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J. Robert Oppenheimer
By Michael Ann Sullivan
Julius Robert Oppenheimer was born 22 April 1904 to Julius and Ella Oppenhiemer. Julius, a German-Jewish immigrant, came to America from Germany in 1888. His father started with nothing and worked hard to become a successful cloth importer. His mother Ella came from a wealthy New York Jewish family who had been in the U.S. for several generations. Two years later the Oppenheimers had a second son Frank. By then, quite prosperous, Julius moved his family to a fashionable apartment on Riverside Drive in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The young J. Robert Oppenheimer and his brother grew up in a wealthy home with a cook and chauffeur. The Oppenheimers spent summers in their second home in Bay Shore on Long Island. Although named after his father, Oppenheimer used his middle name Robert. Later in life, close colleagues called him by the affectionate appellation “Oppie.”
Oppenheimer had a knack for science from a very early age. A gift from his grandfather, set of minerals, set him on the path. He gave his first paper on mineralogy at age 12 to the New York Mineralogical Club which he had joined the year earlier. He also had a keen interest in literature and philosophy. He attended the New York School for Ethical Culture run by the famous educator Felix Adler. The school, which he attended from second grade through high school, stressed literature, art, science, languages, and ethics. Oppenheimer thrived there and began his life-long love affair with languages and culture. He bragged to other students that he could answer any question they posed in Greek. Although a top student, the budding scientist did not make friends easily. His intellectual ability could at times lead him to be arrogant and intolerant of other’s perceived incompetence.
As a graduation gift, Oppenheimer’s parents sent him to Germany for a summer vacation. While tramping through the mountains he contracted an illness which prevented him from attending Harvard that fall. Oppenheimer became irritable and depressed that winter during his prolonged convalescence. In the spring, his father suggested a trip to the Southwest with Herbert Smith, a teacher from the School for Ethical Culture. Smith and Oppenheimer camped and rode horses through the spectacular red mesas of northern New Mexico. They visited Francis Fergusson, Oppenheimer’s childhood schoolmate, who lived in Albuquerque. A friend of Fergusson’s, Paul Horgan, took Oppenheimer and Smith to a guest ranch in the Pecos Valley. Oppenheimer fell in love with the desert country of New Mexico during his sojourn of 1922. Six years later, Oppenheimer and his brother Frank would lease their own ranch in New Mexico, Perro Caliente, a place they eventually bought in 1947.
Oppenheimer made up for lost time at Harvard that fall. He plunged into his studies, continuing his study of literature, especially French. He also mastered Greek. He decided after some debate to major in chemistry. He had at first wanted to pursue his love of minerals and become a mining engineer, but was swayed by a friend’s advice to study chemistry instead. Oppenheimer finished his studies at Harvard a year ahead of the usual four years. During his last year and a half of school, Percy Bridgman, a future Nobel Laureate in physics, introduced Oppenheimer to the world of physics. Although he came late to the subject, and had only a rudimentary knowledge, Oppenheimer knew he wanted to continue graduate education in physics. After graduation, armed with a letter from Bridgman, Oppenheimer set sail for England, determined to gain admittance to the Cavendish Laboratory—the most renowned center of study for physics in the world.
The previous thirty years, from 1895 to 1925, had seen a revolution in physics. The Cavendish Laboratory, run by Ernest Rutherford, was at the forefront of cutting edge research in physics. In 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays during a routine experiment with electricity and vacuum tubes. This remarkable discovery was followed by the French scientists, Marie and Pierre Curie’s, discovery of the radioactive elements—polonium and radium. Rutherford, then a novice researcher at Cambridge, began to make one amazing discovery after another. A year and half after the Curie’s discovery, Rutherford identified radioactive decay, the process where elements transform or decay into other elements. He also discovered two separate forms of radiation—alpha and beta rays. His most famous discovery, in 1910, was the existence of the nucleus of the atom.
Oppenheimer had little to offer Rutherford. He had an undergraduate degree in chemistry, little knowledge of physics, and poor laboratory skills. Yet, Oppenheimer persisted to plead his case with Rutherford. He presented Rutherford his letter of introduction from Bridgman along with a plan of study. By the fall, Rutherford relented and set Oppenheimer to work with J. J. Thompson, the discoverer of the electron, and a senior scientist at the laboratory. Oppenheimer failed abysmally at experimental physics. He found lab work tedious and hard to understand. Oppenheimer, not used to failure, became depressed and suicidal that first year at Cambridge. Nevertheless, he pushed ahead studying late into the night. A visitor to the lab during the winter of 1926, theoretical physicist Niels Bohr, inspired Oppenheimer to pursue theoretical rather than experimental physics. Bohr theorized about the forces that held the atom together, a field increasingly known as quantum mechanics.
