Oppenheimer - American Prometheus


Valued Senior Member
This is the biography on which the new film is based. My son has given me a copy for my birthday and I’ve now read the first five chapters. It is detailed but pacy and well-written, so far. I recommend seeing the film first and then reading the book, because it fills in and puts in chronological order the various scenes and vignettes that the film shows in a jumbled sequence.

As a physical scientist, I find the description of his studying in Europe very interesting, something rather glossed over in the film. Het met and worked with them all: Born, Heisenberg, Pauli, Dirac…..and the grand old man Bohr. The action centres on the universities at Göttingen, Leiden (where he learnt enough Dutch in 6 weeks to give a lecture in it, earning himself the nickname Opje - latter Anglicised to Oppie), and a bit at Cambridge and at ETH Zurich, where was sent to study with Pauli (the “not even wrong” man), to sharpen up his mathematical rigour.

It seems the Born-Oppenheimer approximation, which I recall from physical chemistry, was his idea, developed to, as he put it: “explain why molecules are molecules”.

At the time the USA was nowhere on the physics scene. It was really Oppenheimer that brought the new gospel of quantum mechanics across the Atlantic, almost single-handed.

Anyway very interesting, but 600 pages so I need to keep reading….
Years ago, I read Richard Rhodes's book The Making of the Atomic Bomb. It is a monumental work that traces the relevant science and the people involved from the early days of discovering radioactivity, $E=mc^2$ and all that through the first nuclear reactor, to WWII and the politics and (particularly) the technical challenges of actually building the atomic bomb.

The Oppenheimer biography is covered, albeit probably not in as much detail as in a biography dedicated entirely to his life. But you also get details about all the other significant people who were involved.