Sunday, February 12, 2023


A Review of :

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of 

J. Robert Oppenheimer 

by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

Current editions of this book come with the standard “SOON TO BE A MAJOR HOLLYWOOD MOVIE”, a phrase which often accompanies the common coincidence of Biography and Biopic. However with such a definitive and lengthy life story as this (770 pages including copious notes on sources), it is clear that however suitable the director, however brilliant the actors, and however much money is sunk into the historical feel of the thing, a film like this can only ever be a murky window into the life of its protagonist.

Oppenheimer is a towering figure in Atomic physics, not only for his own work but for the leadership of the US Atomic Bomb programme, which from a standing start produced the world’s first atomic bombs in only three years. After their first (and thankfully last) use in war, and against people, Oppenheimer’s deep understanding of science, literature, and history led him to question further development of atomic weapons and he became a strong advocate of international agreements not to produce further devices. This stance put him on a collision course with his own government. The hastily-convened, and constitutionally-illegal enquiry which resulted in him losing his security clearance has become a notorious low-point in the United States’ long history of consuming its own children.

Julius Robert Oppenheimer, known as Robert or “Oppy”, was born in New York City in 1904, the son of Julius, a wealthy textile importer, and Ella, a painter, both of Jewish-German descent. He had a younger brother Frank, who like him became a physicist. From the start, this biography does not skimp on detail, it does not speed through Oppy’s early life, an approach which allows a proper understanding of his character and motives in the years when he was a radical liberal, a “fellow traveller” with the early US communist movement, through his conversion to patriot motivated by the perceived need to beat Nazi Germany to build an atomic bomb. Without this detail of Oppenheimer’s life, his sudden change of political mind might seem jarring, perhaps motivated by a desire to get paid by government to do something simply to confirm that it could be done. Seen with the supporting detail of a wide-ranging education, and a love of learning for its own sake however, it is easy to understand Oppy’s progress from liberal professor at the cutting edge of Quantum Theory, to a respected icon of scientific endeavour.

Nevertheless it is also clear that Oppenheimer was tragically flawed. He was able to keep an audience of non-scientists enraptured, speaking in whole sentences without notes and yet with fellow scientists and politicians at all levels up to The President himself, he could be dangerously candid. He produced the analysis which let the US Military choose Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the targets of the bombs which supposedly ended the War in the Pacific. However, at the time of these decisions, the US was already aware of secret Japanese communications suggesting they were looking for a way to end the conflict. The Americans were also aware that The Soviet Union was about to declare war on Japan and it is probable that the surrender would have happened without the attacks. Oppenheimer was not party to this information, and went ahead with the analysis. On his first and last meeting with President Truman after the bombs had been dropped he said he felt like he had blood on his hands, an emotional statement which led Truman to decree that Oppenheimer should never be readmitted to the Oval Office and to embellish the details of the meeting in future increasingly melodramatic accounts designed to make Oppy look weak.

Oppenheimer, obviously deeply affected by his role in the Manhattan Project, became a strong advocate of International control over nuclear weapons and disagreed strongly with some of his more gung-ho Los Alamos colleagues such as Edward Teller who immediately started advocating for what became known colloquially as “The Super” – the thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb, a weapon with the potential for detonations many multiples of the simple fission weapons of 1945. It was clear to Oppy that there were no targets of The Super which were big enough and that its use would be simple genocide, a race towards complete destruction of both opposing nations together with much collateral damage to the entire planet. In the face of the Soviet acquisitions first of fission devices and then their own hydrogen bombs, this call for sanity flagged Oppenheimer, after the war a consultant to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), as an obstacle to the further development of such weapons. In addition, his prickly demeanour, easily dealt with by many of his fellow scientists, became a stimulus for personal vendettas from certain politicians and Washington insiders. Notable among these was the businessman, Lewis Strauss, the chairman of the AEC who developed an almost irrational dislike of Oppenheimer. The FBI had been monitoring Oppy for many years, the result of his flirtations with many Communist Party members as part of his support for union activities in California, often using illegal (and therefore inadmissible) wiretaps.

