Fire of the sun
Two new views of the making of the bomb and its 'father,' the enigmatic J. Robert Oppenheimer
American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
By Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin
Knopf, 721 pp., illustrated, $35
109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos
By Jennet Conant
Simon & Schuster, 425 pp., illustrated, $26.95
More than 60 years after the laboratory that would build the first weapon of mass destruction was founded on a remote New Mexican mesa, named for nearby cottonwood trees, Los Alamos continues to fascinate authors and readers. No fewer than six books will be out this year on the making of the atomic bomb or the people who made it. An opera is scheduled to debut in San Francisco this fall.
The reason for this continuing fascination is not hard to find. If the story of Los Alamos were written as a novel, nobody would believe it. The plot line goes like this: Late in the century's most destructive war, some of the greatest scientific minds of their generation are spirited away from ivy-covered campuses to a laboratory hidden deep in the desert. Working in the strictest secrecy and seclusion, these scientists emerge two years later with a revolutionary new weapon that proves decisive in the conflict.
In keeping with the fictive mode, the man chosen to lead this headstrong and often fractious group is the least likely candidate imaginable: an aesthetic theorist, given to lifelong bouts of depression, whose hobbies are poetry and Eastern religion and whose political convictions, at least before the war, seem perilously in sympathy with our soon-to-be enemy, the Soviet Union.
It was only half in jest that Robert Wilson, one of the Los Alamos scientists, explained to colleagues that he had brought Thomas Mann's ''The Magic Mountain" along to the lab not for casual reading but as a kind of reference and guidebook.
Wilson is gone now, as are the rest of those who once, with understandable pride, referred to themselves as the ''first team" at Los Alamos. Physicist Philip Morrison, who actually assembled the first bomb, died last weekend. Nobelist Hans Bethe died in March at age 98. Bethe's nemesis, physicist Edward Teller, preceded him in death by little more than a year. But it is the unlikely aesthete whose name would become synonymous with the wartime lab, Robert Oppenheimer, dead now more than 30 years, who still receives the lion's share of attention from biographers.
The two books likely to receive, and deserve, the most attention in the burgeoning collection on ''Oppie" are the popularization ''109 East Palace," by Jennet Conant, and the cradle-to-grave biography ''American Prometheus," done as a collaborative effort by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin.
Conant is author of a previous best-selling scientific biography, ''Tuxedo Park," about a little-known but politically influential physicist, Alfred Lee Loomis. Coincidentally, she is also the granddaughter of James Conant, who was a key figure in organizing the Manhattan Project that built the bomb. The title of Conant's book is somewhat misleading, since her subject is less Oppenheimer than the woman who was Oppenheimer's secretary and assistant at the lab, Dorothy McKibbin, often referred to as ''the gatekeeper of Los Alamos." (109 East Palace was the address, in Santa Fe, of her office.)
McKibbin is a fascinating figure in her own right, serving in an underappreciated role. A widowed Smith graduate from a wealthy Midwestern family, she, like many before her and since, came to the Southwest for reasons of health. But McKibbin and her beautiful Mission-style house on the outskirts of Santa Fe soon became a magnet and a refuge for the homesick and lonely scientists at the wartime lab, Oppenheimer included.
Recognizing that there are few secrets kept from a great man's secretary -- especially during a time when women like McKibbin were omnipresent but almost invisibly in the background -- Conant has turned up what are perhaps the last few nuggets in the well-mined story of Los Alamos: McKibbin's unpublished personal diary, as well as a handful of letters between her and her boss.
There are no revelations here -- wartime secrecy, as well as McKibbin's intense personal loyalty to Oppenheimer, precluded any kiss-and-tell memoirs. But the story of the relationship between the two, told against the backdrop of the bomb project and the small town in which it took place, is a touching and sometimes amazing story nonetheless.
Whereas the role of women at Los Alamos is usually dismissed as merely ''standing by and making do," McKibbin's diary shows how the ingenuity of the lab's unsung heroines also contributed to victory. Fortunately, there is an almost lyrical quality to her diary, which Conant quotes extensively, as in this description of her first encounter with Oppenheimer: ''I was impressed, even in that brief meeting, by his nervous energy and by the intensity of the blue eyes that seemed to take in everything at a glance, like a bird flying from branch to branch in a deep forest."
