|Born||22 Apr 1904|
|Died||18 Feb 1967|
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
J. Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York City to textile merchant Julius Oppenheimer and painter Ella Friedman. He was educated at the Ethical Culture Society School founded upon Jewish morals. He attended Harvard University and completed his undergraduate degree in chemistry in three years. He performed postgraduate work in experimental physics at Ernest Rutherford's famed Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge and studied theoretical physics at the University of Göttingen under Max Born. He received his PhD degree at the age of 22. He published several papers, including the Born-Oppenheimer approximation, while at Göttingen. In Sep 1927, he returned to Harvard, and in 1928 studied at the California Institute of Technology. He became a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. In that same year, he traveled to Europe to lecture in the Netherlands and studied with Wolfgang Pauli in Zurich, Switzerland. His significant contributions in this period include advances in theoretical astrophysics, nuclear physics, spectroscopy, and quantum field theory. In particular to nuclear physics, his Oppenheimer-Phillips process directly contributed to the atomic weapon research during WW2. In the late 1930s, he was the first to suggest the existence of black holes. Beyond physics, he also studied Eastern philosophy and various languages. Not all colleagues valued his diverse interests, however. Isidor Rabi commented that "Oppenheimer was overeducated in those fields which lie outside the scientific tradition... which resulted in a feeling of mystery of the universe that surrounded him like a fog."
"I need physics more than friends", said Oppenheimer to a friend of his, epitomizing his tendency to place more importance in his studies than himself during this period of his life. He was known to go long periods without social contact outside of his professional colleagues, and at times even long periods without food or rest. His psychological health also dipped at certain points in his life; once on a trip to Paris, while explaining his frustrations with experimental physicals to his friend Francis Ferguson, he attacked Ferguson by strangling him for no apparent motive. Like Ferguson, other friends of Oppenheimer's also expressed similar deep concerns for Oppenheimer's mental health.
In the 1930s, the previously apolitical Oppenheimer became a stern supporter of left-wing political movements. A part of his large heritance received in 1937 after the death of his father went to fund raising efforts for the Republicans of the Spanish Civil War and Communist movements in the United States. He had never joined the Communist Party, however.
Oppenheimer married Katherine Puening Harrison, who he had met at Berkeley, in Nov 1940. They had their first child, Peter, in May 1941.
When WW2 started, Oppenheimer became a patriotic American and renounced his former support for left-wing movements. Already involved in atomic weapon research, he was appointed by General Leslie Groves as the scientific director of the Manhattan Project. At first the research was spread out at various laboratories and universities around the country, but due to security concerns Groves and Oppenheimer centralized the weapon research to New Mexico, not far from where Oppenheimer maintained a ranch that satisfied his hobby of horseback riding. Top physicists such as Enrico Fermi, Richard Feynman, Robert R. Wilson, and Victor Weisskopf, among many others, were invited to live and work at the newly constructed Los Alamos laboratory. Oppenheimer naturally contributed much from the scientific perspective, but he was also known for being able to control the cultural conflicts between the scientists and the military; his effective style of management is still studied at organizational behavior and negotiations courses in business schools today. Groves had always suspected Oppenheimer for security reasons for his past Communist connections, but continued to support him as the scientific director for his brilliant mind and his leadership. The atomic weapon research came to fruition in mid-1945. On 17 Jul 1945, Operation Trinity succeeded in detonating a nuclear explosion near Alamogordo. "We knew the world would not be the same", he recalled years later. "A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. 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, 'I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that one way or another." The quote from the Hindu scripture had since become one of Oppenheimer's most famous quotes.
With the war against Germany already over, the scientists and the military argued fervently on the future of this destructive technology. Some of the scientists, knowing the destructive potentials of the weapon, argued that a mere demonstration of the weapon would be enough to intimidate Japan to surrender. Oppenheimer, however, sided with the military, arguing that despite the potential harm that the weapon might cause to civilians, it must be used to quickly destroy Japan's capacity to continue the war. On 6 Aug, the uranium bomb "Little Boy" destroyed Hiroshima. Three days later, the plutonium bomb "Fat Man" was detonated over Nagasaki. Tens of thousands of civilians died along with the intended military targets. The mass destructed destroyed Japanese morale. At the face of the Russian declaration of war (which country Japan had always thought would help them mediate a peace with the Allies), Japan surrendered, ending WW2.
After the war, Oppenheimer was distraught with the destruction the bombs had caused in Japan. "In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish," he later said, "the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose." Although he never publicly stated that he regretted his participation for creating the atomic weapon, he lobbied strongly against the creation for a hydrogen bomb, citing ethical concerns. After the war, he became the first chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, then in 1947 became the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. When the hydrogen bomb was created in 1951, Oppenheimer expressed awe for the technology; many critics of his accused him of moral inconsistency between 1945 and 1951.
After being investigated by J. Edgar Hoover's Federal Bureau of Investigation for many years, Oppenheimer was accused in 1953 for being a security risk. President Dwight Eisenhower asked him to resign as a result of his accusation, and a hearing ensued. Oppenheimer's clearance was first suspended then revoked. He was one of the first high-profile figures to be a victim to McCarthyism. Nevertheless, he continued to work in physics. He gave lectures world-wide without context to political implications. In 1963, he was awarded the Enrico Fermi Award by President John Kennedy as a sign of reconciliation between the United States government and the scientist.
In the final few years of his life, Oppenheimer once again felt the need for solitude. He often took months-long vacations on their Virgin Islands property or sailing with his wife. He died of throat cancer in Princeton, New Jersey. After his death, he was commonly credited as the father of modern theoretical physics.
- "I become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds."
» 16 Jul 1945
Robert Oppenheimer Timeline
|22 Apr 1904||Robert Oppenheimer was born.|
|24 Jul 1942||Oppenhheimer was selected to head the atomic bomb research efforts.|
|16 Oct 1945||Robert Oppenheimer resigned as the director of the Los Alamos, New Mexico, United States facility of the Manhattan Project.|
|18 Feb 1967||Robert Oppenheimer passed away.|
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