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Physicist Julius Robert Oppenheimer

Einstein and Oppenheimer of Princeton
Einstein and Oppenheimer of Princeton
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

While being dubbed “the father of the atomic bomb” might be seen as a cryptic honor, Professor Julius Robert Oppenheimer (1904–1967) was also one of the most intelligent scientists of his generation, and an advocate of the atom bomb as a tool for peace, rather than a weapon of Armageddon (Apocalypse). Oppenheimer also struggled with the moral dilemma where his conscience was at odds with his desire to further the best interests of his country. Oppenheimer read the Bhagavad Gita in the original Sanskrit and later he cited it as one of the books that most shaped his philosophy of life.

Oppenheimer was born into a New York Jewish family, and soon proved a gifted linguist, and a distinguished scholar. After graduating from Harvard University he traveled to Europe, where he studied at the universities of Cambridge, Leiden and Göttingen, where he was awarded his PhD. It was clear that he had an exceptional mind, and by the time he returned to America to teach at Berkeley and Caltech in 1927-28, he was widely regarded as one of the leading research physicists of his generation.

After 1933, Oppenheimer became increasingly concerned about politics and international affairs. In 1934, he earmarked 3 percent of his salary, for two years, to support German physicists fleeing from Nazi Germany. During the 1934 West Coast Waterfront Strike, he attended a longshoremen’s rally. Many of Oppenheimer’s closest associates were active in the Communist Party in the 1930s or 1940s. They included his brother Frank, Frank’s wife Jaquenette Quann, Katherine Puening Harrison, Jean Tatlock, his landlord Mary Ellen Washburn, and several of his graduate students at Berkeley.

In 1939 Oppenheimer was greatly concerned when Niels Bohr told him that German scientists were close to splitting the atom, which in turn raised the possibility that the Nazis might be able to develop nuclear weapons. This (and Einstein’s letter) prompted President FDR to establish the Manhattan Project in 1941. In 1942 Oppenheimer was appointed its director, and a team of physicists were recruited, and based in a research station at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Over the next 3 years Oppenheimer and his team developed the atomic bomb. In 1945, two atomic bombs were detonated over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing over 100,000 Japanese people. Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

After World War II, Oppenheimer chaired the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, but his eventual opposition to the development of a hydrogen bomb (and to a belligerent nuclear arms proliferations race) led to his fall from grace. In 1953-54, during the HUAC and McCarthy “witch hunts” he was accused of having Communist sympathies, and his security clearance was revoked. Wernher von Braun said to a Congressional committee, “In England, Oppenheimer would have been knighted.” (When Oppenheimer joined the Manhattan Project in 1942, he wrote on his personal security questionnaire that he had been “a member of just about every Communist Front organization on the West Coast”. He was a subscriber to the People’s World, a Communist Party gazette, and he testified in 1954, “I was associated with the Communist movement.”)

In 1963 Oppenheimer was rehabilitated by President JFK, finally receiving the symbolic recognition he deserved, with the Enrico Fermi Award. Despite his achievements in the fields of black hole research, quantum physics, neutron stars, and the electron-positron theory, Oppenheimer remains the person who created a weapon with the potential to destroy mankind. Oppenheimer was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Physics three times, in 1945, 1951 and 1967, but never won.