Strauss, with the assistance of the FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, gained access to these and used them to build a case for the removal of Oppenheimer’s security clearance, a move which Strauss hoped would end his government career, and perhaps even render him unemployable. The security review, pointedly referred to by its instigators as “not a trial” was a tetchy, biased, and bitter affair, with consequences for all participants. It comes late in the book but is the brilliant hub around which the rest of the text hangs. It is more redolent of a Soviet political trial, the attempted destruction of an “expert” for political purposes and foreshadows more recent extreme attitudes towards knowledge and rationality. The “review” resulted in the largely-symbolic removal of Oppenheimer’s clearance but contrary to its outcome, raised his public profile to what has been compared to the suppression of Galileo by The Inquisition for the promotion of heliocentrism. Only decades later did the idea of Atomic Weapons treaties gain ground in the face of the obvious madness of nuclear proliferation.

The book has a massive cast of heroes and villains. Einstein bumbles in and out of later chapters, the iconic figure of scientific authority. Richard Feynman clowns around in Los Alamos cameos (his own chatty memoirs provide a contrasting personal look at the building of the atomic bombs). Strauss, Teller and a host of oleaginous lawyers flesh out the darker side of the US establishment, though at the end of everything Oppenheimer himself is part of the establishment, a more honourable reflection of what the United States has claimed to be since the Declaration of Independence. In December 2022, the Biden administration voided the revoking of Oppy’s security clearance. Kai Bird, one of the authors of this Pulitzer-prize winning book said “History matters and what was done to Oppenheimer in 1954 was a travesty, a black mark on the honor of the nation”.

Oppy himself was a widely-read man of deep thinking and measured response. That he was so badly treated by his country is a tragedy. Shortly before the Trinity test, the first atomic explosion in history he made his hopes and feelings about the potential use clear using a quotation from Bhartṛhari's Śatakatraya:

        In battle, in the forest, at the precipice in the mountains,

        On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows,

        In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame,

        The good deeds a man has done before defend him.

So read this book before the film and then let it go, enjoy the drama because a two hour movie cannot hope to sum up this complex and towering figure.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Hospital Blues 08/01/2021

At parade the whole are evidence
for motherlands, of rightness
no broken thoughts for men like these
displayed at church
ordered with no thought
in buildings they do not understand.

In distant rooms the fractured sleep
the phantom limbs made real in dreams
of love and Saturdays in spring
the screams of their arrival still echoing
and the edge of war in wounds
that weep as mothers weep.

At watch, the VADs keep station,
no more than girls, pressed with rhetoric
by agencies they cannot translate
to play or to ambition
and old men have entrenched this mode
of feigning truth with children

since talk was talk and war became a toy
the pressing of one's truth
outside survival, beyond shelter
beyond food and love and need
into imagined height and power
marked with tin and iron stars.

The old men mapped the mud of Europe
with blood and treasure
the ragged entrails of a generation
burned to ash or brought home mad
pegging out the gold fields
for the pickings of the victors.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

A Corona of Sonnets

We Have Emptied the Skies - 1 27/03/2020

So all the world is natural again,
When negatives have silenced the machines,
No love among the animals for men,
Until bluer skies meet land, and night seems,

Colder than the dots of code that blight us,
All through the substrates humans cannot touch,
What we believed was true was always dust,
Upon the jet streams and the dreams of putsch,

This is a whimpering catastrophe,
The end of something which we can't define,
Which reeks of planet-wide stupidity,
Taint that forever shows up down the line,

We are dust and to dust we must return,
Always repeating what we never learn,

Airlane - 2 02/04/2020

Always repeating what we never learn,
We make objections to the history,
That's cruelly taken from us while we burn,
Or starve idly in our complicity,

And so we hoard resentments deeply-held,
Pass pious loathing down through our own caste,
Clans differing in nothing but compelled
to pacify and hate, rewrite the past,

For our reward, and so we fear the shades,
Of humankind not kind or qualified,
To own this world and all its palisades,
Its covert bunkers and the lies implied,

That justify themselves in brevity,
Where hides the guild of our complexity,

Shadowlands — 3 05/04/2020

Where hides the guild of our complexity?
They're always with us in plain black and white,
Uncoded living, as children crave security,
Ignoring those not born to sweet delight,

