Jeremy Bernstein is an accomplished physicist and a talented writer. In the afterword to The Life It Brings, his 1987 account of his upbringing and career as a physicist, he commented that once he began to write professionally, his pieces "became a kind of running autobiography." The scientific and literary components of his life have complemented each other, resulting in informative and insightful scientific profiles enriched by autobiographical elements.
We learn from the preface to Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma that Bernstein had wanted to write a profile of J. Robert Oppenheimer for The New Yorker in the 1960s but felt unable to do so, being in a sense too close to his subject. Bernstein explains that the space of four decades has now given him the distance he needs. This book, like the profiles he did write for that magazine, is a succinct, revealing and very readable account of a scientist's life and accomplishments; it is not meant, he says, to be a "definitive" biography.
The book has only about 200 pages of text, and more than a third of them are devoted to the 1954 "trial" that revoked Oppenheimer's security clearance. His family background and upbringing, his education at the Ethical Culture School, Harvard, Cambridge and Göttingen, and his postdoctoral fellowships with Paul Ehrenfest in Leyden and Wolfgang Pauli in Zurich are all concisely presented, and this material is enriched by insightful observations and new information. For example, Bernstein believes that Oppenheimer's proclivity for making acerbic remarks during seminars stemmed from his emulation of Pauli, who was famous for his sarcasm.
[read the full Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma review in printer-friendly format at the American Scientist]