Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 20 Jan 2016
Full Title: American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
J. Robert Oppenheimer was the leading scientist of the Manhattan Project which gave the United States atomic bombs near the end of WW2. While doubtless a brilliant physicist, it was equally his leadership skills that led to the achievement that he deemed both awesome and regretful at the same time. In American Prometheus, authors Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin provided a biographical study of Oppenheimer. Largely putting physics in the background, they focused on his upbringing, his personality, his personal and working relationships with others, and his leftist leanings that would ultimately bring him onto the world stage once again as he defended himself from accusations of being a communist. The author succeeded in presenting Oppenheimer's post-war pacifist ideologies, something that most books on him, focusing on the atomic research, often ignored. Meanwhile, while Oppenheimer was often known for his Manhattan achievements, his personal defects, everything ranging from adultery to his insensitive offering of drinks to sufferers of alcoholism, were also introduced to add dimension to the historical figure. Bird and Sherwin placed far too much emphasis on his leftist/communist hearings and made great efforts to defend his political position, however, thus leaning the book closer to an editorial than a work of history.
I had reviewed this title in its audio book format. Jeff Cummings did a fine job with the reading, but the book had some noticeable production problems. The foremost of these problems was that the reader's volume often jumped from one sentence or paragraph to the next, a sign that perhaps the audio engineering team failed to adjust the volume of recordings made at different times and/or different studios.
Due to the rather partial presentation and the content being rather light on physics, American Prometheus could hardly be considered a definitive biography. The book nevertheless offered a treasure trove of information on this politically and academically influential scientist, and I had learned a lot from these proverbial pages.
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