In Greek mythology, Prometheus was the god of fire, a troublemaker of sorts who defied the other gods by giving fire to mere mortals. In doing so, he imparted a technology that would forever change the world.
In the book American Prometheus, authors Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin borrow that analogy to describe the life, achievements and regrets of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the iconic physicist who led the effort to invent the atomic bomb. Winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for biography, the book is the basis for the 2023 summer blockbuster movie Oppenheimer.
It is also portfolio manager Jody Jonsson’s pick for our new book review series. A previous article highlighting book selections by Capital Group’s investment team — which you can read here — was so popular that we’ve decided to make it a regular column, featuring one book at a time.
Jonsson, who also serves as Vice Chair of Capital Group, read American Prometheus after seeing the movie and becoming fascinated with Oppenheimer’s story. A few years earlier she had visited Los Alamos, where Oppenheimer’s team had worked, and read another book about the Manhattan Project. Her father, who was also a physicist, likely attended lectures by Oppenheimer when he studied at Princeton University, so the movie evoked memories which were revived even more so by the book.
“I really couldn’t put it down,” Jonsson says. “It’s very well written, impeccably researched and provides meaningful insight into not only Oppenheimer, but also the characters around him who worked on the Manhattan Project” from 1942 to 1945.
Although the goal of the Manhattan Project was starkly different, there are parallels, Jonsson believes, between that endeavour and the cooperative work that happens every day at a large organization such as our own.
“What I find so amazing is how Oppenheimer convinced this team of scientists to work together,” she explains. “He had these very temperamental people, some with rather large egos, but they were all brilliant. He brought them to Los Alamos, creating that city out of nothing, and got them to work as one cohesive team. I'm just fascinated by the lessons about leadership and motivation in that story.”
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