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Robert Oppenheimer

Robert OppenheimerAKA Julius Robert Oppenheimer

Born: 22-Apr-1904
Birthplace: New York City
Died: 18-Feb-1967
Location of death: Princeton, NJ
Cause of death: Cancer - Throat
Remains: Cremated (ashes scattered over the Virgin Islands)

Gender: Male
Religion: Jewish
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Physicist

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Physicist, headed the Manhattan Project

As director of the Manhattan project, American physicist Robert Oppenheimer was responsible for collecting, coordinating, and leading the team that developed and detonated the first atomic bomb. He was also one of the principle proponents of using the bomb against an actual military target -- a recommendation that ultimately resulted in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the unconditional surrender of the Japanese in World War II.

Born to affluent Jewish parents and raised a cultured, well-to do home decorated with Van Goghs and elegant imported furniture, J. Robert Oppenheimer attended the Ethical Culture School, where he was well educated in such classical subjects as Greek and literature. He was self-conscious of his family’s "obvious Jewishness" and strove to excel -- and perhaps compensate -- to cope with the anti-semiticism that he both found and projected. Like many other boys, the young Oppenheimer enjoyed collecting minerals. But so passionately and professionally did he pursue his hobby that by age 12 he had presented a paper to the New York Mineralogical Club, where he was made an honorary member.

He similarly excelled at Harvard where, in addition to dabbling joyfully in all trappings of a classical education, he received his undergraduate degree in chemistry. Not to be slowed down by having taken a year off (prior to entering) to recuperate from illness amidst the natural splendor of New Mexico, Oppenheimer whirled through his undergraduate studies in only three years, graduating summa cum laude in 1925. (Note that as a freshman he had applied for, and received, permission to study graduate level courses.)

After graduating Harvard, he crossed the Atlantic to study at England’s Cambridge University, beginning graduate work under J. J. Thomson at the Cavendish Labs. But experimental work proved not to be his forte and he found himself drawn instead to the theoretical work of R. H. Fowler (fueled by the ideas of Einstein, Planck, and Bohr). This in turn led to his abandoning Cambridge in favor of the German University of Gottingen. At Gottingen he worked and interacted with Born, Dirac, Condon, Pauli, Heisenberg and many other notables in physics and he soon found both acceptance and success. A paper he co-authored with Max Born on the quantum theory of molecules was well received (and continues to be a classic). Though only 22 years old, his reputation as a talented theoretician was already growing.

In 1927 having been awarded his doctorate with distinction from Gottingen, Oppenheimer returned to the U.S. to find himself swamped with offers of teaching positions. Poor health forced him to take a year off (a bout with tuberculosis), but he ultimately opted for a joint arrangement, spending the spring term at Caltech in Pasadena, and the remainder at Berkeley where he began to a major scientific hub -- the United States' first real center for theoretical physics.

At Berkeley, he made a bold impression -- both with his lightening intellect and mastery of vast areas of physics and with his unconventional, even Bohemian personality. He dabbled in leftist politics (funding causes with his enormous inheritance), quoted from the Bhagavad-Gita, and had unusual tastes and mannerisms – all of which his students sampled and emulated. This was also the period in which he became good friends with co-faculty Ernest Lawrence (inventor of the cyclotron), spending spare hours in long talks and gallivanting excursions around the Bay Area.

But all this was soon to be overshadowed by the rise of the Nazis in Europe and the outbreak of World War II in both the European and Pacific theaters. Simultaneously, new discoveries in physics, specifically in the area of fission (the so-called splitting of the atom), would send scientists scurrying to investigate the potential of creating an atomic weapon (previously the stuff of Jules Verne's science fiction).

Prior to his leftist dabblings, Oppenheimer had been largely oblivious to politics. (Lawrence had to explain to him about the Great Depression.) But the rise of the Nazi party certainly did not escape his notice. He would later report watching the mistreatment of the German Jews with "continuous, smoldering fury", and he eagerly involved himself in the quest to develop an atomic bomb -- the focus of much of the work at Lawrence's Radiation Laboratory. Lawrence himself had been in on the ground floor of attempts to develop a weapon based on the principle of uranium fission, but when General Leslie R. Groves took over supervision of the secret atomic bomb effort –- code-named the Manhattan Engineer District, or Manhattan Project -– he eventually appointed Oppenheimer as scientific director planned new phase project. Thus it was Oppenheimer who, based on his past sojourns there, settled on New Mexico, scouting out and eventually selecting the Los Alamos Ranch School as the new base of operations.

