SFWRITER.COM > Novels > The Oppenheimer Alternative > Research
How I Did Research for
The Oppenheimer Alternative
Robert J. Sawyer
I have often said that I write my novels to support my
Never has this been more true than in the case of my
The Oppenheimer Alternative.
For my novels set in the future, no one can really gainsay my
predictions until the calendar catches up with them. Likewise,
when a reader remarked of Caitlin Decter, the main character of
my WWW trilogy,
"I don't think Caitlin would do
that," I was able to truthfully rebut, "Actually, I am the
world's foremost expert on Caitlin, and I can assure you she
absolutely would have."
The Oppenheimer Alternative,
in no way am I the world's foremost expert on its title
character, the tortured physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, nor on
any of the other physicists who people the novel's pages,
including Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, I.I. Rabi, Kurt
Gödel, or Richard Feynman. For most of them, definitive
biographies have already been written and many of them gifted us
with their autobiographies as well.
So, the first thing I had to do was become extremely conversant
with the existing nonfiction works about these storied
personalities. I started with the major works Richard
Rhodes's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of the Atomic
Bomb and Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin's American
Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert
Oppenheimer, also a Pulitzer Prize winner.
But I knew I had to go way beyond just those two works. In total
I ended up acquiring 133 books as research for my novel. Most I
bought new (albeit as many as I could as ebooks more on that
in a moment), but a large number of the crucial titles are long
out of print. I normally don't buy used books as an author
myself, I'm loath to do a colleague out of their well-deserved
royalties but in this case, there was little choice.
[Click on any of the pictures below for a larger version.]
For those, the great Canadian company
headquartered in Victoria, came to the rescue. Originally the
"Advanced Book Exchange," AbeBooks is the go-to place on the
Internet for used and collectible copies of out-of-print works
(and, yes, you can find in-print work there, too); most used book
listings on Amazon are taken from AbeBooks, and there's usually a
better assortment to be found on the later.
I was an early adopter
of ebook technology and do most of my
reading that way, but for research purposes, getting ebooks is
particularly helpful. I took all 100+ ebooks I'd purchased
related to The Oppenheimer
Alternative, stripped them of their digital-rights
management, and used the free ebook-management software
to convert them from their native format to
plain text. (Actually, I don't use completely plain text. Calibre
offers three different text-conversion options: plain, MarkDown, or
Textile; I prefer Textile as it preserves as much of the original
formatting information as possible.)
Note that I only did this with books I'd actually legally
bought; please don't pirate or share in-copyright works. That
said, if you're a researcher like me and need to strip off DRM
for your personal use, get Calibre set up on your computer, then
Google the words "Apprentice Alf" and all will be revealed.
I spent thousands of dollars on research materials for The Oppenheimer Alternative;
the best of the books are listed in this
bibliography, which also
appears at the end of the novel.
Books that I had to acquire in hardcopy, of course, couldn't
initially be searched electronically. I came to greatly
appreciate a really well done index. Although electronic texts
are easily searchable, a search for "Kitty" (J. Robert
Oppenheimer's wife) will miss passages that refer to her as "Mrs.
Oppenheimer" or simply "his wife," or happen to employ her rarely
used full first name, "Katherine," but a proper index will flag all
those passages under a single index heading.
One of the great many reasons I continue to use
WordStar for DOS
is that it has excellent cross-file search capabilities. I
dumped all my text versions of ebooks into the same folder and
used WordStar's ProFinder companion program (written by
Jetson Industries for MicroPro, it shipped exclusively with
WordStar versions 5.0, 5.5, 6.0, and 7.0) to search through them
all in a matter of seconds.
One of the beauties of ProFinder is that it doesn't just
search for the term you type in; rather, it also searches for any
synonyms you've established for that term, by first consulting
its plain-text USERSYN.PF file. If you search on the first term
in a line, it'll search on all the
others in that line, too. Using the example above, I'd
established this synonym chain so that searching on Kitty would
find all the other versions I mentioned above:
Kitty,Mrs. Oppenheimer,Mrs Oppenheimer,Oppie's wife,Oppenheimer's wife,his wife,Katherine
(Note that this finds her regardless of whether a reference spells
her honorific the American way, with a period, or the British
At each search, ProFinder lets you turn on or off the
proffered synonyms, so if "his wife" was turning up too many
false positives, I just turned it off when my search
included books that weren't exclusively about J. Robert
Oppenheimer. (Click the picture for a bigger version, if you like.)
ProFinder allows for searches on up to three
terms (including optional synonym chains for each), and shows you
which files contain which ones. For instance, if I was
looking for references to the original choice of target for the
second atomic bombing, which was the city of Kokura, and also to Leo
Szilard's petition against any use of the bomb, I could quickly
find which works contained all the necessary terms, and look only
in them. Selecting a work opened the file for viewing with the
search terms highlighted and easy hot-key navigation between them;
one more keystroke, and the file would be opened for editing inside
Some books I only had in print versions but needed to
digitize so I could search inside them quickly.
For those, I have two different workflows.
