cover image OPPENHEIMER: Portrait of an Enigma

OPPENHEIMER: Portrait of an Enigma

Jeremy Bernstein, . . Ivan R. Dee, $25 (238pp) ISBN 978-1-56663-569-1

In his preface to this portrait, Bernstein (Cranks, Quarks, and the Cosmos , etc.) is up front with his intentions; "I make no pretense of trying to write a 'definitive' biography of Oppenheimer." Bernstein, a physicist who was a staff writer at the New Yorker for 39 years, is known for his profiles of top scientists, and this book is best understood as an extended magazine profile rather than an exhaustive portrait of the controversial J. Robert Oppenheimer. The author hits all the high (and low) points of Oppenheimer's life, from his role as director of the Los Alamos team that developed the atomic bomb to his struggles with the government during the McCarthy era, but we never really understand what made the physicist tick. Throughout, our view of Oppenheimer is firmly rooted in Bernstein's perspective, fleshed out in part through personal anecdotes of the rare occasions that their paths crossed. Though an interesting window into the physics community through the 20th century, the result is a relatively shallow biography that holds its subject at arm's length, filled with awe and the kind of whispered stories that graduate students pass back and forth about the paramount figures in their field. Bernstein's characterization of this as the New Yorker profile he never wrote may indicate its audience—curious general readers, not those steeped in science history. 7 b&w photos not seen by PW. (Apr. 2)