Oppenheimer finished his year at Cambridge and then transferred to the University of Göttingen in Germany. Göttingen was the premiere university in Europe for experimental physics and Oppenheimer thrived there. Under the tutelage of Max Born, Oppenheimer wrote sixteen papers on the physics of quantum mechanics, densely mathematical papers on aspects of the atom like electron spin. Oppenheimer worked with other graduate students who would, also like himself, go on to great futures in physics—Enrico Fermi, Wolfgang Pauli, and Werner Heisenberg. In 1927, Oppenheimer graduated with distinction with a doctorate in physics. He taught during the academic year of 1927-1928 at Harvard, the University of Berkeley, and at the California Institute of Technology in Los Angeles. The next year he continued his studies with Paul Ehrenfest in the Netherlands and Wolfgang Pauli in Switzerland. He returned to the United States in 1929 intent on building a world class center for the study of physics.
Although Oppenheimer received offers from several prestigious U.S. institutions in the east, he agreed to take a permanent teaching position at the University of California, Berkeley. In the late 1920s, Berkeley was considered a small state university with no prestige attached to it. Oppenheimer picked Berkeley because they did not have an established physics department. He hoped to bring the new gospel of physics to U.S. universities in the west, which he likened to “deserts” in their outmoded approach to science, especially physics. Another new physics professor, Ernest Lawrence, also hoped to create a new climate of learning at Berkeley. Lawrence, an experimental physicist, began constructing huge machines called cyclotrons that smashed the nucleus of the atom. This afforded physicists the opportunity to study the particles that made up an atom. By the late 1930s, the two men succeeded in creating a center for the study of physics that rivaled any institution in Europe. Oppenheimer attracted some of the brightest graduate students in the country; colleagues called them “Oppie’s boys.” Despite his prickly nature, his students loved him and he often treated them to dinner and invited them to his apartment for drinks and stimulating discussions.
The U.S. stock market crash and subsequent depression during the 1930s awakened the normally apolitical Oppenheimer. Because of his own financial wealth he did not at first notice the effects of the economic downturn of the economy. However, when his graduate students began to be affected he became much more interested in the political and economic situation of the country. Like many intellectuals and academics of the times, Oppenheimer gravitated towards leftist solutions and critiques of the government. Many of his friends and colleagues, including his brother Frank, joined the U.S. Communist party. Oppenheimer joined the Radical Teachers Union which advocated better pay for graduate students. He also attended many other political gatherings which were secretly controlled by communist members. However, he himself claimed to have never joined the Communist Party.
The Nazi Party led by Adolph Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933. The rise of fascism coupled with a world wide depression began to weigh heavily on Oppenheimer. He learned of Hitler’s oppressive policies against Jews through his relatives living in Germany. Hitler did not wait long before he began to take back territory lost by his country during WWI. Oppenheimer longed to help the European war effort in some fashion but did not know how best to accomplish this. Many of his academic friends had left teaching and were engaged in scientific endeavors like radar-research for the military. In 1938, the Germans discovered fission—a release of powerful energy as the result of splitting atoms. If harnessed, fission could create a powerful weapon. Within weeks of learning of fission, Oppenheimer began doodling crude bombs on the blackboard in his office.
Unbeknownst to Oppenheimer, shortly after the German discovery of fission, Albert Einstein and Leo Slizard sent a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt warning him of the possibilities regarding fission and German research into it. Roosevelt, on the eminent scientists’ advice, set up a Uranium Committee and began to set aside money to devote to atomic research. One of the first projects funded was Oppenheimer’s former graduate colleague, Enrico Fermi’s, uranium pile research. Fermi would successfully trigger the first nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago. In 1941, Lawrence already deeply involved in government atomic research, invited Oppenheimer to a secret meeting of scientists at the General Electric Plant in Schenectady, New York. Lawrence advised Oppenheimer to sever his ties with all leftist groups. He told Oppenheimer that the scientists were going to begin working with the military soon and any “left wanderings,” as he called Oppenheimer’s political activism, would be viewed with suspicion.