Forever hoping for the dead to pay,
Benevolence to make but never do,
What saves, but revel in the disarray,
Of history and faith, and so accrue,

All that's meant for building better states,
For saving life, but theirs is not to save,
Unless it's via a banker's draft and surrogates,
Those listless shadows circling our graves,

And so I stir from passive middle grounds,
This world filled with quiet and angry sounds,

Sleeping Priests — 4 07/04/2020

This world filled with quiet and angry sounds,
That hint at murder in the ears of men,
Has breathed and raised the usual battle grounds,
This country fell and so must rise again,

The murmuring in endless summer feasts
is rage, a sour acid on the breath,
That nears the fuse and stirs once sleeping priests,
To organise and preach on righteous death,

They'd pull the lever if they had the strength,
They'd drown the bastards in the stream,
Then run home knocking sticks along the fence,
And back to mother in some fifties dream,

Of economics and the rise of light,
But nations fall again in endless night,

The Collective - 5 08/04/2020

But nations fall again in endless night,
A people drowning in their false beliefs,
Which even children question, leukocytes
arrayed in neural nets and sickly reefs

acidified with rain, know more than us,
This ray that worms its way in through the door,
That flyspeck bug that comes in with the dust,
Together in the mind must herald war,

A long haul, endocrine apocalypse,
Fragmenting truth with all those backward tapes,
And in our minds we're making up our lists,
An intellectual voodoo of distorted shapes,

Behind the frosted glass that hides the pain,
Between the rattled lines is our domain,

Isolation — 6 12/04/2020

Between the rattled lines is our domain,
A smaller world than all the worlds before,
The future stalls, a slowly flowing vein,
A burning frame of film, a dead-eyed store

of our insistent small-hours reckoning,
Pulsating in the brain like insects beat
in solid ground that seemed unquestioning,
Until the scars of earth, the very plates,

On which our overflowing cities rest,
Shake down the ordered plans of engineers,
Leave open wounds and fault lines coalesced,
But show us ways to change and new frontiers,

To break and turn us to the unaligned,
A newer world with no one left behind,

Keystone — 7 20/04/2020

A newer world with no one left behind,
We will decry the growth which made us strong,
And so move outwards with the non-aligned,
Into the gaps where humans scratch along

the bottom, with the pits and traps and dust,
The snares of systems set complacently,
By those who climb and welter in distrust,
Of those they push or press into the sea,

Of those who make and form the stairs they climb,
But now were all detached, at one alone,
And all intoning blues in common time,
The world resetting, made of monotone,

Which scrapes the satellites and frees the brain
So all the world is natural again.

Monday, January 04, 2021

 The Blind and Haloed

There must be unsensed ecstasy
in faith, a thrill I cannot see
but you have both seeing eyes
held out delicately as proof
of martyrdom unsung and undone

and sightless eyes restored
to you by good and piety
that make new sight
of old sense and feeling
touching the delicate string

of remembered history
suspended forever dangerously
over the rolling oceans
of forgotten truth and war
and all the unseen meek

lacking alms and voices
for whom your eyes are payment
taken and not taken
in violence, unjust
as it was then and is now.

But Saints are so much mist
a feather of vapour on the wind
Wild Thyme in the river's walk
they stand for the dead they saved
and for the opposite pole.

These days they have armed you
against the assault which made you
but the sword they have you
steal from your executioner
is like wishing away Judas

and now all that remains to worship
falls like a leaf to earth
or like water over cataracts
unfeeling of all physics
pulling it to earth

so all that is left is goodness
the perfect glow of ascent
through incense and woodsmoke
to sainthood and patronage
both blind and sighted.

Saturday, January 02, 2021


The room in which the mirrors come and go
makes revolution easy, the plainness
of your clothes defines need without want
and marks the travel of light
a hundred years of sun to earth
disguising Petrograd
in at your grandfather's window
and on and off the looking glasses
so arranged to let you see your back
while painting frugally
the uniform of coup and statehood.

Defining its albedo through the clouds
You have detained the glow of that day
a century of imprisoned depth
a fisher of the changing halo
the mistress of your own image
wreathed with a smile, tempered these days
by failures of dogma, to a regretful
lift of the mouth in remembrance
of sunnier days, which government
would now call decadent
in the bright, marine aurora
of your dressing room
a decade earlier, before October.

