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Few people with the benefit of hindsight would accept what the New York Times once called “the most awesome mission ever assigned to a private citizen—the mission to open the door to the atomic age.” But in the early ’40s, when the United States was racing to develop a workable weapon of mass destruction before the Nazis did, Berkeley physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer had few reservations about heading the laboratory, Los Alamos, that ultimately produced the atomic bomb. In fact, as Jennet Conant notes in 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos, Oppenheimer was more than eager for the opportunity. Though “Oppie,” as the book sometimes refers to him, is certainly the central figure, Palace is also the story of Dorothy McKibbin, the young widow who was “the gatekeeper” of the Los Alamos community—I guess that makes Oppenheimer the keymaster—and its other inhabitants, among whom were such luminaries as Enrico Fermi and Robert Serber and their families. (Insert “nuclear family” joke here.) But history judged Oppie harshly: The backbiting paranoia of the early Cold War led to the rescinding of his security clearance in 1954. Conant speaks at 7:30 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, 3040 M St. NW. Free. (202) 965-9880. (Chris Hagan)