Author of Oppenheimer biography 'American Prometheus' unveils complex life of scientist
Author of Oppenheimer biography unveils complex life of scientist
Published: Feb 05, 2024 07:09 PM
A still from the <em>movie Oppenheimer</em>, directed by Christopher Nolan, starring Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer Photo: VCG

A still from the movie Oppenheimer, directed by Christopher Nolan, starring Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer Photo: VCG

The movie award season has shone the spotlight back on the movie Oppenheimer, a Christopher Nolan-directed epic about the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, as the commercial hit won five Golden Globe awards this year, and earned 13 Academy Award nominations in January.

The movie, based on the biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by author Kai Bird and historian Martin J. Sherwin, hit the silver screens in China in the summer of 2023. 

As a Chinese version of the book hit bookstores in China, Bird told the Global Times in a recent interview that the film is also a powerful tool to bring Oppenheimer's story to a broader audience that could spark conversations about history, nuclear weapons and the choices that humanity faces.

"I hope [that] if the audiences see the movie, it will inspire them to pick up the book and read it because it's an interesting and compelling story. It reads like a novel, but with thousands of footnotes," Bird told the Global Times.

"As you read this novel with footnotes, it teaches you a lot of the history in a way that is pleasurable and digestible. It also helps to explain the world around us and we human beings, are storytellers precisely because we need the stories to be able to understand our world."

Kai Bird  Photo: Courtesy of CITIC Press Group

Kai Bird Photo: Courtesy of CITIC Press Group

Pulitzer award-winning biography

Theoretical physicist Oppenheimer headed the top secret Los Alamos Laboratory, which was established under US President Franklin Roosevelt as the home of the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb during World War II. 

The biography, which was published in 2005 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography in 2006, chronicles Oppenheimer's rise to fame as the director of the Manhattan Project as well as his tragic downfall due to his political stance. 

Bird emphasizes that the narrative is more about the man himself than the scientific equations, providing readers with a comprehensive understanding of Oppenheimer's complexities.

"This is not a book filled with scientific equations or quantum physics," Bird noted. "It's more about the man, his personality, and the building of the atomic bomb and how he became the sort of chief celebrity victim of the McCarthy era."

According to Bird, Sherwin had been researching Oppenheimer's life for over two decades before Bird joined in writing the masterpiece. Sherwin passed away in 2021.

Sherwin's extensive collection of 50,000 archival documents, interviews and FBI records formed the foundation for the biography. 

"I wanted to do Oppenheimer to understand his life story, to understand the world around me, including what happened during World War II, and what happened to Oppenheimer during the McCarthy era, which I think explains a lot about our current world," said Bird, recalling the reason why he decided to work with Sherwin on the biography. 

Bird emphasizes that Oppenheimer's warnings about the dangers of nuclear weapons continue to resonate today, before drawing parallels between Oppenheimer's advocacy for the responsible use of atomic technology and the need for ethical considerations in the current development of artificial intelligence.

"Oppenheimer was trying after the war to warn people about how dangerous these weapons were and how it was advisable to try to find a way to control them; to regulate the technology," Bird told the Global Times.

"We are also on the edge of another scientific revolution with artificial intelligence (AI). It's another Oppenheimer moment as such when scientists should be trying to educate [the public] about the choices we face in using AI and how to regulate it."

"That's why the story still resonates. Today is still relevant, even to the younger generation."

The Chinese version of the Oppenheimer biography  Photo: Courtesy of CITIC Press Group

The Chinese version of the Oppenheimer biography Photo: Courtesy of CITIC Press Group

Pink, but not red

One of the central themes explored in the biography is Oppenheimer's political involvement and the subsequent security clearance hearing during the McCarthy era. 

Bird sheds light on Oppenheimer's political activities in the 1930s, his association with the Communist Party of the USA, and the repercussions that haunted him after World War II. 

Bird and Sherwin's conclusion is that Oppenheimer, while sympathetic to communist causes, was "pink, but not red," stopping short of full party membership, which even the FBI failed to prove.

"Martin and I concluded that the evidence showed that he never joined the party. The FBI was trying to prove that he was a Communist Party member, but there's no real evidence, even in the FBI files. They failed to prove this."

Following World War II, especially after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan using atomic bombs, Oppenheimer was staunchly opposed to nuclear proliferation and the development of the hydrogen bomb.

However, in 1954, the Atomic Energy Commission of the US held 19 secret meetings, during which they ultimately decided to revoke Oppenheimer's clearance, alleging the scientist was a security risk and thus barred Oppenheimer from access to codes needed for his work, essentially ending his career. 

It was not until 2022 when the Biden administration overturned the 1954 decision that revoked the security clearance of the scientist who was caught up in McCarthyism prevailed in US politics. Oppenheimer died in 1967 at age 62.

Bird said the authors felt sorry for the experience the scientist faced. 

"Martin and I both came to admire Oppenheimer as a scientist and as an intellectual. We sympathized with his struggles," Bird unveiled. 

"We were frustrated at times with his trying to explain some of his behavior. When he was put on trial in 1954, he did not defend himself very vigorously. He wasn't good at answering questions. He seemed at times politically naive." 

But Oppenheimer's vision of international collaboration in science is also highlighted, as he noted Oppenheimer's belief that science transcends borders, advocating for scientists worldwide to work together for the common good. 

"The Cold War was a big mistake. I think in the same way that the old Cold War was filled with many myths and misunderstandings, we should be careful about looking at current problems, and we should always be willing to engage and talk," he said.