Form and Content
Following a brief introduction summarizing the central theme of the atomic bomb in J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life, Rebecca Larsen has organized Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb in nineteen chapters of less than a dozen pages each. Each chapter focuses on a particular episode or theme and carries a quotation from the text as its title.
Larsen’s biography draws heavily on already published accounts by other authors, as well as on Oppenheimer’s own published writings and his posthumously published correspondence. She has also consulted archival materials related to Oppenheimer, such as interviews that historians conducted with him.
The text is enhanced by direct quotations from these sources, and notes at the end of the book give the source of each quotation used. Larsen has also provided a bibliography of related publications and an index. A group of a dozen photographs showing Oppenheimer and others at various times in his career appears in the middle of the book, in addition to a frontispiece of Oppenheimer alone in the act of speaking.
Starting with Oppenheimer’s childhood in New York City, Larsen traces his path through private schooling to Harvard University and graduate study in Europe in theoretical physics. After a decade of teaching at the University of California at Berkeley and at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), this path culminated in Oppenheimer’s becoming scientific chief of the Manhattan Project, making him responsible for the design and construction of the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and brought an end to World War II.
Larsen also portrays her subject’s political involvements, starting in the 1930’s with left-wing organizations tied to the Communist Party and continuing through the war years and into the postwar period, when he served as adviser on peacetime uses of atomic energy. By that time, Oppenheimer had become head of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. His activity on the national scene came to a disappointing end, however, when his security clearance was lifted by the Atomic Energy Commission following suspicions and allegations concerning his Communist ties. Interwoven with these topics are details of his personal relations with family members, friends, and scientific colleagues, as well as of his physical and psychological health and his final illness that led to his death from cancer at the age of sixty-two.