Biographer to give Oppenheimer lecture

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By Roger Snodgrass

Sitting before the Personnel Security Board of the Atomic Energy Commission in April 1954, J. Robert Oppenheimer found his eligibility for a security clearance under attack. Like the mythical Greek hero Prometheus, who was caught stealing fire from the gods, Oppenheimer, was about to go through a punishing ordeal.

The government he had served with such an uncommon set of skills and abilities was about to humiliate him and immobilize his career because of a few suspicious reports of circumstantial old connections. Among other charges these included old associations of his wife and his brother, a subscription to an unacceptable newspaper, contributing money, attending various meetings, making suspicious scientific inquiries and for doubting the feasibility of the hydrogen bomb.

After his attorney, Lloyd Garrison, protested the fact that the accusers were examining items of evidence that were not available to the accused, he engaged his client in a conversation about the trail that had led Oppenheimer to Los Alamos and what happened there.

“We put up a laboratory and a lot of houses, which were hopelessly inadequate to our future needs but at least did get us started,” Oppenheimer recalled in the hearing transcripts. “Everybody arrived with trunk-loads of junk and equipment, and in this way we were able to be doing experiments — well, I got to Los Alamos toward the end of March (1943), the equipment started coming a few days later, and by June we were finding out things nobody knew before.”

Amid all the enigmas and controversies in the triumphant and tragic life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, many people know some of the highlights of what happened next: the legendary sprint to build the atomic bomb. But very few have known him as well as one of his biographers, Martin Sherwin, or found out as many of the things that nobody knew before.

Sherwin’s work began in 1979, with a symbolic horseback ride in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains through the landscape that inspired Oppenheimer to return one day and fulfill his destiny. Sherwin went on to spend 25 years in immersive research, getting to know the man who founded the Los Alamos laboratory, his life, his family and the America of his time.

During a brief period a few years ago, a wave of books on J. Robert Oppenheimer appeared. One of them, “American Prometheus,” by Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird, was awarded both the National Book Critics Circle Award (2005) and the Pulitzer Prize (2006).

In an author’s note at the end of the book, Sherwin explained that he invited his friend Kai Bird to pitch in and help finish the task.

“Oppenheimer was big enough for both of us and I knew my pace would be quicker with Kai as my partner,” he wrote. “Together we have finished what turned out to be a very long ride.”

At 7:30 p.m. Aug. 11 at Duane Smith Auditorium Sherwin will deliver the annual Oppenheimer Memorial Lecture. The free talk, titled, “Oppenheimer’s Shadow: His World and Ours,” will be the 38th in the series sponsored by the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee. “I’m going to talk about his early life and its relationship to how he reacted and behaved as an adult,” Sherwin said in a telephone interview from Aspen, Colo. Saturday.

He said his talk will begin with July 16, 1945, and the introduction of nuclear weapons to the world and Oppenheimer’s role in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and his reactions to those events. From the postwar period, Sherwin said he would focus on Oppenheimer’s efforts to assure international control over atomic energy, the Oppenheimer hearings and the conspiracy that led to those hearings, and the relation of all that to the “second nuclear world” of our current situation.

“There really is a direct connection,” he said. “We can’t escape the legacy of World War II and its aftermath.”

Sherwin and Bird’s biography was widely hailed by critics and peers. Greg Herken, author of Brotherhood of the Bomb, writing in the Boston Globe, said, “‘American Prometheus’ stands as an Everest among the mountains of books on the bomb project and Oppenheimer, and is anachievement not likely to be surpassed or equaled.”

“After years of intense immersion, Dr. Sherwin realized that this biography by necessity had to be placed in the context of the social and political milieu of the times in which Oppenheimer lived and worked,” said Mary Louise Williams, a member of the committee hosting the talk. “His lecture in Los Alamos this summer will share some of those insights and discuss how Oppenheimer’s legacy continues to influence events today.”

Sherwin is the Walter S. Dickson Professor of English and American History at Tufts University and author of “A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies,” which was awarded the Stuart L. Bernath Prize and the American History Book Prize.

The lecture series began in 1972 with a talk by George F. Kennan. It is always one of the most important cultural events of the year in Los Alamos. Julia Louise Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control, was the 2006 speaker; Joel R. Primack, Professor of Physics Stanford University, gave the lecture last year.

The J. Robert Oppenheimer Committee is a philanthropic, non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the memory and legacy of Oppenheimer. The committee also funds and administers scholarships to outstanding students from Los Alamos, Pojoaque, Capital and Santa Fe high schools.