Born: April 22, 1904 New York
Married: Katherine Puening Harrison in 1940
Fields: Theoretical physics
Institutions: University of California, Berkeley, California Institute of Technology, Los Alamos Laboratory, Institute for Advanced Study.
Died: February 18 1967 Princeton, New Jersey
In the 1930s theoretical physics was a cerebral battlefield. Europe was in a scientific conflict with North America to construct an Atomic bomb. The science behind the splitting of the atom had been established in theory, now it was time to prove it in practice. Teams from Germany, Britain, and America worked in laboratories to test materials finally deciding on Uranium.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor saw the project given extra impetus with the creation of The Manhattan Project, a nondescript name for a project that would change the world utterly and forever. To head up this project they got a brilliant mind; that mind belonged to Julius Robert Oppenheimer.
Oppenheimer’s contribution to changing the face of modern warfare is unparalleled, but it also made himself to be one of the most controversial and divisive characters of the 20th century. Never has a scientist been more closely associated with a weapon system than he was with the development of the bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. His accolade of ‘The Father of the Atom bomb’ was a poisoned chalice he found hard to live with. He is quoted as having said during the first atomic bomb blast at Trinity in New Mexico on 16 July 1945, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’
Oppenheimer was born to a wealthy Jewish emigrant family and was educated at the Ethical Culture Society School. He was a brilliant student completing the third and fourth grades in one year. He entered Harvard University at the age of 18 and whilst there he took a course on thermodynamics taught by Percy Bridgman, which attracted him to experimental physics.
Early in his academic career peers noted in Oppenheimer an all-too-apparent self-destructive tendency. He would often chain smoke and go without food whilst concentrating on problems. On another occasion, while visiting Paris with his friend Francis Ferguson, Oppenheimer appeared depressed. In an attempt to cheer him up, Ferguson told his friend that he was marrying his girlfriend. Oppenheimer immediately jumped up and tried to strangle Ferguson. Oppenheimer’s depression plagued him to such an extent that he once told his brother, ‘I need physics more than friends.’
The study of theoretical physics consumed Oppenheimer. In 1926 he studied with the world renowned Max Born and met the likes of Werner Heisenberg, Pascual Jordan, Enrico Fermi, and Edward Teller. Oppenheimer’s life would change after a mild case of Tuberculosis when he met Nobel Prize winning experimental physicist Ernest O Lawrence and his cyclotron pioneers.
The 1930s saw him challenging the status quo and his activities were questioned by many in authority as being un-American and even Communist. His perceived links with Communism would plague his later career with clearances sometime being blocked by the authorities. He was also under regular surveillance by the FBI who added Oppenheimer to its Custodial Detention Index; persons who would be interned in prison during a national emergency.
President Roosevelt approved funding for atomic bomb research on 9 October 1941and Oppenheimer was recruited to work on the programme to study neutron calculations with the title of Coordinator of Rapid Rupture. All through the project the FBI kept up their surveillance, even following him on family outings.
But Oppenheimer’s brilliant mind was necessary for the Manhattan Project, so much so that Brigadier General Leslie R Groves Junior, the director of the Manhattan Project, wrote on 20 July 1943, ‘In accordance with my verbal directions of July 15, it is desired that clearance be issued to Julius Robert Oppenheimer without delay irrespective of the information which you have concerning Mr Oppenheimer. He is absolutely essential to the project.’
Oppenheimer and Groves decided to move the Manhattan Project to Los Alamos in New Mexico, which offered space and securing due to its remote location. There Oppenheimer assembled a group of the top physicists which he referred to as the ‘luminaries’. The few hundred personnel who joined him in 1943 grew steadily to around 6,000 by the end of 1945.
Many false avenues of development eventually led to work being started on an implosion type weapon using chemical explosive lenses. This device would squeeze the sub-critical sphere of uranium 235 into a smaller and denser mass.
On 16 July 1945 at Alamogordo, the first nuclear explosion took place. The name Oppenheimer gave this location was Trinity, a name from one of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets. The brilliant orange ball of burning fury and the unmistakable mushroom cloud led Oppenheimer to say simply, ‘It worked.’
Post-war Robert Oppenheimer initially became an all American hero even appearing on the covers of Life and Time magazines and briefly returned to teaching. The FBI, however, had never stopped investigating Oppenheimer’s political activities and had tapped his phone and read his mail. On 7 June 1949 Robert Oppenheimer appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he admitted that he had associations with the Communist Party in the 1930’s.
Three years later in November 1953, J Edgar Hoover received a letter by William Liscum Borden, former executive director of Congress’ Joint Atomic Energy Committee. The letter contained Borden’s opinion that, ‘based upon years of study, of the available classified evidence, more probably than not J Robert Oppenheimer is an agent of the Soviet Union.’ This led to Oppenheimer’s security clearance being suspended on 21 December 1953 pending an investigation. He was eventually cleared but the damage had already been done to his reputation.
Oppenheimer’s final years were spent at his home in St John in the Virgin Islands. In 1963, in part a gesture of political rehabilitation by the American Government, Oppenheimer was awarded the Enrico Fermi Award. The citation read, ‘For contributions to theoretical physics as a teacher and originator of ideas, and for leadership of the Los Alamos Laboratory and the atomic energy program during critical years.’
In 1965 he was diagnosed with throat cancer and died on 18 February 1967.
In some sort of crude sense, which no vulgarity, no humour, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.
There are children playing in the streets who could solve some of my top problems in physics, because they have modes of sensory perception that I lost long ago
The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears it is true.
No man should escape our universities without knowing how little he knows.
If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendour of the mighty one. Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.