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'Oppenheimer' leaves puzzle still unsolved

The career of J. Robert Oppenheimer, ''the father of the atomic bomb'' who fought against the hydrogen bomb, is one of the most puzzling mysteries of the nuclear-bomb era.

Perhaps the solution lies not in separating Dr. Oppenheimer's career from his personal life, but, as in the case of any human being, in putting the two parts together and studying them as a whole. Oppenheimer (PBS, starts Tuesday for seven consecutive Tuesdays, 9-10 p.m., check local listings)m does just that. It begins with Mr. Oppenheimer's days as a young college professor at the University of California at Berkeley and proceeds through the Los Alamos period, ending with the infamous 1953 hearing in which he was branded a security risk.

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In between, writer Peter Prince, director Barry Davis, and actor Sam Waterston create the tragic image of an intellectual, torn between conscience and reality, weakness and strength. The initial episode overflows with the enthusiasm and sometimes vulgarity of campus youth, but manages to get across the feeling of transition in the air at the time. Oppenheimer's human passions, as well as his scientific passions, are examined in detail. For some viewers the scientific parts may be a minicourse in nuclear physics.

From there on, ''Oppenheimer'' embraces all the seriocomic ambivalence of its subject matter -- not only Oppenheimer, but the times in which the nuclear discoveries emerged.

''Oppenheimer'' was produced as part of the American Playhouse consortium series by BBC/WGBH-Boston. It is just a bit ironic that Britain, which still has so much trouble understanding its own atomic-spy scandals, has managed to come up with a miniseries that investigates American motivation so skillfully, so understandingly.

''Oppenheimer'' is a kind of intellectual electronic game -- it gives you all the clues, reveals all the strengths and weaknesses of its main character, takes not quite broad enough a look at the world outside Los Alamos, and then throws the whole explosive package at the viewer. Was Oppenheimer just a scientist with a martyr complex? Was he a borderline traitor who seriously considered turning over America's atomic secrets to the Russians? Was he a conscience-stricken scientist who abhorred what he had wrought? Or was he simply a complex human being who had moments in which he considered what he could do to stop the deadly race toward self-destruction of our society?

This ''Oppenheimer electronic game'' seems to be installed in a fantastic Disneyland-Oppenheimerland theme park in which viewers will find themselves alternately laughing, thrilling, perhaps even weeping as they play the game. And , in the long run, wondering what part of the enthralling reality is fantasy.

If we can solve the Oppenheimer puzzle, we will know a great deal more about ourselves and whether we dare entrust the future of our own civilization to a few ''wise'' men. What is most disturbing -- and in a way encouraging -- about ''Oppenheimer'' is that, by design, it poses most of the questions, but suggests only a few of the answers. You, the viewer-citizen, are left to finish the game on your own.

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