Magazine article The New Yorker

Briefly Noted

Magazine article The New Yorker

Briefly Noted

Article excerpt

The All of Oppenheimer

American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin (Knopf; $35). J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who oversaw the creation of the atomic bomb, was lauded as a patriot after the United States dropped the bomb on Japan, but nine years later he was disgraced, accused of Communist sympathies and "substantial defects of character." This commanding biography, the result of twenty-five years of research, reevaluates that character, and delivers the most complex portrait of Oppenheimer to date: a brilliant but insecure child prodigy who became a charismatic leader; a polymath who learned Sanskrit just so he could read the Bhagavad Gita; an aesthete who mixed infamously strong Martinis; a one-time fellow-traveller who was almost willfully naive about politics. Drawing on thousands of pages of F.B.I. surveillance records, the authors contend that the scientist was never a member of the Communist Party.

The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Priscilla J. McMillan (Viking; $25.95). Oppenheimer lost his security clearance in 1954, after a rigged hearing during which his conversations with his lawyers were secretly recorded by the F.B.I. and he was never allowed to review the evidence against him. This compact study elegantly parses a central accusation in the case: that Oppenheimer was disloyal for opposing the hydrogen bomb--essentially, for voicing his opinion. Yet it was his prosecutors who compromised national security: one physicist they consulted absent-mindedly misplaced a classified document that contained all the details for launching a full-scale thermonuclear program; from the transcript of the hearing, the British gleaned enough information to develop their own H-bomb. The author concludes, depressingly, that scientists today rarely speak out, because they rely on military funding to pursue research.

109 East Palace, by Jennet Conant (Simon & Schuster; $26. …

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