I just started reading “American Prometheus,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.
The polymath Oppenheimer, who lived and worked during the golden age of 20th century theoretical physics, was the wartime head of the Los Alamos Laboratory, where he and his colleagues working on the Manhattan Project developed the atomic bomb.
After the war, in part because of his own conflicted sensibilities about nuclear weapons and his difficult and sometimes erratic personality, he fell victim to the Red Scare of the 50s and had his security clearance revoked, never allowed to work for the government again.
Oppenheimer’s story is a reminder of why I decided to draw “Sleeper Ave.” His saga embodies many of the issues I’m writing about. Being Jewish was a huge hindrance to academic advancement in the the 1920s and 30s; fortunately for him, he was considered not TOO Jewish by his advisors and mentors, and thus allowed him access to an academic world fitting for a man of his gifts.
His deep ambivalence about the nuclear power he helped unleash was not viewed kindly in conservative political circles, and his youthful dalliance with leftist political ideas was used by political and scientific enemies he had made to undermine him at the hearing that stripped him of his government clearance. He was simply too complex a character for the age of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
I don’t know that I’ll actually write about Oppenheimer in “Sleeper Ave.” I doubt I was even aware that he existed until I was much older. But his story encompasses the scientific, political, social, and religious currents that were stirring in postwar America. All of us who came of age then are the products of that time, and our children are the heirs of the forces that shaped our lives.