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Takeaway: Hedgeye CEO Keith McCullough offers his thoughts on this Pulitzer Prize-winning book.

American PrometheusThe Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird & Martin Sherwin (2005)

This book captures the complexity of the human mind but, at the same time, simplifies the predictable behavior of politicians. In many ways Oppenheimer’s story reminds us how fragile our freedoms can become.

Summary Thoughts

  1. Deserving winner of a Pulitzer Prize; a true human story of science, evolution, and conscience 
  2. Knowledge threatens political power; especially when it has a liberal mind that doesn’t pander to government
  3. Respect (from practitioners) vs. Reprimand (by politicians) – Oppenheimer battled bureaucrats to his grave


Content Highlights

  1. “Damn it, I happen to love this country.” (pg 3) #truth, Oppenheimer wasn’t the communist his haters wanted him to be
  2. “He received every idea as perfectly beautiful” (pg 9) #objective research defined
  3. “Well, neither one of us came over on the Mayflower” (pg 25) on being Jewish, Oppie to his Scotch-Irish friend at #Harvard
  4.  “The notion that I was travelling down a clear track would be wrong” (pg 29) #honesty about learning (1922 enrolled @Harvard)
  5. Proust’s “A La Recherche du Temp Perdu” (pg 51) a book that left an impression on him in college #introspection
  6.  “Becoming a scientist, Oppenheimer later remarked, is like climbing a mountain in a tunnel” (pg 67) #Gottingen 1927 Germany
  7. “Quantum mechanics describes nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense” –Feynman (pg 79) #Oppie liked
  8. “Oppie” = title of Chapter 6 (Oppenheimer’s nickname, humanizes the man as he moved on to teach in California)
  9. “How far is it wise to respond to a mood?” –Oppenheimer in #1930 (pg 95), we was 26 yrs old, #mentoring brother Frank
  10. “In 1936 my interests began to change” –Oppie (pg 111) met his 1st love, young #communist party member, Jean Tatlock
  11. “FBI would never resolve the question of whether or not Robert was a CP member” (pg 142) b/c he wasn’t a #communist
  12. “devoted to working for social and economic justice… he chose to stand with the left” (pg152) left isn’t Russian Communist
  13. “By the end of 1939, Oppenheimer’s often stormy relationship with Jeadn Tatlock had disintegrated” (pg 153)
  14. “I’d had about enough of the Spanish cause… there were more pressing crises in the world” (pg 178) #1941 post Pearl Harbor
  15. “Only an atomic bomb could dislodge Hitler from Europe” –Oppenheimer to #Teller in #1942
  16. “Groves is a bastard but he’s a straightforward one” –Oppenheimer (pg 185) on his boss at #LosAlamos
  17. “He’s a genius, a real genius” –Groves on Oppenheimer (pg 185) #1942, peer #respect
  18. “Robert was beginning a new life. As the Director of a weapons laboratory…” (pg 205) #1942, he was 38 yrs old
  19. “No, no, you’re crazy… that’s nuts” –Dick Feynman (pg 217) Feynman, Bethe, Bohr + Oppenheimer = genius collaboration
  20. “Oppenheimer is telling the truth…” (pg 236) people may have not liked the #truth, but he was usually telling it; that’s life
  21. “I am disgusted with everything” –Jean Tatlock (pg 249), in #1944 Oppenheimer’s 1st love committed #suicide
  22. “December 1943, Niels Bohr arrived at Los Alamos” (pg 268) Oppie was his #prophet
  23. “If Bohr was convinced, then Oppenheimer must have realized that German physicists were in all likelihood far behind” (pg 276)
  24. “Everyone sensed Oppie’s presence. He drove himself around The Hill in an army jeep” (pg 277) #leader amongst peers
  25. “Well, Roosevelt was a great architect, perhaps Truman will be a good carpenter” –Oppenheimer (pg 290) he respected POTUS
  26. “I feel I have blood on my hands” –Oppenheimer (pg 323) October 16, #1946 to #Truman (and Truman didn’t like the honesty)
  27. “Oppenheimer arrived in Princeton in mid-July 1947” (pg 369) he was appointed Director of Einstein’s Institute #thinktank
  28. “After Einstein, Oppenheimer was undoubtedly the most renowned scientist in the country” (pg 390) #1948 (so he was a #threat)
  29. “Our atomic monopoly is like a cake of ice melting in the sun…” –Oppenheimer (cover of Time Magazine 1948) (pg 418)
  30. “The Administration now supported a program to build a bomb 1,000x as lethal as the Hiroshima weapon” (pg 430)
  31. “You probably don’t know to what extent you have become my intellectual conscience” –George Kennan to Oppie #1950 (pg 431)
  32. “We may be likened to 2 scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life” –Oppenheimer (pg 462)
  33. In 1953 Oppenheimer sent the new Eisenhower Administration a report “urging a policy of candor” (pg 463) #transparency
  34. “I must reveal its nature without revealing anything” –Oppenheimer on #nuclear weapons in 1953 #candor (pg 463)
  35. “The President had read Oppie’s essay and had found himself to be in general accord with its argument” (pg 468) #Strauss was enraged
  36. Strauss and the anti-Oppenheimer hawks went after Oppie (ultimately he “collapsed on his bathroom floor”) (pg 484) #pressure 1953
  37. Einstein, not impressed, thought Oppenheimer “a man who was easily hurt and intimidated” (pg 498) #fair assessment
  38. “The Oppenheimer hearing thus represented … the narrowing of the public forum during the early Cold War” (pg 550)
  39. “It achieved just what his opponents wanted to achieve; it destroyed him” –I.I. Rabi (pg 551) #1954
  40. “How can the independent experimental mind survive in such an atmosphere?” –The New Statesman (pg 556) #1954
  41. “By the early 1960s, with the return of Democrats… Oppenheimer was no longer a political pariah” (pg 574) #JFK
  42. “I think it is just possible Mr. President that is has taken some charity and some courage to make his award” (pg 574)
  43. “In 1963, Oppenheimer learned that President Kennedy gave him the prestigious Fermi Prize” (pg 575) #validation
  44. “In 1965, Oppie visited his doctor for a physical… 2 months later his smoker’s cough became noticeably worse” (pg 581)
  45. “Robert has cancer” –Kitty (pg 582) #1966
  46. Oppenheimer’s Memorial Service was in Princeton on February 25, 1967 (pg 588)
  47. “Kitty took her husband’s ashes in an urn to Hawksnest Bay... and dropped the urn overboard” (pg 588) #St.John
  48. “That’s where he wanted to be” –Kitty (pg 588)