Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author to Speak at W&J

Created: November 5, 2014
Last Updated: July 17, 2020

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WASHINGTON, PA (Nov. 3, 2014) – Pulitzer Prize-winning author Martin Sherwin will present a lecture on the life of American theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer on Nov. 6 at 6 p.m. in Room 100 of Dieter-Porter Hall on the Washington & Jefferson (W&J) College campus. The lecture is free and open to the public.

Sherwin, with Kai Bird, is the author of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The book examines the life and unprecedented career of the man known as the “father of the atomic bomb,” including Oppenheimer’s personal moral struggle with his work. The book won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for biography, the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography, and the English Speaking Union Book Award.

Oppenheimer’s career is particularly important for college students to study as they enter their own careers, said Sherwin, who is currently a University Professor of History at George Mason University.

“Physics students will be better physicists if they learn both the scientific and social-political history of physics,” he said. “In addition, they will be better human beings or, at the least, better citizens, if they are prepared…to deal with the moral challenges they may confront in their careers.”

Sherwin’s talk is a joint effort of the W&J departments of History and Physics, and is made possible through support from the Office of Academic Affairs and the College’s NEH Grant.

Oppenheimer established the dominant American school of theoretical physics during the 1930s. He was the civilian director of the ultra-secret nuclear weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, NM that produced the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan during World War II.

Born in New York City in 1904 and educated at Harvard, Cambridge, and Göttingen, Oppenheimer was, with Einstein, one of the most famous scientists in the world in the 1940s and early 1950s. His duties during the war included selecting precisely where and how atomic bombs would be released over Japan. However, he later anguished over this role and after the war, he strenuously opposed further development of nuclear weapons, including the hydrogen bomb.

He was known to be charismatic, brilliant, and extraordinarily complex, but his arrogance and quick intellect made him bitter enemies in Washington during the 1950s. His loyalty to the United States was questioned despite a lack of evidence against him, and he was ultimately stripped of his security clearance. He died in 1967 at the age of 62.

“Oppenheimer confronted the universal ethical dilemmas that scientists have always confronted and will continue to confront forever,” Sherwin said. “Is it ethical to pursue all knowledge, even destructive knowledge? Should scientists participate in public policy debates, or should they stick to their science? Should scientists demand the right to determine how their discoveries are used? Was creating nuclear weapons immoral, or perhaps a war crime?”

More information about Oppenheimer’s life and career are available in American Experience: The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a PBS documentary in which Sherwin is interviewed.

 

Martin Sherwin is a University Professor of History at George Mason University. Prior to moving to GMU, he was the Walter S. Dickson Professor of English and American History at Tufts University for 27 years. In addition to winning a Pulitzer, American Prometheus was a Washington Post and Boston Globe Best Seller. It was selected as one of Time Magazine‘s 6 best non-fiction books of 2005, and the New York Times listed it as one of the 50 best non-fiction books of the year.

About Washington & Jefferson College

Washington & Jefferson College, located in Washington, Pa., is a selective liberal arts college founded in 1781. Committed to providing each of its students with the highest-quality undergraduate education available, W&J offers a traditional arts and sciences curriculum emphasizing interdisciplinary study and independent study work.

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