It was snowy in Neskuchnoye that day
but you painted your room like summer
bare shouldered and elated
ecstatic at your dressing-table clutter
all of it practical but beautiful
each thing a gift of early wonder
and you not long not a child
recalled each thing arriving in the house
being unwrapped or unhidden
by your father, back from business
in some far city like Saint Petersburg
sleeping in this same mirrored room.

The stasis of these later, sombre hues
becomes your exile, all the ideologies
defined by idiots in false fury
meaning nothing but separation
and repudiation of your homeland.
The articles of revolution are dry dust
or spent rounds in a basement
though that is not it at all
say all your marks on canvas
your curves of snowy exaltation
painting the cold air with kindness
and compassion.

Friday, January 01, 2021

Cooperative         01/01/2021

This is a railway town
its city walls, a ring of rust
iron released to the green of England
nettled and abandoned

our train is hours away
a single connection of recession
hauling, empty, and implacable
the only light in misty flats

and ice that steels the stagnant
fleeting ponds of last year's rain
a sleepy, machine-made worm
of grimy yellow, crawling home

across a whitened prairie
its grasses stiffened
and fragile, papery in the cold
of January winds.

We have made ourselves alone
sole customers of oily tea
and stale biscuits, salvaged
from behind dusty, angled glass

together the subject of regret
but happy and not outside ourselves
we have no thoughts of anything
beyond a café and a locked gaze

our future is never to be together
but at this grim moment,
we are one over this greasy table
measuring each other's saccades

thinking of nothing in memorial
of children's infatuation
but the moment we were happy
and I was not the only person living.

Your tea is the first thing
I have bought for someone not myself
and the first time I love someone

Monday, August 24, 2020

World Lines and the Daughter Cell 25/07/2020

Oh God I forgot myself,

But there are other stairs to climb,

That pause of the dark and feline at the turn,

The false landing of a traitor,

But I am here and now,

Closing in upon this end,

That beats away the darkness,

Even now it crumbles,

Falling in pieces to the sticky floor,

Where the concierge does not stir,

As all my mind disintegrates,

In front of him,

I have stayed here an hour,

Seven hours perhaps

The truth, and smoke I smell,

Fourteen years of smoke,

Killing without coincidence,

It worms its way to me,

Through gaps and bad construction,

His whisky and his settlement,

Time equation ticks are audible,

Heard across the city,

Where the cars are stopped,

Their metal fading out at height,

I spent an hour yesterday,

Living in the gap between my window,

And the floor at which the sirens stop,

All of America in conflict,

Far below but not with me,

My enemy is me,

And I would fall and cut 

against the building,

And fall and fall into the sound,

Of nations tearing from their groundings,

But perhaps it's me,

Missing the ground to fall like Alice,

Through not space and earth,

But to the core of all of this,

The knot of axons,

The father neuron cut and pinned,

For querying of photographs,

For propriety I cannot see,

I am past the sirens,

Beyond the madness of the sidewalk,

Where the crowds walk and eat,

Into the slow of downwards,

Matching speed with blurry souls,

That also fall,

But they are all commercial lights,

Here is the fading of the day,

The last Sunday shadow takes this hall,

And we are ignored,

Just passing tokens of the city,

to the wrecks and relics of this place,

They step over us,

Apologise for us, the trespassers,

Forget us and survive another day,

I wake, a finger in my mouth,

My own, a comforter in dreams,

Chewed down until it bleeds,

Hear lovers in the distance,

Conversations, arguments and pain,

The purring operation of hotels,

Of rooms that can be rented 

     by the hour,

Then typing on another floor,

The clockwork of the mind,

The alarm that calls at 3am,

That beats inside the future,

That takes a step towards the plane,

     and is gone,

I'll cross that ocean soon and

Be myself the idol of the idiots,

That visit every day,

To leave me pens,

And flowers dying in the rain

    of England,

Among the black wind-blasted

   stone of it,

The small cold rooms,

Of small dark towns,

The houses gathered up like sheep,

Against the shriek of moorland edge,

That grabs a corner of the town,

And tries to lift the roof off it

   to heaven,