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Oppenheimer Reading List

What to read if you enjoyed the movie

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • July 27, 2023

According to the New York Times, Christopher Nolan's "staggering" new film about J. Robert Oppenheimer, starring Cillian Murphy, "brilliantly charts the turbulent life of the American theoretical physicist who helped research and develop the two atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II."

Featuring a glittering star-studded cast, the movie provides an opportunity for viewers to learn about The Manhattan Project, a World War II endeavor that produced the world's first nuclear weapons. The film is based on American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.

More Oppenheimer food for thought

Here are twelve more books and one movie that offer context and understanding to deepen your experience of Nolan's brilliant new film.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes

Another Pulitzer Prize winner, this definitive history of nuclear weapons provides a panoramic backdrop for Oppenheimer's story. The sweeping account begins in the 19th century, with the discovery of nuclear fission, and continues through World War Two and the Americans' race to beat the Nazis.

Enola Gay: The Bombing of Hiroshima by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts

In researching this important chronicle of the bombing of Hiroshima, the award-winning authors drew from extensive interviews with participants on both sides, including surviving Enola Gay crew members, scientists involved in the creation of the bombs, Japanese officers and citizens, and more.

Hiroshima by John Hersey

Hear the story of the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, from the point of view of six people who survived the cataclysmic event—a clerk, a widowed seamstress, a physician, a Methodist minister, a young surgeon, and a German Catholic priest.

The Bastard Brigade by Sam Kean

In the middle of building an atomic bomb, the leaders of the Manhattan Project were alarmed to learn that Nazi Germany was far outpacing them. So they assembled a rough and motley crew of genius scientists and spies to sabotage Hitler's efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project by General Leslie M. Groves

As the officer in charge of what was to be the most ambitious, expensive engineering feat in history, it was Groves (portrayed in Oppenheimer by Matt Damon) who hired Oppenheimer and saw to it that nothing interfered with the project. This is his account of the enormous undertaking.

The General and the Genius: Groves and Oppenheimer—The Unlikely Partnership that Built the Atom Bomb by James Kunetka

Two ambitious men. One historic mission. With a blinding flash in the New Mexico desert in the summer of 1945, the world was changed forever. This dual biography of Groves and Oppenheimer delves into their disparate backgrounds with a focus on their extraordinary three-year collaboration.

Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick

From the making of the atomic bomb to a Nobel Prize-winning theory of quantum electrodynamics, physicist Richard Feynman was often regarded not so much a genius as he was a full-blown magician. This is the biography of the charismatic, ebullient man who worked directly under Oppenheimer.

109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos by Jennet Conant

This extraordinary story offers a glimpse into the lives of the thousands of people who were sequestered in the top-secret city of Los Alamos, New Mexico, for 27 intense months during the Manhattan Project. The account is authored by the granddaughter of a chemist involved in the project.

The Day the Sun Rose Twice: The Story of the Trinity Site Nuclear Explosion, July 16, 1945 by Ferenc Morton Szasz

Just before dawn on July 16, 1945, the world's first nuclear bomb was detonated at Trinity Site in an isolated stretch of the central New Mexico desert. This is the fascinating account of the events leading up to this seminal event, its aftermath, and the characters and roles of the people involved.

Essays in Humanism by Albert Einstein

Nuclear proliferation, Zionism, and the global economy are just a few of the topics the great physicist (and noted pacifist) discusses in this collection of essays from between 1931 and 1950. Written with a clear voice and a thoughtful perspective, Einstein reflects on the effects of science, economics, and politics in daily life.

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win WWII by Denise Kiernan

At the height of the war, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was home to 75,000 residents, mainly young women. The city used more electricity than New York City, yet it was shrouded in such secrecy to not appear on any map. Most of the residents didn't even know what they were working for. There's also a historical novel about it.

Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons by Joseph Cirincione

This engaging text offers an even-handed look at the history of nuclear proliferation and an optimistic vision of its future. Surveying a wide range of critical perspectives, the book also outlines a set of tools to prevent the dire consequences of future nuclear attacks.

Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Supposedly director Stanley Kubrick intended to write a serious script about an accidental launch of nuclear missiles, but after his research yielded one absurd fact after another, he hit upon the idea of a dark comedy instead. The result is this hilarious satire about a trigger-happy Air Force General.

Oppenheimer's own reading list

In 1963, almost two decades after the atomic bombs dropped and one decade after his infamous trial, J. Robert Oppenheimer gave an interview to The Christian Century magazine. When asked which books shaped his "vocational attitude" and "philosophy on life" these were some of the revealing titles on his list:

  • Les Fleurs du Mal—Oppenheimer was known to sit up late at night in the base camp mess hall, drinking coffee and smoking as he read Charles Baudelaire's lyric poetry.
  • The Waste Land—"I will show you fear in a handful of dust" S. Eliot's dark, modernist masterpiece was another of his favorites.
  • The Divine ComedyDante Alighieri examined questions of faith, desire, and enlightenment in his foundational epic poem.
  • The Bhagavad-Gita—Though Oppenheimer never openly identified as Hindu, he treasured his well-worn copy of the 700-verse scripture and regularly quoted it.
  • HamletWilliam Shakespeare's revenge tragedy plays on themes and philosophical ideas that were of interest to the physicist.

If you enjoyed Oppenheimer and want to learn more, here's your chance to beef up your knowledge of this fascinating chapter from history.

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