Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb Critical Essays

Rebecca Larsen


Larsen’s portrait of Oppenheimer is clearly one of a sympathetic admirer who strives, nevertheless, to present an objective picture of a subject’s weaknesses as well as strengths. Emphasis is placed on Oppenheimer’s personal characteristics, such as his high level of intellectual endowment and his shy, introspective, philosophical nature. His inner world was often a tormented one that brought him at least once to consider suicide.

As Oppenheimer matured, he came to command the respect and admiration of the many diverse types of persons with whom he came in contact. His teachers, from the start, recognized his extraordinary intellectual ability in many different disciplines, including the difficult demands of quantum mechanics, which revolutionized the course of physics in the 1920’s. Students were challenged by his classroom demeanor and enchanted by his stimulating personality, which he allowed them to become acquainted with outside the classroom.

Larsen explains how the political ferment of the 1930’s, occurring while Oppenheimer was associated with Berkeley and Caltech, touched his conscience and led him to left-wing causes, despite his own wealthy, privileged background. His ability to grasp complex situations and to function as a successful leader of workers on various levels in the highly technical atomic bomb project earned for him the respect of figures from the military and political world.

Larsen, a trained journalist, focuses her narrative primarily on the dramatic elements embodied in the construction of the atomic bomb and the security investigations into Oppenheimer’s possible Communist activities, affiliations, and sympathies. Quite understandably, she makes no attempt to delineate the scientific details of Oppenheimer’s work, but she does discuss some of the technological problems encountered, and successfully met, in the designing and building of atomic bombs.

As indicated in the title of this biography, Oppenheimer and the Atomic...

(The entire section is 824 words.)