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J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life

J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life [Kindle Edition]

Abraham Pais , Robert P. Crease

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From Publishers Weekly

Back in the 1990s, when Pais ("Subtle Is the Lord...") began to seriously consider writing about Oppenheimer, there was no full-scale biography of the scientist who led America's effort to create the atom bomb. But with a surfeit of books about Oppenheimer in the last year, this one comes too late—and suffers greatly in comparison to Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin's more comprehensive and cogent American Prometheus. Though Pais, a physicist as well as a science writer, was a close colleague of Oppenheimer's at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Studies, he is largely incurious about the parts of his subject's life that he didn't observe personally. He does little more than acknowledge the Manhattan Project, for example, noting that it has been covered elsewhere, and dismisses Oppenheimer's wife as despicable with barely any supporting evidence. Some chapters are assembled by lengthy quotes from secondary sources, others by anecdote, some barely developed past outline form; none are particularly engrossing. Pais died before he could write about the political hearings that cost Oppenheimer his security clearance and public reputation. The final chapters covering this period, written by Crease, a historian at Brookhaven National Laboratory and author of The Prism and the Pendulum, are such a marked improvement that one wishes he'd produced a biography on his own. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* "We pursue him, and he eludes us." So John Leonard remarked about the maddeningly elusive physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. And now the controversial scientist has slipped beyond the grasp of Pais, the much-acclaimed biographer of Einstein and Bohr. Pais, a longtime colleague of Oppenheimer, long postponed the writing of this life study because of deep personal ambivalence toward the man who presided over the making of America's first atomic bomb only to fall victim to McCarthy-era hysteria. As a consequence of that delay, Pais died before finishing his book. Surprisingly, readers may find that an unintentionally truncated book actually highlights the troubling incompleteness that Pais perceives in Oppenheimer's character. For although Pais details Oppenheimer's rare achievements as a researcher, teacher, and administrator, the portrait he finally delivers is that of a brilliant but arrogant mind falling short of lofty expectations. To the end of his life, Oppenheimer harbored a bitter consciousness of having himself failed to achieve any epoch-making discovery in the science he tirelessly promulgated. Pais' account of the personal contradictions within the man makes an excellent counterpoint to Bird and Sherwin's American Prometheus (2005), the award-winning, full-dress biography of Oppenheimer in which the emphasis falls on the more public side of his life, the Manhattan Project and its aftermath. In context with Bird and Sherwin, Pais offers an indispensable new look at the ever-enigmatic private Oppenheimer. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved


  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • Dateigröße: 1285 KB
  • Seitenzahl der Print-Ausgabe: 396 Seiten
  • Verlag: Oxford University Press, USA (1. April 2006)
  • Verkauf durch: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Sprache: Englisch
  • ASIN: B0058C6QBC
  • Text-to-Speech (Vorlesemodus): Aktiviert
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  • Amazon Bestseller-Rang: #728.773 Bezahlt in Kindle-Shop (Siehe Top 100 Bezahlt in Kindle-Shop)

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Die hilfreichsten Kundenrezensionen auf (beta) 4.0 von 5 Sternen  14 Rezensionen
41 von 42 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen The best book on Oppie at IAS 18. April 2006
Von John Matlock - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
There have been several good biographies of Oppenheimer in the past few years. As biographies the others are probably better. This book though has two real advantages over the others:

First, Abraham Pais was a physicist himself. He worked with Oppenheimer and knew all or most of the significant physicists involved with atomic energy during and after the war. His insights on the physics being done at the time is very insightful.

Second, Oppenheimer is most known for Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project. But after that, after he lost his security clearance Oppenheimer was head of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. This is where Pais knew him and it is in this part of his life that this book excells.

Oppenheimer was an enigmatic person. He was certainly an accomplished physicist. Not perhaps the equal of the very best, but clearly on the first string. Oppenheimer's work in physics earned him what might be called an honorable mention in the history books. Oppenheimer's work as a manager of the project and as director of the institute required not brilliance in physics but managerial capabilities far beyond those exhibited by other physicists of the time (with the possible exception of Edward Teller).

Oppenheimer's expulsion from Government service over security issues was one of the travesties of the McCarthy era. It seems though that his subsequent work at the IAS gave him enough pleasure that he was not unhappy. He continued to work at the forefront of physics.

If you want to know more about Oppenheimer's life before and during the war, look to other books. If you want some insight into his later life and into the depth of his character, this is the best book I have found.
20 von 21 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
3.0 von 5 Sternen Not For The Non-Professional 15. Juli 2006
Von rctnyc - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
While I generally agree with the authors of the reviews below that this book provides insight into Oppenheimer's character, the development of IAS, and the inner workings of the Manhattan Project, I did not find this biography helpful in understanding either Oppenheimer's scientific work or the wider scientific research in quantum theory in which he played a role. I took to reading the "science" chapters with my laptop, set to Wikipedia, at my side, because -- perhaps because he died before revising or expanding the chapters that he had completed -- Pais does not define, let alone explain, any of the concepts and theories underlying Oppenheimer's research, but merely summarizes those ideas as though he were addressing an audience of science professionals. While no scientist, I'm not a science illiterate. Yet I understood very few of the descriptions in this book of Oppenheimer's actual scientific work. Therefore, I'd recommend this bio to readers interested in learning more about Oppenheimer's life, the history of IAS and the birth of the atomic age, but not to those nonscientists who want to learn more about Oppenheimer's research.
5 von 5 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen The legacy of Robert Oppenheimer (Oppie) 20. Juli 2011
Von Rama Rao - Veröffentlicht auf
This is an excellent biography of Robert Oppenheimer (Oppie), the physicist who successfully created the first atomic bomb in the United States. The author is a fellow physicist and a close friend of Oppenheimer, writes his observations about a man who is as complex as any human being can be. In 1920's, the author recalls several incidents' of violence and troubled nature of Oppie partly due to his inept performance in the laboratory and his unsatisfactory sexual adventures or his overall insecurities in life. In one instance, the author states that he seemed agitated because he gave a poisoned apple to one of his friend. Oppenheimer had a dysfunctional family; his wife Kitty was a confirmed alcoholic who was vicious to anyone she did not like. The troubled relationship between two parents had significant negative impact on their two children. Peter did not get along with his mother and left home in his late teens and their daughter Toni committed suicide.

While in Berkeley in 1936, his girlfriend Jean Tatlock of Stanford introduced him to communist party and her left-wing friends in San Francisco which led the way for great deal of trouble during McCarthy era. In 1949, Oppenheimer appeared before the house committee on un-American activities (HUAC) and answered some tough questions about his brother and left-wing friends. The Security Board's hearing in 1954 on Oppenheimer's security clearance was traumatic when they revoked his clearance. This was a sad time in his life, since he emerged from the war as an American hero, and the War department called him "a man of boundless energy, rare common sense, and possessing tremendous organizational abilities." The year 1949 was not good for Oppie, since in the same year Soviets had successfully tested an atomic bomb. The quickness with which the Soviets had produced the bomb had many people to believe that American physicists may have given secretive information to Soviets. Klaus Fuchs was the first suspect who was convicted for his crime. Harry Gold in Philadelphia, David Greenglass in New York, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's were also convicted of passing on the nuclear secrets to Soviets. A security officer falsely accused Oppenheimer was responsible for passing on secrets to Soviets. This did not sit well with McCarthy and Hoover who disliked him strongly.

Oppenheimer delivered brilliant summaries as a keynote speaker. He explained complex physical problems, turned unforgettable phrases, attracted reporters, and idolaters. He was half-legendry; he was loathed and feared for the brutal way he treated people. He was highly respected and cordially disliked. Oppenheimer was also notorious in getting math wrong although his physics was always sound. Oppenheimer implicitly predicted the existence of positions just about the time Dirac explicitly stated that. His contributions included; Born-Oppenheimer approximation, Oppenheimer-Phillips effect and physics of black holes. During his tenure as the director of prestigious Institute of advanced Study at Princeton, he showed leadership for the advancement of physics by assembling the right people just like he did at Los Alamos laboratory. He concentrated mainly on young physicists. He hired Freeman Dyson and C. N. Yang. Other notable visitors were Hideki Yukawa, Sin-itiro Tomaya, David Bohm, John van Neumann, and Oswald Veblen.

Oppenheimer was more interested in Hindu philosophy since early 1920s and spent more time studying Vedanta and Vedic literature than his study of stellar structures at Pauli's Institute at Zurich. In his letters to his brother Frank, he expresses his interest in studying Sanskrit and Hindu philosophy. In some respects Oppenheimer was over educated in those fields which lie outside physics, especially religion and Hinduism in particular. Oppenheimer himself translated the following hymn from Vedic literature just two days before the first testing of atomic bomb at Trinity site near Alamogordo in New Mexico.

"In battle, in the forest, at the precipice in the mountains
On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows,
In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame,
The good deeds a man has done before will defend him."
Shortly after the successful testing of the first atomic bomb on July 16, 1945, Oppenheimer saw the fireball glowing and two hymns from Bhagavadgita came to his mind. One is from Gita 11.12
"A thousand simultaneous suns
Arising in the sky
Mighty equal that great
With that great radiance glory vie"
The second, the most quoted is when Krishna speaks to Arjuna (Gita 11.32)
Death (time) am I, the great destroyer
Of the world

This hymn is variously stated in the literature on nuclear weapons. One form "I am become death, the shatterer of the worlds" is most common. William Laurence, a New York Times reporter who interviewed Oppenheimer was the first one to hear this quote, and latter quoted by Robert Junk in his 1958 book. According to Vedanta, death is an illusion, even though the body perishes but the soul is eternal. It appears that Oppenheimer was more focused on the duty to act and not the results of the action, which is another important message of Gita. You can hear the video recording of Oppenheimer reciting this verse on YouTube.

1. James Hijiya, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society Volume 144 (2), P.123 (2000)
2. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
3. Oppenheimer's Choice: Reflections from Moral Philosophy (S U N Y Series in Philosophy)
1 von 1 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
2.0 von 5 Sternen Not for the general reader 3. Januar 2013
Von C. Beyerle - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Taschenbuch|Verifizierter Kauf
The forward to J. Robert Oppenheimer emphasizes that the book was unfinished at the time of Abraham Pais's death but his massive collection of notes and research were in such organized form that the publisher felt they could be used by Robert P. Crease to finish the project. Unfortunately both Mr. Pais and Mr. Crease had in mind a readership at their own level of expertise. This book is thorough, well organized, full of technical minutiae but is not for the general reader. A prerequisite should be some grounding in theoretical physics. The book reads like a text. The facts are there, all there, but dry, and sitched together without charm or readability.
1 von 1 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
4.0 von 5 Sternen Shows Oppenheimer in a positive light 26. Juni 2012
Von Adam Smith - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Taschenbuch|Verifizierter Kauf
On the positive side this well-written biography presents a lot of detail about J. Robert Oppenheimer's work on the development of the first atomic weapon. It described his struggles as the leader of the scientific team at the Los Alamos laboratory and then later of the Director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. The biography also covers in great detail the hearing to decide whether or not to renew his security clearance to work on nuclear science as a consultant for the U.S. Government.

I think what this biography lacked was a more personal psychological evaluation of Oppenheimer. Why did Oppenheimer form so few friendships? Why did he treat his employees with such contempt at times? Why did he at times brandish a superior attitude towards colleagues? What from his childhood molded his view of life? This book touches briefly on these questions, but it does not really go deep enough to determine the root causes of these attitudes.

I think the book did a good job highlighting the angst felt by Oppenheimer and the other scientists over the destructive potential of nuclear weapons. While they were patriotic and served their country well, they also saw that nuclear weapons had the potential to destroy the human race. Oppenheimer's famous quote shows how he felt about the bomb: "We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another."

I found this biography an interesting read. It did have a tendency in places to get mired down in details that slowed the pace of the story, but I think the interesting parts of the book made up for the less interesting parts. I would agree with another reviewer who wrote: "If you want to know more about Oppenheimer's life before and during the war, look to other books. If you want some insight into his later life and into the depth of his character, this is the best book I have found." I would agree with that assessment. This book will help the reader appreciate Oppenheimer's work ethic, patriotism and his leadership. Oppenheimer in the end was a team player and believed it was not about him, but about "us". I think that's what drove him in his work life.
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