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In his in-depth biography, Oppenheimer’s problems come out better than in the film

by News Room
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It’s hard to imagine a better protagonist for a biography than J. Robert Oppenheimer. A fascinating character. An exciting life story with a tragic ending. And a leading role in human history as the “father of the atomic bomb”. What more could you wish for as a biographer? And then there was also a mountain of source material available, as the intelligence services had been keeping an eye on him for a quarter of a century. “Few people in public life have been watched so closely,” write Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin Oppenheimer.

The creation of the book alone is worth the story. American Prometheusas the book’s English title is, served as the inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s film, which has a chance to win thirteen Oscars next Sunday, March 10, making it more nominated than any other film this year.

Martin Sherwin started the project in 1980. It took a quarter of a century to complete it and the help of the co-author. Successfully, as it received critical acclaim and in 2006 the Pulitzer Prize for Best Biography. The book was published in Dutch for the first time on the eve of the Oscars.

Bird and Shirwin describe Oppenheimer as a barrel of contradictions. Of course he was a brilliant physicist, but he was also very interested in literature, history and psychology. As a high school student, he toyed with the idea of ​​becoming a classicist, a poet or a painter. When he was nine years old, someone heard him say to an older niece, “If you ask me a question in Latin, I will answer you in Greek.”

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After receiving his doctorate in Göttingen, Germany, he lived in several European cities before starting work in the United States. For example, he studied for a semester in Leiden with the physicist Paul Ehrenfest, whom he admired. After six weeks, to the surprise of his colleagues, he gave a lecture in Dutch, “a language he mastered in a short time,” Bird and Sherwin write. “The learning process may have been accelerated by intercourse with a woman.” In the Netherlands, he also learned to make nasi goreng, which he later made regularly for friends in the United States. And he got the nickname “Opje” with which he signed his letters.

Another contradiction: Robert Oppenheimer could be very blunt and arrogant, but also sensitive and shy. Women found him attractive with his bright blue eyes, so he had no complaints about the interest of the female sex. But he wasn’t really a decorator. At Los Alamos, where Oppenheimer worked on the atomic bomb, he had a secretary, Anne Wilson, who received a rose in a vase shortly after his arrival. It was updated every three days. A typical Oppenheimer, his biographers wrote because it was there. “He was not the kind of man who started sexual conquests.” Oppenheimer had a strong bond with his alcoholic wife Kitty and accepted all her vices, but that didn’t stop him from having affairs.


Until the atomic bomb years Oppenheimer a fairly classic biography. J. Robert Oppenheimer was born on April 22, 1904 to a family of first and second generation German immigrants. His father is a wealthy businessman, his mother is a painter. The Oppenheimers are culturally Jewish, but they are not affiliated with a synagogue. In New York, Robert attends a school run by the Ethical Culture Society. It was founded by Felix Adler, the son of a rabbi, but its motto is: “Deed, not faith.” The Ethical Culture Society “impresses its members on the importance of social action and love for one’s neighbors”. Young Oppenheimer is surrounded by people who see themselves as healers of the world.

As a child, Robert Oppenheimer had a passion for minerals. At the age of 12, he corresponded with well-known geologists in the area about the rock formations he was studying in Central Park. He is then invited to give a lecture to the New York Mineralogical Club, which he does. The members are shocked when it turns out they are dealing with a 12-year-old.

It will eventually become physics. Oppenheimer is not good at lab work, but he is a quick thinker. Also an impatient thinker who has trouble developing his ideas. A lecturer writes of him in a Cambridge recommendation: “It seems to me doubtful that Oppenheimer will ever make any significant contribution, but if he does, I think his success will be extraordinary.”

From the second half of the 30s Oppenheimer much more than a biography because the authors also pay a lot of attention to the social context in which their main character operates. It’s inevitable, of course: the bomb shouldn’t be there for nothing. But before Oppenheimer becomes the head of the Manhattan Project, which makes the bomb possible, politics enters his life. For example, with a circular letter to raise money for Jewish physicists who want to escape from Germany. In the summer of 1936, Oppenheimer read three volumes of the work Capital (in German of course). She begins a relationship with Jean Tatlock, a member of the Communist Party, like her brother Frank and her good friend Haakon Chevalier. Through communist front organizations, he also donates money to the Spanish People’s Republic, which has been fighting Franco’s fascists since 1936.

During the war, Oppenheimer is forgiven for all this, but in the 1950s, with Senator Joseph McCarthy hunting down anything left-wing, the past naturally becomes problematic. As well as ‘Oppie’ using his celebrity to oppose the development of an even deadlier hydrogen bomb. Just like the movie, this is actually the most interesting part of the story because it deals with issues that are just as relevant today as they were seventy years ago. How do you make the world safer after inventing the atomic bomb? The problems with which Oppenheimer struggled until his death – he died of cancer in 1967 – are of course better reflected in this exemplary biography of more than 700 pages (without notes) than in “just” a three-hour film.

This isn’t a movie review, so I won’t take a stand on the question of which is better, the movie or the book. But: the book is recommended for those who, like me, wondered after seeing the movie: what is the truth in all this? That’s why I couldn’t resist re-watching the movie after reading the biography. In short: in terms of background, the movie follows Bird and Sherwin’s book pretty closely, as it turns out. But a lot of the dialogue is, as you’d expect, embellished or contrived. “Does anyone ever tell the truth about what’s going on here?” Oppenheimer tells his lawyer in the film in a closed hearing designed to silence him. Of course, that quote is not found in the book. But this very thorough, readable biography probably comes deceptively close to the truth.

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