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American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer | [Kai Bird, Martin J. Sherwin]

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

J. Robert Oppenheimer was one of the iconic figures of the 20th century, a brilliant physicist who led the effort to build the atomic bomb but later confronted the moral consequences of scientific progress. When he proposed international controls over atomic materials, opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb, and criticized plans for a nuclear war, his ideas were anathema to powerful advocates of a massive nuclear buildup during the anti-Communist hysteria of the early 1950s.
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Publisher's Summary

Pulitzer Prize, Biography/Autobiography, 2006

National Book Critics Circle Award, Biography, 2006

J. Robert Oppenheimer is one of the iconic figures of the 20th century, a brilliant physicist who led the effort to build the atomic bomb for his country in a time of war and who later found himself confronting the moral consequences of scientific progress.

When he proposed international controls over atomic materials, opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb, and criticized plans for a nuclear war, his ideas were anathema to powerful advocates of a massive nuclear buildup during the anti-Communist hysteria of the early 1950s. They declared that Oppenheimer could not be trusted with America's nuclear secrets.

In this magisterial biography, 25 years in the making, the authors capture Oppenheimer's life and times, from his early career to his central role in the Cold War.

©2005 Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin; (P)2007 Blackstone Audio Inc.

What the Critics Say

"The definitive biography...Oppenheimer's life doesn't influence us. It haunts us." (Newsweek)

"[A] profoundly fascinating, richly complex, and ineffably sad American life.... Bird and Sherwin are without peer...in capturing the humanity of the man." (Booklist)

"A work of voluminous scholarship and lucid insight, unifying its multifaceted portrait with a keen grasp of Oppenheimer's essential nature.... It succeeds in deeply fathoming his most damaging, self-contradictory behavior." (New York Times)

What Members Say

Average Customer Rating

4.1 (929 )
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3.9 (535 )
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Performance
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  •  
    Ron New York, NY, United States 12-16-07
    Ron New York, NY, United States 12-16-07 Member Since 2004
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Fantastic book, but one..."

    ...big annoyance: the reader seems to have made no attempt whatsoever to learn to pronounce any unusual names or foreign terms. He butchers names of quite famous people - Lewis Strauss pronounced his last name [straws], not to rhyme with 'house.' I.I. Rabi said [RAY-bee] (rhymes with 'maybe,' not [RAW-bee]). Vannevar Bush's first name rhymed with 'receiver.' Niebuhr is [NEE-burh], not [NAI-burh]. Fermi is [FAIR-mi]; Kantorowicz, well, it's closer to [kan-tuh-RO-vits] than to what the narrator says - it took me a minute to figure out whom he was referring to.

    The word 'hauteur' isn't [o-TYOOR]. Forget about 'Bhagavad Gita' - he adds an extra syllable. The list could go on.


    This is a very important book, I think; shouldn't the producer of the audio version be scrupulous about presenting it faithfully?


    24 of 29 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Thomas MSU, MS, United States 11-07-07
    Thomas MSU, MS, United States 11-07-07
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    "Excellent Listen"

    This book is very well written and read.

    + Even though there are two authors the story is consistent and you don't style differences as you go through the book.

    + There is a lot of intrigue in Oppenheimer's life and this book captures it well. You get a close up look at how powerful people abused their power to ruin Oppenheimer.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Alain santa Fe, NM, United States 07-06-07
    Alain santa Fe, NM, United States 07-06-07 Member Since 2005

    professor. like great and VERY good books, fiction and history, mainly

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Openheimer"

    A masterful account of one of history's most portentous moments, experienced through the life of a great genius whose complicity in evil (the bomb) eats at him as the eagle does the liver of Prometheus.

    7 of 8 people found this review helpful
  •  
    H. Sinnreich Richardson, Texas USA 11-13-12
    H. Sinnreich Richardson, Texas USA 11-13-12 Member Since 2012
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    "2/3 fascinating history and 1/3 political pamphlet"
    Is there anything you would change about this book?

    The authors have a fascinating story to tell but lose credibility by forcing their obvious political biases on the reader. The book feels like a pamphlet against the (bad) Republicans and glosses over Soviet spying during that era. Also, portraying Lewis Strauss as evil incarnate seems highly out of place and biased, almost like settling old scores. American and European communist sympathizers, the "useful idiots" (Stalin's own words) are portrayed with too much sympathy for my taste, having lived in their nightmarish society.


    Would you ever listen to anything by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin again?

    Not very likely.


    What does Jeff Cummings bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

    Jeff Cummings delivers the perfect audio, one can almost hear the talking from that era.


    Did American Prometheus inspire you to do anything?

    Yes, at least to check up in the Wikipedia for facts.


    Any additional comments?

    I was hoping to get a quality historical narrative, but got some aggravation instead.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Jeff Pickering, Ontario, Canada 04-21-12
    Jeff Pickering, Ontario, Canada 04-21-12 Member Since 2007

    50yrs old / audible member for 5 yrs library. 75% nonfiction, 15% classics and 10% fiction. History/Science/biography/Eng.18th cent fiction

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    "VERY WELL DONE"

    I Have to admit that I stalled on this for awhile, but was ampaly rewarded for returning to this listen and finishing. What a story! what a man! A remarkable book in the end. I would label this REQUIRED READING for the history revealed from many different critical points. Aspects of this book still haunt me. A very well researched, revealing and rewarding read. Well written and narrated

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Chris Reich Northern, CA 04-06-09
    Chris Reich Northern, CA 04-06-09 Member Since 2005

    Business Physicist and Astronomer

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "The American Myth Continues..."

    Sometimes the government of the US conducts itself very shamefully. This is one such case among many from the founding myths to slavery to civil rights to native American slaughter to environmental rape.

    You can add this story to the ever growing list of crap pulled by the US government.

    Incredible story from start to finish---better than a novel. Truth truly is stranger than fiction...

    HIGHLY RECOMMEND.

    5 of 6 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Grady Commerce, TX, United States 10-29-08
    Grady Commerce, TX, United States 10-29-08 Member Since 2005
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    "Tedious, but thorough"

    I agree with other reviewers who have quipped OK if you have patience. By midway through the book it was drudgery to keep going. I hung in there and in the end, found it to be only barely worth my time. My biggest disappointment was that this is a book about Oppie's political trials and tribulations; not about science. Even in retrospect I find it astounding that someone can write such a detailed account of Oppenheimer's life and say so little about the heart of the man's life...which was science. What you do get in full measure is intricate descriptions of who was meeting whom during which FBI wiretap and who testified against whom to save their owns skins. Thus, this was a book about personalities; not about the world-changing events that marked Oppie's life. A non-scientist with an interest in the McCarthy era may well enjoy this book thoroughly. But I, alas, did not.

    12 of 16 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Yennta L.A., CA 09-11-10
    Yennta L.A., CA 09-11-10 Member Since 2004
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    "I can't tell how good this is...."

    It may be one of those books I need to read on paper. This narrator is just awful.
    His mispronunciations and outright mistakes make the writers sound stupid, but I can't believe that they are. Whenever he's quoting "important" scientists, he puts on this weird mincing voice, as if fame turns people into drag queens. I wish there was a way to get my credits back on this one. I don't blame the narrator. He'd probably be great with children's books. My question: Why wouldn't the publisher pick an educated, professional narrator for subject matter like this?

    4 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    TM 08-08-14
    TM 08-08-14

    TJM

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    "Exhaustive but Dry"
    Any additional comments?

    This book was written from the perspective of laying out all possible evidence from Oppenheimer's earliest days to his final ones to answer the questions regarding his associations with Communism. Obviously this issue would eventually become what he was famous for and it needed to be addressed, but every aspect of his life, even the production of the A-bomb was seen through this lens - who he met with, what he is recorded to have said to this person, what the FBI were investigating etc.

    I was hoping the book would include a narrative of his life, perhaps an exciting one. A narrative that perhaps would include the inside story of the manhattan project or other scientific discoveries.

