On February 18, 1967, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer died, at the age of 62. An extremely versatile and intellectually fertile scientist, Oppenheimer is best known for his scientific leadership of the Manhattan Project, during World War II, which led to the invention of the atom bomb. Though the bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 ended World War II once and for all, less than a decade later, during the period of America’s Red Scare, he became an object of official suspicion and ostracism for his left-wing political sympathies.
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J. Robert Oppenheimer (the “J” either stood for Julius, his father’s name, or was just a stand-alone initial) was born in New York on April 22, 1904. His father, Julius Oppenheimer, was a German-born textile importer, and his mother, Ella Friedman, was an artist. Both were Jews, but their household was a secular one. (Many years later, physicist Isadore Rabi, a strongly identifying Jew, commented that Oppenheimer would have been better off “if he had studied the Talmud rather than Sanskrit … It would have given him a better sense of himself.")
His upbringing was extremely privileged: The family lived in an opulent apartment filled with fine art on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, and Oppenheimer was educated at the private Ethical Culture School.
Oppenheimer attended Harvard College, where he was admitted to graduate-level courses in physics in his freshman year and from which he graduated with highest honors after three years. This was followed by graduate work at Cambridge and at the University of Gottingen, in Germany. There he earned his PhD in theoretical physics in 1927, under the supervision of Max Born, one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics, and 1954 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physics.
Not easy to stomach
As brilliant as Oppenheimer was, he was also a difficult person whose arrogance and erratic and occasionally violent behavior – and sometimes just his extreme enthusiasm about his work – occasionally alienated his fellow students and, later, colleagues and students of his own. But his mind was so nimble, and his grasp of abstract scientific concepts so far-reaching, that more than once in his career academic institutions fought over the right to hire him.
During most of the 1930s, Oppenheimer worked and taught at the University of California, Berkeley, which agreed to release him for six weeks a year so that he could also teach at the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena. He did research in astronomy and astrophysics, quantum physics, spectroscopy and more, and a number of the theories he wrote up went on to serve other scientists in groundbreaking discoveries of their own. In fact, Oppenheimer was nominated three times for a Nobel Prize, though he never won.
As early as October 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the green light for a program to develop an atomic bomb. By the following June, after the U.S. was involved in World War II, this project turned into the Manhattan Engineer District, later the Manhattan Project, whose director, army Brig. Gen. Leslie R. Groves, Jr., chose Oppenheimer to head its secret weapons laboratory.
Oppenheimer had long been in love with the deserts of New Mexico, where he owned a ranch. He suggested to Groves that they set up their project’s campus there, near Santa Fe, at the site of the Los Alamos Ranch School.
Remorse over a thousand suns
By 1945, more than 6,000 people were working at Los Alamos and by February of that year, they had settled on a bomb design that would utilize Uranium-235 in an implosion device. The first test of the bomb was undertaken at Alamagorgdo, NM, on July 16. Oppenheimer, a student of Sanskrit and the holy Hindu text Bhagavad Gita, later said that when he saw the sight of the explosion, it brought to mind two different verses from that book: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one ..." and also, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
In 1947, Oppenheimer, who was no longer interested in teaching, was appointed director of the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, NJ, a position he held until the year before his death. He had a key role in the newly organized Atomic Energy Commission, a civilian body, and began to have misgivings about further weapons development (specifically of a far more powerful hydrogen bomb) and of an arms race.
During his lone meeting with Harry Truman, late in 1945, during which Oppenheimer argued against placing control of nuclear weapons solely in military hands, he supposedly the American leader, “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.”
Truman did not appreciate the show of remorse, and later said: “I don’t want to see that son of a bitch cry baby scientist in my office again.”
In June 1954, Oppenheimer had his AEC security clearance withdrawn, after various accusations of Communist Party affiliation led to his investigation by the FBI and eventually a highly publicized hearing by the Commission. In fact, Oppenheimer never denied that he had dabbled in Communist politics in the U.S., but his inconsistent and sometimes mendacious testimony during various hearings – about such issues as supposed attempts by the Soviets to recruit scientists working at Los Alamos, a story he later admitted fabricating in order to protect a friend who really was a Soviet agent -- hurt his reputation.
Though history has remembered him as a martyr to right-wing political hysteria, Oppenheimer, when questioned, actually named names of colleagues who were involved in left-wing activities.
Though cut out of the political realm, Oppenheimer remained an active physicist until the end of his life. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy decided to award him the Enrico Fermi Award for achievement in energy-related science, a gesture of political rehabilitation. He remained outspoken politically, although ambivalent on the question of nuclear armament.
Oppenheimer’s personal life was messy: He was married once, and he and his wife had two children (one of whom committed suicide as an adult), but even after his marriage, he had a tendency to carry on relationships with women who were married to friends or colleagues. Oppenheimer died of throat cancer, in Princeton on February 18, 1967.