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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 (876 )
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3.9 (488 )
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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?


    23 of 28 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
  •  
    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
  •  
    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
  •  
    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.

    11 of 15 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Margaret Cincinnati, OH, United States 11-15-13
    Margaret Cincinnati, OH, United States 11-15-13 Member Since 2011
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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
  •  
    Gareth Columbus, OH, United States 08-07-13
    Gareth Columbus, OH, United States 08-07-13 Member Since 2013

    I love all nonfiction but in particular history & science. When I tire of facts I'll run to fiction

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    "The Tragedy of Science on Trial"
    If you could sum up American Prometheus in three words, what would they be?

    Janus' Atomic Age


    What was one of the most memorable moments of American Prometheus?

    The moment when Lewis Strauss is preparing to strike Oppenheimer down by effectively putting him on trial without affording him the rights of a trial.


    What do you think the narrator could have done better?

    There were some very odd switches in the audio. I'm unsure if this was due to the way in which the book was recorded, or done later to make distinct the different characters in the book. Whichever it was it took me out of the story which was bothersome.

    The narrator could have done better by creating more distinct voices for the characters without the aid (or mistake) of the odd audio switch.


    If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?

    Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds


    Any additional comments?

    Initially I was rather down about this book. I had recently listened to a very good Einstein biography and was worried this wouldn't measure up. I was dead wrong. This book reads like a Greek tragedy and is beautifully told in that fashion. I felt fervent annoyance at Oppenheimer's arrogance measured with equal pity for his downfall.

    I know nothing of Oppenheimer before I listened to this book. I walk away from it realizing the Crucifixions brought on by the Red Scare and how the facts of a life can be manipulated to mean completely different things in the hands of those looking to destroy you.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Steve Freeland, MD, United States 07-29-13
    Steve Freeland, MD, United States 07-29-13 Member Since 2011
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    "Great Story - Awful Sound Engineering"
    Any additional comments?

    Volume of narrator went up and down constantly. There was no volume leveling at all.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Flatlander Setttle, WA 01-22-13
    Flatlander Setttle, WA 01-22-13 Member Since 2007
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    "Great Story…..Poor Performance"
    Would you consider the audio edition of American Prometheus to be better than the print version?

    American Prometheus is a great story. The performance by Jeff Cummings is good. The editing of this performance is the worst I have ever heard. The sound quality, sound volume jump so much in this audio book that it is distracting. At times it is hard to concentrate on the story line with the constant changes in sound quality.


    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
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