    But it was a rather dry, but seemingly thoroughly researched book that addressed only readers who wanted to know that answer to the questions of his political motivations and associations. Again, whilst an important part of a biography of the man, it should only have been part, rather than the hole focus.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Margaret Cincinnati, OH, United States 11-15-13
    Margaret Cincinnati, OH, United States 11-15-13 Member Since 2011
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "A Rich Slive of Modern American History"
    Where does American Prometheus rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

    This was among the best non-fiction books I’ve read in quite awhile. I saw modern American historyfrom a unique perspective. , the subject matter was rich, the writing strong, and the long read was well worth the time.

    I selected American Prometheus with the expectation that I would learn about the anti-communism scares of the 1950s and how a famous scientist was harmed in a notorious hearing. In other words, I was prepared for a largely political story – a “tisk-tisk, they should not have done that” courtroom drama of a crucified saint.

    This book delivered far more than I expected. In the meticulously researched account of Oppenheimer’s 62 years, it portrays a man who was fascinating for his awesome mental horsepower as well as for his numerous oddities and personal flaws. Certainly, this book tells about a man who ultimately was crucified, but there is no saint here. In some important ways, his personal life was tragic, and the book pulls no punches. Several times, I wanted to reach through the ether and tell him to straighten up his life.

    My passion for science helped hold my interest. Oppenheimer began his career at the dawn of quantum physics in the 1920s and dealt with a who’s who of famous scientists: Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Lawrence, and Teller among others. I was fascinated by some behind-the-scenes accounts of these men. Heisenberg’s assignments in Nazi Germany were interpreted by Oppenheimer and others as part of the clues that the Nazis were trying to create an atomic bomb. Einstein had a friendly rivalry with Oppenheimer: they each thought the other was pursuing faulty science. Teller despised Oppenheimer—and a lot of scientists did not like Teller.


    What did you like best about this story?

    I was amazed by how much detail is revealed about the process of designing and building the atomic bomb without revealing top-secret information. The authors focus on the many personalities, the strain of racing against the Germans, and the sometimes humorous stories about academic scientists learning to deal with Army secrecy.


    How did the narrator detract from the book?

    First, as other reviewers have said, the editing of the audio recording was very poor. I would say it was amateurish. Second, the narrator does not seem to listen to himself. I was distracted by his switching from a dispassionate narrator voice to conversational, emotional voices.


    Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

    One tidbit will stick with me always: the name “Trinity” given to the site of the first test bomb is not a Biblical reference as I had thought. Oppenheimer chose the name from an ancient Sanskrit account of three gods, one of whom says “now I am Death, the destroyer of worlds.”


    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
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  • Steve
    München, Germany
    3/21/14
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    "Spoilt by a very poor recording"

    Imagine you’re reading a great book: perhaps you delight not only in the author’s skill with the pen, but also that of the typographer who has lovingly crafted the spacing, the line breaks and the hyphenation to ensure that the appearance of the type is as appealing as the story itself. Imagine then, that you turn the page only to find a single sentence set, not only in a different typeface, but also larger and poorly spaced. Reading further, you find odd passages here and there, sometimes just a few words, sometimes complete paragraphs that are set completely differently to the rest of the book. That is the visual equivalent of listening to this book, the recording of which is continuously interspersed with re-recorded passages that have a different quality than the original.

    Although I’d read complaints about this in other reviews, I never imagined the extent to which it occurs. In almost every case, it’s a sentence that contains a name that’s either foreign or difficult to pronounce. It occurs so often that you can’t help wondering if it wouldn’t have been easier to have simply re-recorded the entire book. It’s jarring and, for me at least, interrupted and spoilt the narrative.

    In a book that, thanks to the nature of its content, is riddled with foreign names and complicated words, you’d think that the producer, at least, would have either checked the pronunciations or chosen a narrator a little more au fait with foreign expressions and pronunciation. It’s very sad, because it’s an otherwise fascinating and well written book.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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