The American Prometheus: The Story Behind Oppenheimer!

Last updated on August 2, 2023
  • ⏳ [read_meter]
  • Modern Prometheans have raided Mount Olympus again and have brought back for man the very thunderbolts of Zeus.” — Scientific Monthly, September 1945

    Prometheus stole fire and gave it to men. But when Zeus learned of it, he ordered Hephaestus to nail his body to Mount Caucasus. On it Prometheus was nailed and kept bound for many years. Every day an eagle swooped on him and devoured the lobes of his liver, which grew by night.” — Apollodorus, The Library, book 1:7, second century B.C.

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

    American Prometheus By Kai Bird And Martin J. Sherwin Review Rating

    With these words begins this thick, multifaceted, comprehensive, intensely researched, fascinating, and thrilling biography work that captures not only a man but a nation and era itself. By the time you finish reading it, not only does it make sense why Christopher Nolan would want to adapt this book, but you also get to understand the magnitude and complexity that went through the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

    Why Prometheus?

    The title in itself is clever. You see, Robert Oppenheimer did usher us into the atomic era, unleashing the power of the atomic bomb into our hands, much like Prometheus did with the light, but he was also banished and punished for it afterward, again, much like Prometheus. Not for unleashing the power of the atom, however, but for his relentless pursuit of keeping it in check. 

    Thereby, while this book is about how Oppenheimer helped create the atomic bomb for the U.S., ultimately ending the world war and causing the Allies to emerge victorious, it’s even more so about how he was politically targeted and defamed and banished by a nation he loved more than anything. 

    Moonwalking With Einstein

    It’s a book set at a time when some of the brightest minds in physics were active, creating ripples through the world of quantum mechanics in particular, and the book does a brilliant job of capturing that. Keeping it simple and jargon-free so that even the most scientifically illiterate of readers can enjoy and understand it, the book introduces you to names like Max Born and Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg and Albert Einstein, and Wolfgang Pauli, figures a lot of us have grown up reading about in our physics and chemistry textbooks. 

    Join Kindle Unlimited Now 📚 & Read Unlimited Books For FREE! (30-Day FREE Trial!)

    While the narrative primarily looks at these scientists instead of their relationship with Oppenheimer in different capacities, it doesn’t limit itself to that viewpoint. This means that you’re better able to see and appreciate the way these greats were, their quirks and habits on display as much as their scientific achievements. 

    So if you aren’t so crazy about reading a historical biography but are a science aficionado, perhaps this would convince you better why you should read this masterpiece of a book. It charts the journey atomic physics took through those years and how it ultimately led to the creation of atomic energy and atomic weapons. 

    The Triumph of J. Robert Oppenheimer

    Through Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s intensive research, you see a man more complex than what the simple descriptor “father of the atomic bomb” might make you imagine. You see a young boy who was miles ahead of his peers, a kid attached to his mother, a depressed teen far away from his home, a lover, a poet, a polymath, a brother, a son, a husband, a father, and so much more. 

    Join Audible Now 🎧 & Listen To Unlimited Audiobooks For FREE! (30-Day Free Trial)

    You see someone who was fluent in multiple languages, from Greek to Latin to French to Sanskrit to Dutch, someone who was as interested (or perhaps more) in psychology as he was in theoretical physics, someone who was sure of himself and knew his genius, someone who studies and excelled under the top institutions of the world under the brightest minds despite the growing anti-Semitic sentiments. You also see someone with political inclinations that weren’t always in line with popular sentiments, someone who wasn’t always comfortable with the vast generational wealth he came with, and someone who tried to always be a free thinker rather than politically affiliated with any group. 

    You see someone with complex moral dilemmas, someone who wished to reconcile his actions with himself foremost, the reason why he gravitated toward the Bhagavad Gita and its teaching of putting emphasis on the action instead of the end result (his admiration for the book is, of course, well-documented in a famous interview when he stated “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”). Based on thousands of letters and archival records and FBI files, and interviews with people he knew, the book brings to life a man who was as brilliant as he was complex. 

    The Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

    The tragedy of politics is that its moralities and ideals change with who’s in power. Cue the McCarthy era and the rise of strong anti-communist sentiments that would sweep all over America, particularly because of the ongoing Cold War with Russia. And who better to bring to “justice” than the man who’s been opposing the spread of atomic weaponry in the last several years, a man who has had communist affiliations in the past, a man who’s been protesting against the government’s drive to build a hydrogen bomb?

    What follows is fitting to depict the fall of a modern Greek hero: FBI agents follow and track him at all hours of the day; he’s grilled and interrogated and humiliated and defamed through as many sources as possible, so much so that the country which seemed to love him not many years back seemed to turn its back on him. You can see how the fall of a public authority was systemically carried out over the years and how Oppenheimer was the example set for future scientists to not get too “messianic.” 

    RECOMMENDED: Best Books To Read & Learn About World War 1 & 2! 📚

    To quote from the book: 

    For a few years after World War II, scientists had been regarded as a new class of intellectuals, members of a public-policy priesthood who might legitimately offer expertise not only as scientists but as public philosophers. With Oppenheimer’s defrocking, scientists knew that in the future they could serve the state only as experts on narrow scientific issues. As the sociologist Daniel Bell later observed, Oppenheimer’s ordeal signified that the postwar “messianic role of the scientists” was now at an end. Scientists working within the system could not dissent from government policy, as Oppenheimer had done by writing his 1953 Foreign Affairs essay, and still expect to serve on government advisory boards. The trial thus represented a watershed in the relations of the scientist to the government. The narrowest vision of how American scientists should serve their country had triumphed.

    The American Prometheus – Conclusion!

    Regardless of whether you’ve seen Christopher Nolan’s seminal adaptation of this thriller of a biography, this book deserves to be read. It adds much to the gaps that exist in that movie and helps create contexts and backdrops that better help you understand the era in which Oppenheimer was born and operated: the golden era of theoretical physics, the utter madness of global politics, the changing dynamics of society, and so much more. You can get the book here! 📖

    American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
    American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin Review Rating

    “Modern Prometheans have raided Mount Olympus again and have brought back for man the very thunderbolts of Zeus.” — Scientific Monthly, September 1945


    Author: Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

    Editor's Rating:

    This article contains affiliate links. BookWritten may earn a commission when you buy using these links.

    Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
    Your subscription has been successful. Kindly check your email. 📧

    BookWritten Newsletter 📧 📖

    Join 10,000 plus subscribers. Get updates about the best books to read, special content, and exclusive offers online! 📚

    Last updated on August 2, 2023

    Let's discuss here - Share your thoughts and queries!

    • Leave a Reply

      Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *