Few American lives are as well documented as J. Robert Oppenheimer’s (1904-1967). The FBI kept files on “The Father of the Atomic Bomb” from 1941 (when he joined The Manhattan Project) up until the year before his death. Far more insight into the theoretical physicist’s controversial life and work is found in biographies by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin (their American Prometheus won the Pulitzer Prize) and scientist/historian Abraham Pais (J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life). Politicians, military leaders, activists, and religious fanatics have exploited Oppenheimer’s legacy, but few can explain its ramifications better than Richard Rhodes did in his Pulitzer- and National Book Award-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb.
Oppenheimer even has his own soundtrack: John Adams’ Doctor Atomic. The opera’s pivotal scene is not the Los Alamos blast (chillingly recreated with orchestra, chorus, sound effects and recorded voice of a Hiroshima survivor), but when Oppenheimer is alone onstage singing John Donne’s “Batter My Heart”—a favorite poem that inspired the name of the Trinity detonation site. He left papers and lecture transcripts but, unlike egomaniac scientists who won the Nobel Prize (he never did), no autobiography. Oppenheimer does speak for himself in the BBC Radio archives delivering the 1953 Reith Lecture “The Sciences and Man’s Community.” He also has the misfortune of being a badly executed in-joke in the first Jurassic Park film.
A chapbook on this complicated man may seem daunting, but William Tod Seabrook’s The Genius of J. Robert Oppenheimer works. He rightfully approaches Oppenheimer as someone “forever measured in half-lives.” The “three-person’d” omnipresence Donne addresses in his poem is liberally applied to Oppenheimer. However, Seabrook does not imply the Christian Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), but the suffering of multiple deaths “not unusual among geniuses.” There is the scientist’s actual death from cancer (erroneously given in the text as 1965); the revocation of his security clearance in 1954 due to Communist sympathies, speaking out against the escalating nuclear arms race, and his own arrogance; and his time at Trinity where he “perfected the bomb, and died more perfectly at Hiroshima.”
To the author’s credit, Oppenheimer never comes across as either deity or martyr.
The Nuclear Age is not exactly a dry topic. Starting with his Table of Contents, arranged as the Periodic Table, Seabrook is both informative and creative. These two opposites come together particularly well in a comparison made between Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein, who to this day remains a beloved curmudgeon:
Both Oppenheimer and Einstein taught at Princeton. Einstein was there when Germany was America’s enemy. Oppenheimer was there when Americans were America’s enemy. Einstein discovered how the universe works, while Oppenheimer sat in a witness chair, listening to conversations he didn’t remember, discovering how the universe works, really.
Another telling and extremely snarky comment regards Oppenheimer as “not having learned anything” when he begins his contentious marriage to Kitty Harrison.
While the tone of The Genius of J. Robert Oppenheimer is serious, there is a bit of science fiction. Oppenheimer, “The Destroyer of Worlds” as he called himself, has the ability to physically abuse his nemeses and predict the future. He also receives credit for being the author of “the Oppenheimer-Gita.”
This cheekiness may trip up some readers. A Google search does not show J. Robert Oppenheimer as the author of The Best Way to Cook Eggs. By being irreverent, Seabrook may be making a statement about the dangerous rise of anti-science rhetoric in education, media, and politics. Oppenheimer may have lost his security clearance, but science was nonetheless valued in post-World War II America. As Oppenheimer stated in “The Scientist in Society” (published in the out-of-print The Open Mind): “It is possible, manifestly, for society so to arrange things that there is no science. The Nazis made a good start in that direction; maybe the Communists will achieve it; and there is not one of us free to worry that this flourishing tree may someday not be alive any more.”
Thus, The Genius of J. Robert Oppenheimer gives the reader a genuine, unique sense of its subject—and inspires the need to know more.