Robert Julius Oppenheimer

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Physicist nicknamed the “Father of the Atomic Bomb.” Born April 22, 1904, in New York City. His parents were German immigrants and textile importers. Oppenheimer attended Harvard University, excelling at languages, Eastern philosophy, physics, and chemistry.

His formal atomic research began in 1925, when he sailed to England to study the energy processes of sub-atomic particles at the world-renowned Cavendish Laboratory. One year later at Gottingen University, he and Max Born developed their classical contribution to molecular quantum theory, the "Born-Oppenheimer method."

Returning to the United States, Oppenheimer taught theoretical physics concurrently at the California Institute of Technology and the University of California at Berkeley from 1929 to 1942. There he investigated electron-positron pairs, cosmic ray theory, and deuteron reactions while mentoring the next generation of American physicists. In the 1930s, the growing conflict in Europe stirred Oppenheimer’s interest in politics. He allied with Communist students to side with the republic during the Spanish Civil War in 1936, but he soon withdrew all affiliations with the Communist party, of which he was never a member, to protest the mistreatment of Russian scientists under Stalin’s rule.

In 1939, Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard alerted the U.S. government of the dangers of nuclear energy in the hands of the Nazis. Oppenheimer shared their concern, and began his investigations into the construction of an atomic bomb using the element uranium. In 1942, Oppenheimer joined the Manhattan Project, an American-led military effort to develop nuclear energy for wartime use. Oppenheimer led the scientific end of the project from the project’s headquarters in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where his leadership gained him an international reputation as the "father of the atomic bomb.”

The Manhattan Project culminated in August 1945, when the first nuclear detonation occurred at the Trinity Bomb Site in the New Mexico desert. Shocked and disillusioned by the massive destruction and enormous death toll the atomic bomb had caused in Japan, he resigned his post two months later. During the postwar period, Oppenheimer became a government and United Nations adviser, proposing international regulation of nuclear power to ensure peace. He chaired the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, which opposed the development of the more powerful hydrogen bomb, which continued despite the commission’s opposition. As director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey from 1947 to 1966, he stimulated discussion and research in quantum and relativistic physics. In 1953, a military security report defamed Oppenheimer, alleging that the scientist had treasonous liaisons to the Communist party. A security hearing cleared him of the accusation, but prohibited his access to military secrets. The Federation of American Scientists decried Oppenheimer’s subjection to what they called a Communist “witch hunt.”

In 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson attempted to redress these injustices by honoring Oppenheimer with the Atomic Energy Commission’s prestigious Enrico Fermi Award. Oppenheimer retired from Princeton in 1966 and died of throat cancer on February 18, 1967.