Oppenheimer: Portrait Of An Enigma

by Jeremy Bernstein

Reviewed June 22, 2004

Book CoverJeremy Bernstein, a physicist and staff writer for the New Yorker, has written profiles of scientists for nearly 30 years. In his preface, Bernstein is clear about the scope and depth of this work, saying, "I make no pretense of trying to write a 'definitive' biography of Oppenheimer." Oppenheimer: Portrait Of An Enigma is best understood as an extended magazine profile rather than an exhaustive portrait.

This profile covers all the key points in Oppenheimer's life, from his role as the director of Los Alamos during the development of the atomic bomb, to his security hearing with the Atomic Energy Commission. Bernstein spent two years at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, where Oppenheimer was the director after the Manhattan Project. This tenure gave Bernstein the perfect position to blend history with personal observation.

Oppenheimer: Portrait Of An Enigma paints a view of the conflicted genius, happiest when surrounded by formulas on a chalkboard but never comfortable when the theoretical became the political.

Drawing on trial transcripts, Bernstein effectively recaps the Atomic Energy Commission's move to suspend Oppenheimer's clearance in the spring of 1954. He traces this fateful event back to a physicist's naiveté as well as his arrogance. Bernstein focuses on the high drama of the conflict between Oppenheimer and Teller. This is in part to offer a balance to Edward Teller's version in his book Memoirs. Although time and events have softened Oppenheimer's fall from grace, this event is still a sad chapter in a brilliant story.

Some readers may be disappointed that this book does not provide the same depth as the recent works by Gregg Herken or Robert Norris. However, this work does provide a window into the physics community of the 20th century and into the enigma of J. Robert Oppenheimer.