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

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

Takeaway: Real people are complicated, which shouldn’t keep us from appreciating great work.

I started reading this book because I did not know much about the creation of the atomic bomb or anything about Robert Oppenheimer.  While it is interesting to learn about Oppenheimer and the bomb, what is most interesting for me is the history of the unchecked power of the early FBI, political innuendo, and the scare tactics of the anti-communist 1940s and 1950s.

It might surprise some that the FBI seems to have routinely used illegal wiretaps (even after making agreements with other agencies not to use them), robbery (breaking into communist party offices and stealing records), outright lying to political officials about their findings to discredit people, etc.

The result ended up being a witch-hunt led by people with clear ulterior motives.  Even at the time, most people seemed to know that there wasn’t any justification to illegal activities of the FBI and the scare tactics of Joseph McCarthy and others.  No one seems to have been able to control J. Edgar Hoover (I need to read some more on him someday).

Clearly the US is not innocent of wrongdoing.  As the very boring (but well titled) Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq and a wide variety of other well documented books the US has done exactly what it has complained about with other countries.

There is a real question about security raised by this book.  Oppenheimer was not security conscious when the Manhattan Project started.  He was an academic that was inclined to think that the free sharing of information was the best way to accomplish the creation of the bomb before the Nazis.  He did learn about and pay more attention to security and does not seem to have ever actually leaked any information of any importance.  But I wonder how much a false sense of the need for security has limited science.

The Oppenheimer story also raising interesting questions about the ethics of science.  Clearly, many of the scientists involved in the building of the bomb were concerned with its use.  They were not being told how it was going to be used, or when they were talked to about it, were being told a very limited story.  But I am not sure that scientists really are the best ones to make decisions about how weapons should be used.  This does leave a real questions about their moral culpability.

The third interesting point that this book brought up for me is the role of the idea midwife (my term).  It seems that Oppenheimer didn’t really have that many original ideas.  What seemed to be his forte was helping others birth their new ideas.  He was a good administrator and with his roles as the lead at Los Alamos and director of the Center for Advanced Study he helped others grow into their idea into some of the most important discoveries of the 20th Century.

Overall this was a interesting book.  I listened to it (as I like to do with many long biographies).  But the sound quality was not great.  The volume kept changing and it would be a bit muffled and then go very clear, and then back muffled again.

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Shirwin Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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[…] dose of biography.  I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein about two years ago and a biography of Robert Oppenheimer (father of the atomic bomb) about a year ago.  So some of the biography of the people was […]

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