Kai Bird has just returned from the Jaipur Literature Festival, where he signed copies of his biography of Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, to hundreds of young Indians. A breath of fresh air for a book published almost twenty years ago.

He owes this second youth to the resounding success of Oppenheimer, the blockbuster that Christopher Nolan based on his biography of the scientist. Entitled Robert Oppenheimer: Triumph and tragedy of a genius, it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. “It’s really an astonishing phenomenon,” historian Kai Bird told AFP. “I’m probably the luckiest biographer on the planet.”

Christopher Nolan’s film was the fourth attempt to adapt this 720-page book dedicated to Oppenheimer, a scientist first acclaimed as a hero before being publicly humiliated a few years later. Previous attempts had failed to convince Hollywood studio bosses: they found the subject too difficult, too controversial or too complicated, according to Kai Bird. “Looking back, I’m happy about it, because then Nolan came along. And he produced something that is quite special, in my opinion,” continues the biographer, co-author of the book with Martin J. Sherwin.

Even with a duration of three hours, the film cannot restore the entirety of a work conceived over 25 years, between the necessary research and writing. The biography looks back in particular on Oppenheimer’s wealthy childhood, with nannies and chauffeurs in a luxurious New York apartment decorated with works by Picasso, Cézanne and Van Gogh. The book also addresses the scientist’s multiple crises and suicidal thoughts during his twenties. And the end of his life, spent in a small house on the beach in the Caribbean. But Kai Bird welcomes this adaptation, which was able to focus on the “topicality” of the character and his influence on our times. “The younger generation sees the film and realizes that they and their parents have become too complacent with regard to the atomic bomb,” he observes.

Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin again spoke of the “real threat” of nuclear war linked to his invasion of Ukraine. The biographer also believes that the lack of scientists ready to intervene in the public debate, in an era shaken by major technological changes such as the development of artificial intelligence, is a direct consequence of the treatment reserved in the 1950s for Oppenheimer, discredited because of his communist sympathies.

Also read: For American victims of nuclear tests, Oppenheimer does not sufficiently recognize their suffering

He “was humiliated and destroyed as a public intellectual, precisely because he used his scientific expertise to speak out on nuclear proliferation,” recalls the biographer. “This sends a message to scientists everywhere: ‘Be careful not to step outside your narrow area of ​​expertise’.”

The writer also notes that the hunt for communists led by McCarthyism more than 70 years ago structures current public life in an ultra-polarized America even more than we think. Donald Trump’s mentor, lawyer Roy Cohn, was the main advisor to Senator Joseph McCarthy, he recalls. “There is therefore a direct link between the two,” he believes.

On Sunday, Kai Bird and his wife will attend the Oscars ceremony in Hollywood. His tuxedo is already ready. They will support Oppenheimer, ultra-favorite given his 13 nominations, with particular attention to the category of best adaptation. Whatever happens, the film has already allowed him to live out his dream scenario. On the set in New Mexico, he was able to meet Cillian Murphy, who plays the scientist. “When he approached, I couldn’t resist,” confides the biographer. “I shouted, ‘Oh, Dr. Oppenheimer, I’ve been waiting to meet you for decades.’ The scientist “gave us the atomic age” and “he symbolizes this era in which we still live,” he comments. “In this sense, he is the most important man who ever lived.”