PERSONAL: Married; children: one son.
CAREER: Author and freelance journalist.
109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor to periodicals, including Vanity Fair, Esquire, Gentleman's Quarterly, Newsweek, and New York Times.
SIDELIGHTS: Author and journalist Jennet Conant has investigated scientific achievements during World War II in two separate book-length works. Her best-selling Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II examines the little-known life and contributions of amateur scientist and Wall Street investment banker Alfred Lee Loomis. Made fabulously wealthy by his investments, Loomis retired in 1930 to pursue a life of science, his first love. He converted a mansion in Tuxedo Park, an elite neighborhood north of New York City, into a giant, private research laboratory and furnished it with state-of-the-art equipment. Here he attracted such stellar scientists as Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, and Niels Bohr, and conducted experiments on sound, brain waves, and time measurement. With the advent of World War II, Loomis built a research facility at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and it was there that radar was perfected and applied to the allied war effort. Loomis was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Merit for his efforts. Part of the inspiration for Conant's biography was the association of Loomis with the journalist's own grandfather, James B. Conant, president of Harvard University from 1933 to 1953 and a personal friend of Loomis. One of her great uncles also worked in Loomis's laboratory for many years. Conant was able to draw, in part, from family correspondence to help her fill out the picture of the secretive investment banker and amateur scientist.
Reviewers and readers appreciated the resulting book. A contributor for Publishers Weekly praised Conant's "spare, unobtrusive prose and well-paced storytelling" in this "well-researched bio." More praise came from a critic for Kirkus Reviews, who found the same book "remarkable and remarkably told." Vanessa Bush, writing in Booklist, called Conant's first book "a fascinating, never-before-told bit of American history." Otis Port, writing for Business Weekly, declared the book a "must-read for fans of World War II history," adding that "it will captivate students of science and technology." Kevin Kilty, writing for the Society of Amateur Scientists Web site, complained that the book is full of unscientific, "loopy statements," and found it generally "disappointing," but a reviewer for Science News thought the book presents a "riveting story."
Conant was again inspired by family connections to write 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos. Her grandfather, in addition to heading Harvard University, was also the administrator of the Manhattan Project, the secret project to build the atomic bomb. In her book, as a contributor for Publishers Weekly noted, Conant "offers a human look at the brilliant physicists" who set up shop in New Mexico under the cover of military secrecy to develop the conceptual and theoretical framework that made the bomb possible. The book is told through the eyes of Dorothy McKibben, the secretary to Robert Oppenheimer and in charge of the office at 109 East Palace in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where passes to Los Alamos and other security and organizational tasks were handled. The book focuses on the private lives of the many physicists and their families who gathered in New Mexico, leaving behind civilian careers and lives, with the scientist Oppenheimer at the center of it all. A contributor for Publishers Weekly noted that Conant "brings to life the colorful, eccentric town" of Los Alamos that was constructed virtually overnight. A Kirkus Reviews critic also had a positive assessment of this book, calling it a "vividly told" and "spellbinding account." For Richard Lacayo, writing in Time magazine, 109 East Palace is "an entertaining picture of day-to-day life in a deadly serious wartime enclave," and John Carey, writing in Business Week, dubbed the same work "vivid."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, May 15, 2002, Vanessa Bush, review of Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II, p. 1561.
Business Week, August 5, 2002, Otis Port, "A Radar Pioneer Who Stayed off the Screen," review of Tuxedo Park, p. 22; June 30, 2003, Hardy Green, review of Tuxedo Park, p. 20; May 23, 2005, John Carey, "The Family That Built the Bomb," review of 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos, p. 28.
Issues in Science and Technology, fall, 2002, Richard E. Bissell, review of Tuxedo Park, p. 92.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2002, review of Tuxedo Park, p. 378; March 15, 2005, review of 109 East Palace, p. 328.
Library Journal, May 1, 2002, Michael F. Russo, review of Tuxedo Park, p. 116; June 1, 2005, Greg Sapp, review of 109 East Palace, p. 168.
Parameters, winter, 2003, Arthur C. Winn, review of Tuxedo Park, p. 177.
Publishers Weekly, April 15, 2002, review of Tuxedo Park, p. 55; March 7, 2005, review of 109 East Palace, p. 59.
Science News, May 24, 2003, review of Tuxedo Park, p. 335.
Time, May 9, 2005, Richard Lacayo, "Atomic Meltdown," review of 109 East Palace, p. 68.
Society for Amateur Scientists Web site, http://www.sas.org/ (September 16, 2005), Kevin Kilty, "An Amateur Scientist at War," review of Tuxedo Park.