Books: Conjuring Up Dark Clouds

Newsweek, April 25, 2005 | Go to article overview

Books: Conjuring Up Dark Clouds


Byline: Malcolm Jones

Robert Oppenheimer had a changeling's face. Seen straight on, he was beguilingly handsome. Seen from the side, he was almost goofy looking. He was slue-footed and a klutz around machines. The contradictions were not superficial: a brilliant physicist who dazzled colleagues with his intellectual improvisations, he often alienated the very people he needed to impress. And while he was notoriously absent-minded, he revealed a genius for administration when he oversaw the development of the atomic bomb in little more than two years. A great American success story, he was also a tragic figure, doomed by many of the qualities that propelled him to fame.

The eldest son in a wealthy Jewish family in New York City, Oppenheimer grew up coddled--his mother wouldn't let him play with other children--and pampered: he didn't go to the barber, the barber went to him. When World War II broke out, this intellectual prodigy was teaching physics at Berkeley and Caltech--and writing checks to left-wing causes. The FBI could never prove that Oppenheimer was a communist; the 10,000 documents in his FBI file show that it wasn't for want of trying.

In Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin's definitive biography, "American Prometheus," Oppenheimer is the driving force behind the atom bomb. Appointed director of the project when he was only 42, he marshaled a team of the world's best physicists to build a bomb in record time. …

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