American Prometheus by Kai Bird
I’ve long been fascinated by physics and books written about it for the general reader. American Prometheus is the story of Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb,” and by all accounts a true intellectual giant. He was a prodigy in multiple disciplines, spoke eight languages, and was well traveled.
He also had fantastic timing to be in Germany at the birth of quantum mechanics and studied with Max Born at University of Göttingen. His fellow students included Wolfgang Pauli, Paul Dirac, Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, and even Werner Heisenberg, who would become the head of Nazi Germany’s own atomic program. After obtaining his PhD, Oppenheimer ended up splitting his time between Cal Tech and Berkeley.
Much of the book focuses on Oppenheimer’s links to the Communist Party and goes into painstaking detail about whether or now he was an active member. I found this to be tiresome; 2-300 pages is spent on this and while it’s relevant to the latter half of the book, I still think the author did a ton of research and couldn’t bear to leave it out. Fortunately the book picks up again in New Mexico where Oppenheimer sets up the US atomic effort in the literal desert.