If the book is one I still want to keep the print copy of, I use
CZUR Aura Book
Scanner (I have the original model, which has been
supplanted by the new Pro version). It scans books a
double page at a time, and
automatically compensates for the curvature of the pages in
toward the spine, producing fully flat scans.
And for those books whose physical copies I'm willing to
sacrifice, I cleave off their spines with my
which is specifically designed for that task.
Then I dump the separated pages in batches of fifty sheets into the
autofeeder of my Fujitsu SnapScan, which scans both sides
of a sheet simultaneously. (I have SnapScan model S1500, which I
acquired in 2014; there are even better models available now, of
No matter which scanning method I used, I either then export to
plain text or to PDF. If the latter, I then use the built in
OCR function in the full Adobe Acrobat Professional product to
searchable plain text on top of the scanned images. Acrobat
Professional also lets you index a collection of PDFs for easy
searching by keyword (although its search capabilities are
nowhere near as sophisticated as those of ProFinder,
written in 1988, has).
I also used Acrobat Professional's OCR abilities to produce searchable
versions of graphic PDF documents found on the web, such as the
scans of transcripts of Oppenheimer's security-clearance hearing.
I have a large collection of writerly reference works available on
my hard drive, all of the available from a handy toolbar I created
in my Windows taskbar. Many of these were originally CD-ROMs since turned into virtual discs,
from back in the days when such things were easily available. Some of the
Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate and Unabridged can
be subscribed to online, but I prefer the speed and many features of my disc-based
versions (and I still keep a Windows XP system on hand to run the complete
Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM (now virtualized), which won't run
at all under later operating systems).
Encyclopaedia Britannica, World Book Encyclopedia, and
Encarta Encyclopedia haven't been available on CD-ROM for years, and
so are not up to date, but they're still very useful for writing about historical figures and times.
Way down at the bottom of the menu above, you'll see that one of the thesauri is
Microsoft Word for DOS 5.5 from 1990, which (as my colleague
James Alan Gardner let me know) has one of the best electronic thesauruses ever
produced (although the one in my beloved WordStar for DOS,
licensed from Microlytics, is also excellent). And you'll see there are both the DOS and
Windows versions of Stephen Glazier's famed book Word Menu;
neither software version is still on the market, sadly.
Of course, I did lots of online research, too. My usual
web browser is Google Chrome, but I also have Firefox installed on my
computers with it set (via the extension LeechBlock) to only be able
to access Wikipedia, and I have
Firefox's default search engine (the one that's
consulted when you type something in the address bar) also set
When I wanted to concentrate, I'd often shut off Chrome's access
to the Internet (via the wonderful extension WasteNoTime), but this
let me still refer to Wikipedia in Firefox no matter what degree of lockdown I'd done in
Chrome without going down the rabbit hole of visiting other sites once I was
I populated Firefox's bookmarks bar with links to the entries
I most often had to return to, editing the article names to short versions,
so I could fit more of them on the bookmark bar: "Hearing" is the entry on the Oppenheimer
"Mars" is the subsection of the entry on the red planet about
"early telescope observations;"
"TMP" is the entry on the Manhattan Project; and so on:
Also of great assistance in my online researching: Pocket, a service
that lets you save articles from all over the web for reading later, while
letting you format them to your taste. Although there
are some competing services, Pocket is my read-later service of choice because it
not only lets me read articles on my computer and my phone but also on my
Kobo Clara HD ebook reader. There's a free version of Pocket, but
I pay for the premium version, which keeps the original versions of articles
(your "permanent library," as Pocket calls it) and allows full-text searching of
article contents. Here's a sampling of the articles I saved about Leo Szilard:
The action in The Oppenheimer Alternative
takes place over a period of thirty-one years, from 1936 to 1967. To
help keep track of the relative ages of the characters, and who was still alive as the
timeframe moved later, I created an Excel spreadsheet. Here's a portion of it:
I spent well over a year of full-time work researching
The Oppenheimer Alternative,
and am thrilled that the experts have given thumbs up to the
- Gregory Benford, physicist at UC Irvine, says: "The
feel and detail of the Manhattan Project figures is deep and well
done. I knew many of these physicists, and Sawyer nails them
- Perimeter Institute physicist Lee Smolin, the author of
The Trouble with Physics, agrees: "I know the history of
this period well and I'm one or two degrees of separation from
many of these people. Sawyer's portrayals ring true to me."
- And Dr. Doug Beason, former Associate Laboratory Director,
Los Alamos National Laboratory, adds that "The Oppenheimer
Alternative is incredibly realistic: the characters,
locations, the era, and even the science. I felt like I was back
in Los Alamos and I should know: I worked there!"
I thoroughly enjoyed writing
The Oppenheimer Alternative, in very
large measure because its subject matter was such a meaty topic to dive into.
Whatever I choose to write next will likely also take years, of which a
large part will be doing research. And that makes me happy.
More Good Reading
Astronomical reseach for The Oppenheimer Alternative:
More about The Oppenheimer Alternative
Rob's tips and tricks for doing research
More about WordStar for DOS
Robert J. Sawyer's awards and honors
What's a Rob Sawyer novel like?
HOME • MENU • TOP
Copyright © 1995-2020 by Robert J. Sawyer.