Book Review; American Prometheus – The Triumph and Tragedy of Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

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

Kai Bird (Goodreads Author),


J.K. George's review

Sep 17, 2023  · 


Good grief... where to start? This work is a stupendous and complete biography, with 600 pages of dense text as well as 120 additional pages of notes, quotes, bibliography, index, and illustration credits.

After an early German-Jewish childhood description of Oppenheimer, where it is clear that he came from very educated and bright European stock, he was fortunate to attend one of the most advanced elementary educational programs in New York City. A genius polymath, he exhibited a passion for science as well as liberal arts and graduated summa-cum-laude from Harvard in 1922. He proceeded to a Doctorate in Theoretical Physics at Goettengen University in Germany and did a post-doc at ... are you ready for this ... Cal Tech. Oppenheimer learned language skills easily and rapidly, with his English and German base, and added Dutch, French, and others such as Sanskrit (!) along the way. He read widely and enjoyed novels, poetry, French and Greek poetry, as well as Hemingway. And if that's not enough, he read all three volumes of Marx's "Das Kapital" in German on a three-day train trip across the US between California and NYC. Now if you feel more than a little bewildered with such brilliance, don't feel lonesome!

The book, however, can be difficult to read because of its obsession to detail. Some is needed, but the level is nearly overwhelming at times. Yet Oppenheimer's work as the leader on the U.S. atomic bomb project, along with the concerns of the brilliant scientists regarding the use of the weapon itself, and the civilian-centric targets in Japan, is riveting. There is a blizzard of names throughout, and Oppenheimer's choice as the head of the amazing Princeton, NJ Institute of Advanced Physics in 1947 is just mesmerizing. That portion of the story includes vignettes of Albert Einstein and many other genius-class scientists and thinkers.

All in all, this is a wonderful in-depth look at one of mankind's most brilliant - and in many ways tortured by his brilliance - persons. On a very base level, Oppenheimer was a very heavy life-long smoker, and that probably shortened his life. The two authors have pulled together a wonderful story of a gifted person; their work on the story took twenty-five years! It produced a biography worthy of their effort.

9 Responses

  1. JK James George
    From Anon-1: Many thanks for doing all the heavy lifting and also your insights on this book. I enjoyed the Film which provoked much thought into his complexity of character and inner contradictions to his morality posed by such an enormous scientific challenge. He certainly fell afoul of the prevailing paranoia about Reds under the Beds and the shameful wave of McCarthyism which gripped the political scene at that time. These Trumpist times sadly still exercise a malevolent hold over the political landscape and I fear Oppenheimer would still be subject to malicious condemnation even today, by the dreadful forces at play in the land.
  2. JK James George
    From Anon-2, I enjoyed reading your book review. Have you seen the movie?
  3. JK James George
    From Anon-3, Thanks, Jimma (Family nickname). Your summary of the book is excellent, and so good that I know now that I never need to read it myself! I’ve watched two documentaries about him and coupled with your review, I know all I need to know.
  4. JK James George
    From Anon-4, Marx wrote Das Kapital. Not Hitler. Oppenheimer was a fan of Marx and despised Hitler. (JKG note, OMG, i know better. Went back in and corrected that but the main mailing list has the error for all to see my carelessness.)
  5. JK James George
    From Anon-5: Karl Marx? Just showing I’m paying attention.
  6. JK James George
    From Anon-6, Wow, what a book-really worth reading. How come these people are so smart?
  7. JK James George
    From Anon-7, Wow! I feel out of breath, yet just reading your review of this book! Imagine if I actually read “It” The “It” was left at the end of this sentence for good reason! It has your gift of enthusiasm! I love it when you get excited about a book it certainly shows! Thanks for showing us all why we enjoy reading any and all of your “words of wisdom.“ Thank you J.K. for your time and efforts.
  8. JK James George
    From Anon-8, Jim— Your reviews are always a help to me—they far surpass most of the stuff even in Goodreads (which is better than most other fora). And thanks for the review of American Prometheus. I’m not one to correct things trivially, but you might want to change one reference in the review. Hitler didn’t write Das Kapital. Karl Marx did.
  9. JK James George
    From Anon-9: I read this book several years ago. The Oppenheimer movie is close. I have sympathy for the need to keep up with the Russians by pursuing the fusion bomb.

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