Orion Reads
a diary of books etc.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

American Prometheus

I finished a bunch of books lately.

American Prometheus, the 2005 biography of Robert Oppenheimer was only the second or third biography i've ever read, and much more massive than the other two combined. I picked up the book because since late childhood, .. well.


sometime in high-school i had what i think was a formative dream. (a literal sleepytime dream, not a "I Have A Dream" dream) Actually it was a nightmare. By high-school i already self-identified pretty strongly as both a scientist and a left winger, and i had this nightmare where essentially i was one of the scientists who worked on the Manhatten Project. In the dream the Bomb was a small witch's cauldron of sort of boiling silver liquid, and i think we even delivered it on broomstick, but the emotional feeling of guilt the dream delivered packed a powerful punch and i think has stayed with me my whole life.

So i've been vaguely obsessed with scientists' guilt over the A & H-Bombs for some time, and pretty much all i knew about Oppenheimer was that he pretty much symbolized this, and of course is famous for his words just after the first A-Bomb test: "Now i am become death, the destroyer of worlds." Other than that, i knew pretty much nothing about Oppenheimer, nor did anyone i asked.


Oppenheimer was clearly a genius, a sort of rennaissance man who loved poetry almost as much as he loved physics. His early life was pretty dismal: at one point he literally left a poisoned apple on his mentor's desk. But he picked himself up and became a rapidly rising star in atomic physics. In the 30s he flirted with various Communist Party um, causes.

The war loomed, and just before it, the fact that an A-Bomb was possible was realized, and Oppenheimer was chosen to lead the American bomb effort.

He succeeded, and approved of the bombs (plural!) being dropped on Japan, even tho he was aware at the time that the Japanese were essentially defeated, and probably aware that they were merely seeking acceptable terms of surrender.

After the war he was extremely influential in Washington, and devoted his efforts to curtailing development of atomic weapons, especially the hydrogen bomb, which is some 1,000 times more destructive than the atomic bomb.

Eventually however, he made enemies in Washington and was put to an absurdly rigged trial and his security clearance was revoked in the early 60s. This pretty much crushed him and marked a turning point for american science: Up to then, it seemed as if scientists who developed weapons had a legitimate voice in the use of those weapons. Afterwards, it was clear that scientists were expected to shut up and do their jobs.

My evaluation of Oppenheimer's character is that he was essentially a genius and a good and compassionate guy, except he was unfortunately enamoured of power, and respected it too much in others, and lusted after it himself.

There ya go.

I forgot to mention that i think the book itself is not very well written.
I'm pretty unfamiliar with the biographical genre,
but the writing stuck in my craw several times.
Notably the narrator was a pretty opinionated guy.
He'd say thing like "Weil was typical of the bloated egos Oppenheimer ecountered at the Institute." (p. 385) - Which while it may certainly be true doesn't seem like a very narrator-like thing to say. And so on.
Or here: "Quite bluntly, any attempt to label Robert Oppenheimer a [Communist] Party member is a futile exercise - as the FBI learned to its frustration over many years." (p. 136)
That may be a useful summary of stuff, but i just feel the narrator shouldn't go around just asserting things. - Hmm. Or possibly i should be More mistrustful of the slick narrator whom you never notice. Anyhow.


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