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J. Robert Oppenheimer - father of the atomic bombJ. Robert Oppenheimer - father of the atomic bomb

J. Robert Oppenheimer – father of the atomic bomb

J. Robert Oppenheimer
Picture taken in 1954 of American nuclear scientist Robert Oppenheimer. (Photo: AFP)

As World War II erupted and the United States became involved, Oppenheimer is known for changing the course of human history with the implication spanning across centuries.

“I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed
form and says, now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” – Oppenheimer in a television interview in 1965, years after his creation ended the second World War.

Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer has been the subject of extensive discussion, captivating audiences with his life story, intellectual prowess, refined demeanor, leadership at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, political affiliations, postwar military involvement, and untimely demise from cancer. Born as Julius Robert Oppenheimer on April 22, 1904, in New York City, he grew up in a Manhattan apartment adorned with exquisite paintings by van Gogh, Cézanne, and Gauguin. His father, Julius Oppenheimer, a German immigrant, worked in his family’s textile importing business, while his mother, Ella Friedman, came from a long-established New York family and pursued painting. Oppenheimer’s younger brother, Frank, would also embark on a career in physics.

J. Robert Oppenheimer - father of the atomic bomb
J. Robert Oppenheimer – father of the atomic bomb

Upon graduating at the top of his class from the Ethical Culture School of New York in 1921, Oppenheimer pursued a multidisciplinary education at Harvard. He delved into mathematics, science, philosophy, Eastern religion, and French and English literature. Remarkably, he gained admission to graduate standing in physics during his first year as an undergraduate through independent study. It was during a thermodynamics course taught by Percy Bridgman, Higgins University Professor of Physics at Harvard, that Oppenheimer’s interest in experimental physics was ignited. Graduating summa cum laude in 1925, he then joined J. J. Thomson as a research assistant at Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory. However, Oppenheimer soon grew disenchanted with routine laboratory work, prompting him to venture to the University of Göttingen in Germany to study quantum physics. There, he had the opportunity to meet and study under luminaries such as Max Born and Niels Bohr. In 1927, Oppenheimer earned his doctorate, and the same year, collaborated with Born on the development of the Born-Oppenheimer Approximation, focusing on the structure of molecules. He subsequently embarked on a journey across prestigious physics centers, including Harvard, the California Institute of Technology, Leyden, and Zurich. In 1929, he received teaching offers from both Caltech and the University of California, Berkeley. Accepting both positions, he split his time between Pasadena and Berkeley, mentoring a group of exceptionally talented young physics students.

Oppenheimer’s lectures left an indelible mark on the minds of experimental and theoretical physicists alike. The late physicist Hans Bethe (1906–2005), who would later collaborate with Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, noted, “His lectures were a great experience, for experimental as well as theoretical physicists. In addition to a superb literary style, he brought to them a degree of sophistication in physics previously unknown in the United States. Here was a man who obviously understood all the deep secrets of quantum mechanics, and yet made it clear that the most important questions were unanswered. His earnestness and deep involvement gave his research students the same sense of challenge. He never gave his students the easy and superficial answers but trained them to appreciate and work on the deep problems.”

In 1937, Oppenheimer inherited wealth following the death of his father, Julius Oppenheimer. In 1940, he married Katharine (Kitty) Puening Harrison, a biologist and divorcee whose second husband had lost his life during the Spanish Civil War. Together, they had two children, Peter and Katherine.

J. Robert Oppenheimer - father of the atomic bomb
J. Robert Oppenheimer – father of the atomic bomb

The advent of World War II disrupted the lives and work of numerous American physicists. In 1942, Oppenheimer was appointed to the Manhattan Project, a covert initiative aimed at developing an atomic bomb. ”

The project involved covert laboratories situated in undisclosed locations across the country, such as the University of Chicago, Oak Ridge in Tennessee, and Los Alamos in New Mexico. Oppenheimer played a crucial role in overseeing the establishment of the Los Alamos laboratory, where he assembled a team of exceptional physicists to tackle the challenge of developing an atomic bomb. Due to his leadership in this endeavor, Oppenheimer is often hailed as the “father” of the atomic bomb.

After the war, the government formed the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to succeed the Manhattan Project, tasking it with the supervision of all atomic research and development within the United States. As the Chairman of the General Advisory Committee, Oppenheimer expressed his opposition to the development of the hydrogen bomb, also known as the “Super Bomb,” which possessed a destructive power thousands of times greater than the atomic bomb. Given the Cold War context, marked by a power struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, Oppenheimer’s stance stirred controversy.

J. Robert Oppenheimer - father of the atomic bomb
J. Robert Oppenheimer – father of the atomic bomb

During the 1950s, when Oppenheimer served as the Director of the Institute, Washington, D.C. was swept up in anti-Communist hysteria spearheaded by conservative Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. McCarthy and fervent anti-Communist crusaders dedicated themselves to unearthing Communist spies in all spheres of American life. Oppenheimer found himself entangled in a high-profile security investigation that divided the intellectual and scientific community. In 1953, he was denied security clearance and lost his position with the AEC, facing closed doors where once they had been open. Bethe recollected, “Oppenheimer took the outcome of the security hearing very quietly, but he was a changed person; much of his previous spirit and liveliness had left him.”

Oppenheimer held genuine concern for the public’s limited scientific comprehension and the challenges of effectively conveying scientific discoveries and the exhilaration of the creative process to educated laypeople. As a result, he penned several popular science essays. In 1953, he delivered the Reith Lectures on the BBC, later published as “Science and the Common Understanding.”

In April 1962, the U.S. Government sought to rectify the mistreatment Oppenheimer endured during the McCarthy era, as President Kennedy invited him to a White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners. In 1963, President Johnson bestowed upon Oppenheimer the Fermi Award, the highest honor granted by the AEC.

Oppenheimer succumbed to throat cancer on February 18, 1967.

Numerous plays have been written about Oppenheimer, and American composer John Adams (known for “Nixon in China”) composed an opera commissioned by the San Francisco Opera titled “Doctor Atomic,” which premiered in September 2005. A wealth of books delve into Oppenheimer’s life, including recent works like “J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Brain Behind the Bomb” (Inventors Who Changed the World) by Glenn Scherer and Marty Fletcher (Myreportlinks.com, 2007) and “Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project: Insights into J. Robert Oppenheimer, ‘Father of the Atomic Bomb'” by Cynthia C. Kelly (World Scientific Publishing Company, 2006).

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