Conant is not a scientist, nor does she pretend to be, so some of the technical errors in the book, while jarring, are perhaps excusable: There is a reference, for example, to transistors at Los Alamos in 1945, whereas the device would not be invented for another two years. Philip Morrison, a theoretical physicist at the wartime lab and later a professor at MIT, is described at one point as ''a neutron engineer." E. O. Lawrence was head of Berkeley's Radiation Laboratory, not the plutonium-producing reactors at Hanford, Wash. These careless errors mar an otherwise wonderful story, well told.
In some contrast to Conant's book, which has signs of a rush to the printer, is the joint effort by Tufts history professor Martin Sherwin and biographer Kai Bird, which had its origins in research that Sherwin began nearly 30 years ago. Sherwin had the inestimable advantage not only of more than a generation's worth of involvement with his subject, but of the fact that he was able to interview many, if not most, of those who figured importantly in Oppenheimer's life. Perhaps stymied by the sheer bulk of the material he had collected, Sherwin a few years back turned to Bird, who had written biographies of diplomat John McCloy and McGeorge and William Bundy. It proved to be a felicitous collaboration, and the result well worth waiting for.
''American Prometheus" is the first biography to give full due to Oppenheimer's extraordinary complexity, and particularly his difficult and often torturous personal relationships with the women in his life -- Jean Tatlock, his onetime fiancée, and Katherine ''Kitty" Puening, whom he married in 1940.
Bird and Sherwin also incorporate in their book new evidence that has come to light concerning Oppie's equally complex and torturous political past, including documents that indicate that Oppenheimer, between 1938 and 1942, belonged to a secret or so-called closed unit of the Communist Party's professional section in Berkeley. For years, the FBI and Oppenheimer's other enemies tried desperately, but unsuccessfully, to link him with communism. Oppenheimer throughout his life vehemently denied ever being a member of the Communist Party, or belonging to ''a Communist Party unit."
To the authors' credit, they bend over backward to include all the evidence on this question, even when it tends to undermine their own case, which discounts the significance of Oppie's protracted dalliance with communism. It is indicative of their integrity as historians and biographers, and characteristic of the balance of the book.
That said, their interpretation, in my view, leaves unexplained a large part of Oppenheimer's life after Los Alamos, including his behavior at the infamous 1954 loyalty hearing -- or, rather, political trial -- that stripped him of his security clearance and thus also his influence with the government. If Oppenheimer was indeed close enough to the party before the war to need to hide that fact when the army chose him to head the bomb project, this gave him something that he continued to have to hide for the rest of his life. The authors also give insufficient attention to recently uncovered evidence that Oppenheimer was protecting his brother at the trial.
As events developed, these secrets would come back to haunt and eventually destroy Oppie. Not incidentally, they may also explain why he, unlike Andrei Sakharov, the Russian physicist with whom he is often compared, remained strangely mute while in exile on causes, like nuclear disarmament, that he passionately believed in. (Full disclosure: On the question of Oppenheimer's involvement with the Communist Party, ''American Prometheus" takes issue with this reviewer's own recent book. For more on the evidence behind this debate, go to www.brotherhoodofthebomb.com and the authors' website, www.americanprometheus.org.)
These criticisms aside, ''American Prometheus" stands as an Everest among the mountains of books on the bomb project and Oppenheimer, and is an achievement not likely to be surpassed or equaled.
For biographers of Oppie, the problem -- and irony -- remain that he was too good at keeping secrets and, as a result, took many with him to the grave. Even now, with a library of books about him, the suspicion lingers that we still do not know the real Robert Oppenheimer. But, to paraphrase an observation that Teller once made about the solution to a particularly sticky scientific problem: While we still may not know Oppenheimer, at least now we don't know him on a much firmer basis, thanks to Sherwin and Bird, and ''American Prometheus."