Oppenheimer then drew together a group of the most brilliant and able physicists he could collect. The roster included names like Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, Victor Weisskopf, and Richard Feynman. He soon proved himself an inspiring director and an unusually capable coordinator, able to mentally tracks hundreds of different projects and personnel and to understand concepts as quickly as they were put in front of him.

Finally on July 16, 1945 came "Trinity", the first test of a nuclear weapon. With its success came the next hurdle, how to use the new weapon. Despite the balking of many scientists involved with the project, Oppenheimer agreed with arguments in favor of dropping the bomb, unannounced, against a large civilian population. President Truman concurred, and on August 6, 1945 the uranium bomb "Little Boy" slammed Hiroshima with the explosive force of 15,000 tons of TNT. Three days later the plutonium bomb "Fat Man" devastated Nagasaki.

Despite the over-awing success of the project, Oppenheimer's initial jubilation faded to depression as reports began trickling in as to the numbers of the dead and maimed. Fatalities alone, 95% of them civilian, comprised some 210,000 people. Over the ensuing years Oppenheimer would be asked if he regretted his participation in the nuclear destruction but his answers seem an invariable evasion. He did not dwell on the past, he would say. Or, as after visiting Japan in 1960 (at the invitation of the Japanese Committee for Intellectual Exchange), he assured interviewers that he didn't feel any worse than he had previously. But his reaction to the horrors of his co-creation was best mirrored in his ongoing opposition to the development of more powerful nuclear bombs, an attitude that would eventually prove troublesome.

In 1947 he was unanimously elected chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission (a civilian agency overseeing U.S. atomic affairs) where he had the opportunity to push his agenda. But his ongoing conflict with politicians and other scientists (most notably Edward Teller) on the matter, plus his heel dragging over reporting that his brother Frank had been approached by Soviet intermediaries (the cold war was on and the U.S. was trying to keep its nuclear knowledge to itself) led to Oppenheimer being stripped of his security clearance in 1953. During hearings Oppenheimer’s earlier leftist/Communist sympathies were trotted out and Los Alamos alum Edward Teller insinuated that Oppenheimer’s opposition to research on the more powerful H-bomb was so "confusing" (given his work on the A bomb) that his loyalties could not be trusted.

Stripped of his clearance, labeled as untrustworthy and perhaps un-American by the very country whose World War II victory he'd helped secure, Oppenheimer found himself knocked down a few pegs but still able to continue on as a professor. (His brother Frank Oppenheimer, by contrast, lost his position and found himself essentially blacklisted.) Now at Princeton -- in 1947 he had refused to be shoved back into his old role at Berkeley (under the thumb of Lawrence) after the significance and power held at Los Alamos -– Oppenheimer focused on forming yet another important hub of theoretical work in physics, attracting the best and the brightest minds to tackle new problems in physics. Yet despite the rise of the Princeton group, and its ability to attract notables such as Nobel Prize winning physicist Chen Ning Yang, Oppenheimer felt let down, claiming little had been achieved.

In 1962, after the excesses of McCarthyism had run their course, many in the political and academic establishment seemed eager to redress the collective slap in the face Oppenheimer had received so publicly. Glenn Seaborg (the Berkeley scientist who had co-discovered plutonium and the current Chairman of the AEC) asked Oppenheimer if he would want another security hearing, to clear his name. But Oppenheimer declined; one such hearing, he said, was enough. He did however accept the Enrico Fermi award, presented to him by President Johnson in 1963 (scheduled to have been presented earlier by president Kennedy). At the presentation Oppenheimer even shook hands with his former nemesis Edward Teller.

It could have signaled a new beginning, but by 1965 Oppenheimer's health was ailing. He gave up his position of Director of Princeton's Institute of Advanced Study and instead took a less taxing role as senior professor of theoretical physics. Two years later, on February 18, 1967, he died of throat cancer.

Father: Julius Oppenheimer
Mother: Ella Friedman
Brother: Frank Oppenheimer (physicist, b. 14-Aug-1912, d. 3-Feb-1985)
Wife: Katherine Harrison Puening (m. Nov-1940)
Son: Peter
Daughter: Katherine

    University: BA Chemistry, Harvard University (1925)
    University: Cambridge University (attended 1925-26)
    University: PhD, University of Göttingen (1927)

    US Atomic Energy Commission Chairman
    American Philosophical Society 1945
    Enrico Fermi Award 1963
    Manhattan Project
    HUAC Hearings
    Treason acquitted 1953
    Jewish Ancestry
    Risk Factors: Smoking, Depression


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Atomic Bomb
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