The best books about the race to build the first atomic bomb, and its earthly consequences

Why are we passionate about this?

Shirley Streshinsky was 11 years old when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Many scientists were responsible, but only Robert Oppenheimer was labeled “Father of the Atomic Bomb”. At twenty-nine while living in San Francisco she crowded into an auditorium at U.C. Berkeley to hear him speak. She left knowing she would write about him. Patricia Klaus has been a Modern British historian for years, the story of Robert Oppenheimer and the women he loved opened new worlds for her: the history of science and the discovery of fission in 1938. Her father was a pilot in the 509th Bomb Wing that had dropped the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.


I wrote...

An Atomic Love Story: The Extraordinary Women in Robert Oppenheimer's Life

By Shirley Streshinsky and Patricia Klaus,

Book cover of An Atomic Love Story: The Extraordinary Women in Robert Oppenheimer's Life

What is my book about?

Set against a dramatic backdrop of war, spies, and nuclear bombs, An Atomic Love Story unveils a vivid new view of a tumultuous era and one of its most important figures. Oppenheimer's first and most intense love was for Jean Tatlock, though he married the tempestuous Kitty Harrison—both were members of the Communist Party—and was rumored to have had a scandalous affair with the brilliant Ruth Sherman Tolman, ten years his senior and the wife of another celebrated physicist. Although each were connected through their relationship to Oppenheimer, their experiences reflect important changes in the lives of American women in the 20th century: the conflict between career and marriage; the need for a woman to define herself independently; experimentation with sexuality; and the growth of career opportunities.

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The books we picked & why

Book cover of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

Shirley Streshinsky and Patricia Klaus Why did I love this book?

This is a meticulously researched book, a deserving Pulitzer Prize winner; Christopher Nolan consulted it for his movie Oppenheimer due out this summer.

Shirley met Marty Sherwin in Washington D.C. in the fall of 2006 when she was beginning the research on what would become our book. Marty was beginning to pack up the files on Prometheus to give to the Library of Congress. He invited both Patricia and Shirley to his home and made a place for them to work at his dining room table.

By Kai Bird, Martin J. Sherwin,

Why should I read it?

11 authors picked American Prometheus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Physicist and polymath, 'father of the atom bomb' J. Robert Oppenheimer was the most famous scientist of his generation. Already a notable young physicist before WWII, during the race to split the atom, 'Oppie' galvanized an extraordinary team of international scientists while keeping the FBI at bay. As the man who more than any other inaugurated the atomic age, he became one of the iconic figures of the last century, the embodiment of his own observation that 'physicists have known sin'.

Years later, haunted by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer became a staunch opponent of plans to develop the hydrogen bomb.…


Book cover of Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma

Shirley Streshinsky and Patricia Klaus Why did I love this book?

As both a physicist and an established writer on scientific subjects, and having been at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton with Oppenheimer for two years, Jeremy Bernstein was perfectly positioned to write this book.

Combining history and personal observation, in the style of the profiles he wrote for New Yorker magazine, this book is imminently readable.

By Jeremy Bernstein,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Oppenheimer as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As a former colleague of Oppenheimer's, Jeremy Bernstein has written a biographical profile that is both personal and historical, bringing the reader close to the life and workings of an extraordinary and controversial man. Without Oppenheimer's totally remarkable leadership at Los Alamos, the atomic bomb would not have happened, and World War II would have ended very differently. Bernstein, combining the grace of a New Yorker writer with the insight of a theoretical physicist, draws a fine and fascinating portrait. -Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.


Book cover of Uncommon Sense

Shirley Streshinsky and Patricia Klaus Why did I love this book?

This is a collection of Oppenheimer’s essays and speeches, a good thing to read to get a sense of the man himself, how he thinks, how he handles language.

How he struggles to suggest how civilization might begin to cope with the reality that new weapons now exist capable of annihilating civilization... “unless we show,” he says, ”urged by our own example and conviction, that we regard nuclear armament as a transitory, dangerous and degrading phase of the world’s history.”

He said that forty years ago, and counting.

