in time of war. Paradoxically, he also believed it necessary that the United States develop the bomb first, lest Germany succeed in the race to build the bomb and, thereby, win the war. For the remainder of his life Oppenheimer was haunted by what he had done. When you read this book, you will be haunted, too.

 

Roger Sider
—Roger Sider ’62, M.D., served as a medical missionary, trained in psychiatry, taught at medical  school, and served as medical director of a hospital. He now practices psychiatry with Philhaven, a behavioral healthcare organization in Elizabethtown, Pa. He lives in Lewisberry, Pa., with his wife, Joann.

 

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