Robert Julius Oppenheimer
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| Robert Oppenheimer was born on April
22, 1904, into a wealthy, New York, Jewish family. They lived in an
apartment overlooking the Hudson River and vacationed in a summer home on
Long Island. As a 17-year-old, Oppenheimer went to Harvard where a classmate
says he "intellectually looted the place." But it was after Harvard that
Oppenheimer found his intellectual passion. First at Cambridge University in
England and then at Göttigen University in Germany, the young American
scholar began making his mark in quantum theory. By the time he returned to
America, he'd published more than a dozen articles and established a
reputation as a theoretical physicist.
In the 1930s, Oppenheimer became drawn into left-wing politics. In part,
this may have been a reaction to the rise of Nazism in Germany where his
relatives were suffering under increasingly severe anti-semitic laws, but it
may also have been a reaction to the Great Depression. Many of his students
were unable to get jobs and Oppenheimer would say, "I began to understand
how deeply political and economic events could affect men's lives." He got
involved with a number of left-leaning organizations and began making an
annual donation of about $1,000 to various funds associated with the
Communist Party. When he joined the atomic bomb project he admitted in his
security questionnaire that he had been "a member of just about every
Communist Front organization on the West Coast." It was an admission that
cast suspicion on him and eventually played a large role in the loss of his
In 1941 Oppenheimer was brought into the atomic bomb project. His first task
was to calculate the critical mass of uranium-235, i.e. the amount of
uranium needed to sustain a chain reaction. The following summer he gathered
together at Berkeley a small group of some of the best theoretical
physicists in the country to talk about the actual bomb design. The group,
which he dubbed the "luminaries," included Hans Bethe and Edward Teller. By
the end of the summer they concluded that the bomb project would require a
major scientific effort.
General Leslie Groves, the army officer in charge of the bomb project wanted
Oppenheimer to be the scientific director of the program, despite what he
would call the "snag" of Oppenheimer's political past. After the war, he
explained why: "He's a genius. A real genius... Why, Oppenheimer knows about
everything. He can talk to you about anything you bring up. Well, not
exactly. I guess there are a few things he doesn't know about. He doesn't
know anything about sports."
Together the two men picked out a site for a new laboratory for the project.
It had to be isolated, but it needed to be easily accessible, it needed an
adequate supply of water, and a moderate climate for year-round
construction. Oppenheimer took Groves to a boys' school on a mesa in the New
Mexico desert, which he had visited as a young man. The site became the
location for the top secret Los Alamos weapons laboratory.
By July 1945, Los Alamos was ready to test its bomb. Oppenheimer sent a
cryptic telegram to scientists back at Berkeley: "Any time after the 15th
would be a good time for our fishing trip...As we do not have enough
sleeping bags to go around, we ask you please do not bring anyone with you."
The test, code-named "Trinity," took place on July 16. It exploded with a
force equivalent of 18,000 tons of TNT. Recalling the scene, Oppenheimer
said: "A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent.
There floated through my mind a line from the "Bhagavad-Gita" in which
Krishna is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty: "I am
become death: the destroyer of worlds."
After the war Oppenheimer achieved nation-wide recognition as the "father of
the A-bomb," and he was widely quoted as the moral conscience of those who
had worked on the project. "In some sort of crude sense, which no vulgarity,
no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish," he would say, "the
physicists have known sin, and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose."
He also rose to prominence as a scientific advisor to the Federal
Government. He pushed hard for international control of atomic energy, and
was appointed Chairman of the General Advisory Committee to the Atomic
Energy Commission. It was in this role that he voiced strong opposition to
the development of the H-bomb.
His political past and his resistance to the hydrogen bomb ultimately had
devastating consequences for his career. In 1953, the Atomic Energy
Commission suspended his security clearance. Despite testimonials from
scores of witnesses during the hearings, his clearance was not reinstated.
Oppenheimer returned to academic life, but as one colleague would say, the
public ordeal had broken his spirit.