By J Robert Oppenheimer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Uncommon Sense as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

J. Robert Oppenheimer, a leading physicist in the Manhattan Project, recognized that scientific inquiry and discovery could no longer be separated from their effect on political decision-making, social responsibility, and human endeavor in general. He openly addressed issues of common concern and as a scientist accepted the responsibility brought about by nuclear physics and the atom bomb. In this collection of essays and speeches, Oppenheimer discusses the shift in scientific awareness and its impact on education, the question of openness in a society forced to keep secrets, the conflict between individual concerns and public and political necessity, the future of…


Book cover of Heisenberg's War: The Secret History Of The German Bomb

Shirley Streshinsky and Patricia Klaus Why did I love this book?

As the world slid into WWII, the German Werner Heisenberg was considered by other scientists to be the world’s greatest practicing physicist.

He was, in fact, a major reason that those at Los Alamos who knew him, believed that with Heisenberg leading an effort to produce an atom bomb, Germany might already be ahead in the race. And if they got there first, Hitler could very well win the war. As it turned out, there was no race, Germany’s effort was pathetic.

If Power’s attempt to acquit Heisenberg by suggesting he had deliberately held back is not quite successful, he does cover many different aspects of that time and struggle, from both sides.  It is possible to open at random this big fat book (it runs to 600 pages) and find oneself instantly absorbed in this early, eager, effort to tell the whole story. 

By Thomas Powers,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Heisenberg's War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the last secrets of World War II is why the Germans failed to build an atomic bomb. Germany was the birthplace of modern physics it possessed the raw materials and the industrial base and it commanded key intellectual resources. What happened?In Heisenberg's War , Thomas Powers tells of the interplay between science and espionage, morality and military necessity, and paranoia and cool logic that marked the German bomb program and the Allied response to it. On the basis of dozens of interviews and years of intensive research, Powers concludes that Werner Heisenberg, who was the leading figure in…


Book cover of The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Shirley Streshinsky and Patricia Klaus Why did I love this book?

Published nineteen years before American Prometheus, this book also won a Pulitzer Prize.

A self-taught scientific writer, Rhodes is able to weave vivid character portrayals into the narrative of the science behind the bomb, turning a complex story into fascinating reading. Over several lunches with Patricia, Rhodes described Oppenheimer as someone who could antagonize and amuse at the same time.

She found the writer’s psychological  insights especially revealing. This is a book to be read and re-read.

By Richard Rhodes,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Making of the Atomic Bomb as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With a brand new introduction from the author, this is the complete story of how the bomb was developed. It is told in rich, human, political, and scientific detail, from the turn-of-the-century discovery of the vast energy locked inside the atom to the dropping of the first bombs on Japan. Few great discoveries have evolved so swiftly -- or have been so misunderstood. From the theoretical discussions of nuclear energy to the bright glare of Trinity there was a span of hardly more than twenty-five years. What began as merely an interesting speculative problem in physics grew into the Manhattan…


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Ambidextrous: The Secret Lives of Children

By Felice Picano,

Book cover of Ambidextrous: The Secret Lives of Children

Felice Picano Author Of Six Strange Stories and an Essay on H.P. Lovecraft

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author

Felice's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Bold, funny, and shockingly honest, Ambidextrous is like no other memoir of 1950s urban childhood.

Picano appears to his parents and siblings to be a happy, cheerful eleven-year-old possessed of the remarkable talent of being able to draw beautifully and write fluently with either hand. But then he runs into the mindless bigotry of a middle school teacher who insists that left-handedness is "wrong," and his idyllic world falls apart.

He uncovers the insatiable appetites of a trio of neighboring sisters, falls for another boy with a glue-sniffing habit, and discovers the hidden world of adult desire and hypocrisy. Picano…

Ambidextrous: The Secret Lives of Children

By Felice Picano,

What is this book about?

Bold, funny, and shockingly honest, Ambidextrous is like no other memoir of 1950s urban childhood. Picano appears to his parents and siblings to be a happy, cheerful eleven-year-old, possessed of the remarkable talent of being able to draw beautifully and write fluently with either hand. But then he runs into the mindless bigotry of a middle school teacher who insists that left-handedness is "wrong," and his idyllic world falls apart. He uncovers the insatiable appetites of a trio of neighboring sisters, falls for another boy with a glue-sniffing habit, and discovers the hidden world of adult desire and hypocrisy. Picano…


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