Aventures mathématiques by Miguel de Guzmán

By Miguel de Guzmán

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Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, a book that was a long time in the making and the result of a staggering amount of research. American Prometheus is a very fine book indeed, a monumental piece of scholarship that I have had at my side ever since it was published. However (partly to my relief, since I was, by the time this book appeared, engaged on my own book), it is not the book I envisaged when I reviewed Smith and Weiner. Though Bird and Sherwin describe in exhaustive detail Oppenheimer’s personal life and his political activities, they either ignore altogether or summarise very briefly his contributions to physics.

Rabi was proud of his Jewish inheritance and happy to define himself in terms of it. ’ No such thought could have entered Oppenheimer’s mind, no matter who he was looking at. There was no group to whom he could point and say, ‘These are my people’, and not just because of his ambivalence about his Jewish background. It was also because that background itself, regardless of Oppenheimer’s feelings about it, could not have provided him with the sense of belonging and, therefore, the sense of identity that Rabi thought was missing in him.

Those looking for a scientific biography of Oppenheimer were thus forced to look elsewhere. David C. Cassidy, who had previously written an outstandingly good, scientifically literate biography of Heisenberg, published a biography of Oppenheimer in 2005 that many thought would fill the gap left open by Pais. Cassidy’s book, J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century, certainly gives more prominence to Oppenheimer’s scientific work than any previous biography. However, as indicated by his title, Cassidy has, like Thorpe, chosen to approach Oppenheimer’s life from a broadly historical and sociological perspective.

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