In this first chapter of American Prometheus, we meet the parents of Robert J. Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic era. Robert’s father Julius was a German-born clothier; his mother Ella, an American artist. Oppenheimer had a privileged upbringing in New York City, in a home filled with piano lessons and paintings by the likes of Picasso, Rembrandt, Renoir, and Van Gogh. “Excellence and purpose” were considered words to live by.

It was no accident that the young boy who would become known as the father of the atomic era was reared in a culture that valued independent inquiry, empirical exploration and the free-thinking mind—in short, the values of science. And yet, it was the irony of Robert Oppenheimer’s odyssey that a life devoted to social justice, rationality and science would become a metaphor for mass death beneath a mushroom cloud.

Because young Robert himself was frequently ill as a child, Ella became overly protective. Fearing germs, she kept Robert apart from other children. He was never allowed to buy food from street vendors, and instead of taking him to get a haircut in a barber shop Ella had a barber come to the apartment.