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The Eccentric Father of the Atomic Bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer (2019) (medium.com)
103 points by samclemens 19 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 35 comments

The biography that this is based on, "American Prometheus", is fantastic. A fast, smart read.

Oppenheimer obviously also appears in Richard Rhodes' utterly superb "The Making of the Atomic Bomb", though he only becomes a main character in the sequel, "Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb", which is also great.

Oppenheimer was a highly skilled physicist, but Rhodes attributes his ability to lead the Manhattan Project to his gifts as a "synthesizer" of ideas and knowledge from many people and disparate branches of science. In my opinion he really came into his own, though, after the bomb, when he started formulating the US' atomic energy strategy, essentially inserting himself -- a scientist, not a statesman -- into the political elite by sheer force of will and charisma. Rhodes tells of Oppenheimer completely dominating meetings in early efforts that resulted in the formation of the Atomic Energy Commission (which became the US Department of Energy), essentially writing national policy recommendations on his own.

Oppenheimer realized the dangers of nuclear proliferation and detente early on, and wanted the world to own atomic energy as a force for good. He wanted an international organization (what became the IAEA) to control atomic energy and not let the US and UK have a monopoly on it. Oppenheimer also recommended against developing the hydrogen bomb, which he thought would dangerously escalate the destructive power of nuclear arms. This opposition ultimately led to Oppeheimer's trial that cost him his security clearance.

But it was his extensive writings on what the future of atomic energy could be that I think set him apart in this years. He was prescient about nuclear arms race and tried to steer the US and the world towards peaceful use of atomic energy. If his policies had been implemented we may have been in a different place today.

Kai Bird is an incredibly good biographer. He just released one of Aldrich Ames, noted CIA / KGB double agent.

I'll check it out, thanks!

Edit: You mean "The Good Spy" from 2015, about Robert Ames?

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Rhodes is often mentioned as a great science book:


Recently saw it on Steven Weinberg’s list:


I remember the section describing the sudden realization Leo Szilard had that kicked off the idea of atomic fission. I had never heard that story.

And was it Rhodes book where he described the physicists curiously disappearing from the universities in the early 40's? And when the offer finally came to another physicist to relocate, upon checking out books on New Mexico, would discover that all the scientists that had already disappeared had recently checked out the sam books as well.

Edit: Wow, found the Wikipedia article on Szilard. Man that guy was amazing: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leo_Szilard#Developing_the_ide...

Tangential: If anyone ever struggles to put theory to practice, this is a great example of the "Great Man Theory" promulgating itself.

It checks all of the boxes for the "Radical outlier who changes everything by dint of genius and hard work" while barely acknowledging the circumstances, environment, timing etc...

Gifted from birth

Non-traditional and "Troubled" socially

Ahead of peers and mentors

Focused and Driven

Overcame institutional/structural resistance

This is not meant to detract from Oppenheimer's immense contributions, to the contrary. I thought it was something worth keeping in mind as I read the article - especially considering that Oppenheimer himself would spread credit to others and attempt to dismiss the idea that the Manhattan Project was a "One man show."


>dent of genius

Sorry, the pedant in me (well, me) must point out it's "dint."

Thanks for the edit!

That great discoveries are so often made independently by multiple people when their time has come suggests that if the theory is right, Great Men are a dime a dozen.


I often wonder if the same applies to business. Maybe Jobs, Gates or Bezos didn't make such an outsized contribution but maybe they were able to concentrate on themselves what other people would have done too. Maybe just a little later or differently.

Makes me wonder about Einstein. Were other people working on relativity too?

Gates and Bezos absolutely dispensable. Both just very aggressive opportunists. Gates actually suffocated innovation, not fostered it.

The only one of the three you name where you could make a case for them making a real difference would be Jobs (and I say that even though I am a non-fan).

Plenty of people were working on the issues that relativity sought to resolve but I've never heard of any simultaneous discovery of relativity. Many of the other stuff Einstein worked on had multiple "discoveries", I remember reading some about Brownian motion before.

Absolutely yes on the Einstein question. Check out Bohr, Lorentz and Poincare to start.

And Hilbert actually beat him to the final equation.

Actually, he didn’t. I looked into it about six months ago. Einstein clearly got there first.

Essay: https://medium.com/cantors-paradise/einstein-and-hilberts-ra...

There was a task that needed to be accomplished and nobody cared about who or how, just that it get done. Such was the nature of the times. Many men like Oppenheimer rose to greatness as a result. This pattern seems to repeat itself whenever a society finds itself under existential threat. When society needs great men great men rise to the occasion.

A second vote for "American Prometheus" by Kai Bird! Great follow-on read for "Making of the Atomic Bomb". I read them back-to-back, and it really makes you wonder whether we'll ever have another historical era of as much interest as WWII.

This is a prime example of the winners writing history ( or more aptly those currently in power writing history ). Can you imagine a historian writing a book titled "The Eccentric Father of the Death Camp"?

The guy helped build a weapon which destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in a matter of seconds. Oh shucks, what an eccentric and quirky guy he was. Objectively, he is one of history's greatest villains and arguably the one of the greatest war criminals, but luckily, he was on the winning side.

If Oppenheimer was japanese and he helped build bombs for the japanese and the japanese dropped nukes on say Baltimore and San Fran during the war, he would have been tried and executed after ww2 by the victorious US. I doubt "The Eccentric Father of the Atomic Bomb" is the titled we'd use if he was japanese.

> If Oppenheimer was japanese and he helped build bombs for the japanese and the japanese dropped nukes on say Baltimore and San Fran during the war, he would have been tried and executed after ww2 by the victorious US.

Your hypothetical assertion is heavily undermined by the actual reality of what happened with Werner Von Braun and all the other Nazi Germany scientists recruited by Operation Paperclip.

> Your hypothetical assertion is heavily undermined by the actual reality of what happened with Werner Von Braun.

How so? Werner Von Braun didn't invent the A-Bomb. His rockets were more of a novelty than anything. A single firebomb killed more people and caused more damage than all the V2 rockets during ww2. And Von Braun's weapons weren't used against the US. It was used against britain.

If Werner Von Braun developed nukes and germany nuked San Fran and Baltimore, do you really believe he'd be a director of NASA? Rather than undermining it, your example supports my assertion.

Werner Von Braun was responsible for no american civilian death. If he was responsible for 200,000 deaths and poisoning hundreds of thousands of american civilians with radiation and we allowed him to be a director of NASA, maybe you'd be right.

von braun used jewish slave labor to build rockets used to terrorize civilians on behalf of the nazi regime. he's still generally remembered as a quirky scientist archetype, disconnected from the fruits of his labors.

Yes. That wasn't nice of von braun. But what does jewish slave labor in europe have to do with the US? Did Israel ask von braun to help them with their space/rocket programs? What does british civilians have to do with the US.

The point is if von braun had enslaved hundreds of thousands of americans and then killed them, we wouldn't have made him a director of NASA. If you can show me where von braun murdered hundreds of thousands of americans, I am more than willing to change my mind.

The fact that you are trying to equate v2 rockets with hiroshima and nagasaki shows that your innate bias is making to you grasp at straws and generate a false narrative. But then again, that's my point. Bias in history.

I don't agree with the bombing of civilians (nuclear or otherwise), and for that matter don't have any special respect for historians, but as for history I don't believe your response fits the world we live in. History was pretty unkind to Teller and plenty other bigger "winners". Of course I can imagine a historian attacking those scientists, it happens all the time. And that could easily have been the direction the mainstream history books went with. They probably will sooner or later, the way our society constantly finds new villains to decry. Give it a generation at most.

While he does bear some responsibility for the bomb, it's absurd to call him "one of history's greatest villains" or any sort of war criminal. The primary responsibility lies on the military and political leaders who made the decision to use it. Oppenheimer was a scientist who felt obligated to work on the bomb in case the other side got there first, and once it was developed, spent the rest of his life working to limit nuclear weapon use. He was painted as a Communist sympathiser and publicly humiliated over this, as the book "American Prometheus" details at length.

That is an interesting viewpoint, how do the Japanese view Oppenheimer?

From an article [1] about Oppenheimer's (invited) visit to Japan in 1960:

> As Oppenheimer began his trip, he found the Japanese people grateful, even enthusiastic, at his presence in the country. Aspiring scientists were eager to learn from him, and the majority at least appeared to hold no ill will toward him for the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

[1] https://japantoday.com/category/features/lifestyle/j-robert-...

A great summary of Kai Bird's book, which is highly recommended!

A really interesting thing to note about Oppenheimer, as the author points out, was a somewhat "haphazard" approach both to studying physics, and in his actual scientific work. Meaning, picking the problems he found the most interesting, rather than some grand, overarching idea.

It's always fascinating in reading books of this sort to see just how closely knit the physics community was, since Oppenheimer studied with Born and Thomson, met Bohr as a student, and later worked with a lot of the truly great ones. Even in the macabre poisoning episode, the tutor he left the apple for was Patrick Blackett, a future Nobel laureate.

I remember this being on PBS as a kid during the cold war. Terrified me. https://youtu.be/lb13ynu3Iac

You may put that memory at ease, he was just acting.

Highly recommend the film “Fat Man and Little Boy”. A little melodramatic but an interesting view of Oppenheimer played by Dwight Shultz (Murdock from The A-Team.)

I found that movie pretty disappointing. So much great historical material, a great screenwriter (Bruce Robinson), and yet such a lackluster movie. Both Shultz and Paul Newman are completely miscast.

The only good part of the film is the subplot about the John Cusack character (loosely based on Harry Daghlian), which is a pretty good re-enactment of the actual incident. That scene (which is on YouTube) is worth watching on its own.

For a much more accurate portrayal of Oppenheimer, check out the BBC miniseries "Oppenheimer" from 1980. In terms of TV, it's positively premodern -- more like a filmed play than a real production. But Sam Waterston is much more true to Oppenheimer's character.

"Day After Trinity" is also a fantastic documentary in this area! It spends a lot of time on Oppenheimer's character and has interviews with a bunch of his former colleagues.

Obviously also check out the show "Manhattan"

If you can find it, the radio play “Atomic Bombers” is excellent.

And there is also Doctor Atomic: https://youtu.be/fDTFyinS3zA

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