Two months after the secret meeting of scientists, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, dragging the United States unquestionably into WWII. Roosevelt dissolved the Uranium Committee and established the Manhattan Project—an all-out effort to develop an atomic bomb ahead of the Germans for use during the war. The president chose General Leslie R. Groves to manage the far-flung facilities and scientists involved in the top-secret research project. In 1942, while visiting Lawrence and the cyclotron at Berkeley, Groves met Oppenheimer. The two talked about the necessity of establishing a central laboratory to coordinate atomic research. Oppenheimer impressed Groves and he chose the young scientist, despite misgivings by the FBI and military about his earlier “left wanderings,” to head up such a facility.
Oppenheimer proved to be a good choice. He talked many of his brightest graduate students—Robert Serber and Phillip Morrison, and his former colleagues—Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, and Enrico Fermi—into joining him at his central laboratory. Oppenheimer chose the former Los Alamos Ranch School for Boys at the base of the Jemez Mountains in New Mexico as the site for his research laboratory. Los Alamos met all the military criteria that Groves desired—remote yet accessible by road. Oppenheimer knew of the boys’ school from his vacations at Perro Caliente. He claimed the site combined perfectly his two loves—physics and the desert. Oppenheimer kept the project on schedule and managed the competing egos of all the scientists involved. The scientists at Los Alamos pursued two different approaches to weapon design. The first, called Little Boy was a gun-type weapon that collided two pieces of fissile material resulting in an explosion. The second, called Fat Man was an implosion device that detonated conventional explosives around a fissile core.
Oppenheimer and his team of scientists tested the proto-type of the Fat Man weapon at Trinity Site, a remote desert location 160 miles from Los Alamos on 16 July 1945. The Army deployed Fat Man against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945. The Japanese surrendered unconditionally nine days later, ending WWII.
After the war, Oppenheimer returned to a teaching position at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California. However, no longer an obscure scientist, he was often called to Washington to testify or advise on the fate of the newly unleashed atomic weapon. In 1946, Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act which created a joint military/civilian agency called the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to oversee all aspects of atomic research and development. The new head of the AEC, David Lillienthal, appointed Oppenheimer as a member of the General Advisory Committee of scientists to help the agency make decisions. Oppenheimer also won the directorship of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. He constantly shuttled back and forth between Princeton and Washington until 1952 when he fell from grace.
Although unarguably the most famous scientist in America after the war, many had not forgiven him his pre-war radical politics. The FBI and military intelligence periodically questioned his loyalty and kept ongoing investigations into his comings and goings. However, Oppenheimer’s post-war stance on atomic policy caused him the most grief and created several powerful enemies. Awed and disturbed by the destructive potential of atomic weapons, Oppenheimer supported international arms limitation agreements. He also opposed the development of a hydrogen bomb or “Super.” Oppenheimer’s colleague Edward Teller promoted the “Super,” a bomb that worked on the principle of the fusion of atoms. A hydrogen bomb would be hundreds or thousands of times more powerful than fission—a concept Oppenheimer felt was overkill.
In the post-war climate of anti-Communist rhetoric Oppenheimer’s reservations about the development of a hydrogen bomb became to many a serious sign of his disloyalty. In 1952, Joseph McCarthy launched an investigation into Oppenheimer’s pre-war Communist activity. In 1953, the AEC cut off the Senate investigation but proceeded with its own secret hearings. The AEC essentially charged Oppenheimer with espionage during and after the war, stating that his hesitancy over the “Super” was Soviet directed. Although acquitted of espionage he was stripped of his security privileges in 1954 and deemed unfit for government service because of his associations with dangerous subversives and his own “defects of character.”
Oppenheimer continued to serve as director of the Institute of Advanced Study until his early death from cancer in 1967.
Bird, Kai and Martin J. Sherwin. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2005.
Cassidy, David C. Oppenheimer and the American Century. New York: Pi Press, 2005.
Larsen, Rebecca. Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb. New York: Franklin Watts, 1988.
McMillan, Priscilla J. The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer: and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race. New York: Viking Press, 2005.
Rummel, Jack. Robert Oppenhiemer: Dark Prince. New York: Facts on File, 1992. [paragraph 1, page 12; paragraph 9, pages 41, 42; paragraph 12, page 51; paragraph 17, page 118.]