Oppenheimer’s final years revealed

-A A +A
By Special to the Monitor

Science writer Mark Wolverton brings sensitivity, insight and convincing research to “A Life in Twilight: the Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer.” Wolverton will speak at the Bradbury Science Museum at 5 p.m. Thursday and will sign copies of “A Life in Twilight” from 6-7:30 p.m. at Otowi Station.

The book encompasses the last 13 years of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life.

Although biographies of Oppenheimer are abundant, the period from the 1954 Atomic Energy Commission’s investigation into the physicist’s Communist leanings to his death in 1967 has rarely been examined in any depth.

The man who headed America’s top-secret atom-bomb program was branded a security risk in 1954 because of personal enmities, past associations with leftists and his opposition to the hydrogen bomb.

Oppenheimer became a potent political symbol. McCarthyites tried to bar him from campus speaking engagements, while progressives and the scientific community championed him as a martyr to McCarthyism.

Wolverton intersperses the narrative with a recap of Oppenheimer’s rigged 1954 security hearing and reproduces documents from his FBI surveillance file.

The aftermath of his disgrace has never been told in such detail. “A Life in Twilight” charts Oppenheimer’s comeback as progressive icon and scientific sage.

Oppenheimer, writes Wolverton, became a globe-trotting philosopher-poet of science, extolling freedom of inquiry and delivering physics lectures to lay audiences.

What emerges in the book is a portrait of a man who was toppled from the highest echelons of politics and society, had to see his honor and name blackened, but succeeded in maintaining his dignity and rebuilding a shattered life.

Filled with speeches and minor furors, Oppenheimer’s third act lacks drama, but it opens a revealing window onto the intellectual climate of the cold war.

Martin Sherwin, co-author of “American P-rometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” and  2006 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, wrote, “‘A Life in Twilight’ is a sensitive, engaging and wonderfully readable rendering of the sad final decade of an American patriot brutalized by the destructive politics of the McCarthy era. As such, it is a welcome and vitally important contribution to our understanding of this complex man as well as of some of the consequences to our society when we allow government officials to use fear as a political weapon.”