A book sure to haunt you

Debbie Jacob -
Debbie Jacob -

Debbie Jacob

OCCASIONALLY, a book comes along that speaks to everyone. This is the case with American Prometheus, a biography about J Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who led the US’s Manhattan Project, which produced the first nuclear weapons during World War II.

The implications of that scientific discovery impact all of our lives, but even if we aren’t interested in physics or don’t think about the ever-looming threat of a nuclear war, Oppenheimer’s story about a brilliant scientist on a deadline to produce a nuclear bomb explores the need to feel creative, successful and appreciated; the fear of becoming irrelevant or unappreciated for our work and the moral dilemma of whether to put our own values and needs above those of our workplace or our country.

Newsweek magazine called the biography “definitive” and said, “Oppenheimer’s life…haunts us.” It raises questions about what we would do in Oppenheimer’s position. If we were in the scientist’s place would we produce a weapon of mass destruction because we believed it would save millions of lives in the present – even knowing of its potential to destroy the world in the future?

Ultimately, American Prometheus and the movie Oppenheimer is about power – who wields it and who is the victim of it. In this case, the US government had power over Oppenheimer, a Jewish American who initially thought he was finding a way to save some Jews from the genocide. He personally knew some of the German scientists racing to invent a nuclear weapon because he studied in Germany with them. He knew the Germans were on the wrong track.

The authors, columnist Kai Bird and the late historian Martin J Sherwin, say the Japanese were ready to surrender, and the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima to prevent Russia from invading Japan and taking control of Asia.

Oppenheimer grapples with his conscience. He faces the pitfalls of fame and speaks out against atomic weapons after the war. He stands up for freedom of speech and is stripped of his national security clearance because of his past affiliations with the Communist Party, a known fact when he was hired for the project.

The book and movie are scathing commentaries on anti-communism in the pre-McCarthy and McCarthy era. Many liberals, intellectuals and idealists in the US thought communism would eliminate poverty and promote social equality. By the time they changed their minds, they had been blacklisted.

Oppenheimer’s story shows how no one is indispensable, how fame is ephemeral and how work can never offer the security or acceptance we need.

American Prometheus is the kind of book all writers dream of writing because of its all-encompassing scope. It’s a complex story with a perfect title. Prometheus stole fire from the Greek gods with the noble intention of sharing it with humanity. For that, Zeus punished him by tying him to a rock. It’s easy to apply this symbolism to Oppenheimer.

Somehow it feels surprising to see the human side of scientists – especially the symbiotic vs antagonist relationship between theorists like Oppenheimer and research scientists. They are complex, emotional people who grapple with depression and morals.

Much of the movie’s dialogue comes directly from the book. For reasons unknown, some of the more unsavoury things Oppenheimer said are attributed to his wife Kitty.

At 721 pages long, American Prometheus is a challenging read; it is 26 ½ hours long and the movie is 180 minutes. If you invest that time in reading this book and watching the movie, you will come out on the other side with a deeper appreciation of life and a better understanding of the human frailties that define us all – even geniuses like Oppenheimer.

This book’s lessons begin even before page one. Bird and Sherwin took 25 years to write American Prometheus, first published in 2005. A Pulitzer Prize for the biography solidified its critical acclaim, but Christopher Nolan’s movie, Oppenheimer (which came to Trinidad cinemas on July 20), helped to establish its popular acclaim. This makes the book an invaluable lesson in perseverance.

Oppenheimer the movie stood up admirably well to Barbie the week both movies were released. Barbie opened with US$162 million and Oppenheimer opened with $82.4 million, which is considered a stunning success for an R-rated movie. (There is some nudity.) Together, the two movies made up the fourth-biggest weekend of all time at the domestic box office.

American Prometheus really is a book that will haunt you and make you think about the purpose of life.


"A book sure to haunt you"

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