At 5:29:45 am MWT on July 16, 1945, the world's first atomic bomb exploded 100 feet over a portion of the southern New Mexico desert known as the Jornada del Muerto - the Journey of the Dead Man. As he witnessed the nuclear explosion, the man most responsible for the bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, thought of a passage from the Bagavaad Gita: "I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds." The creation of the atomic bomb made Oppenheimer one of the most recognized and controversial figures in American history.
J. Robert Oppenheimer was born April 22, 1904, in New York City to Julius and Ella Oppenheimer. He grew up in relative wealth, coming home each day to see a Renoir hanging in his home. His father was a very successful textile importer. His mother, from Philadelphia society, had studied art in Paris. As privileged as he was, his youth was not always pleasant. As he recalled in later life: "I was an abnormally, repulsively normal little boy with a home life that allowed me no normally healthy way to be a bastard."
From an early age, he demonstrated remarkable intellectual prowess. He began collecting minerals at the age of five and, by age eleven, his collection and knowledge were so considerable that he was elected to membership in the New York Mineralogy Society. He attended high school at New York's Ethical Culture School, where his interest in science was whetted by his physics and chemistry teacher, Augustus Klock. Oppenheimer graduated at age sixteen and moved on to Harvard to study chemistry. He graduated summa cum laude three years later.
Oppenheimer wanted to attend graduate school in Great Britain, where he hoped to study physics under the great experimental physicist Ernest Rutherford. One of Oppenheimer's physics professors at Harvard, Percy Bridgman, wrote to Rutherford in support of Oppenheimer's application: [he has] "perfectly prodigious power of assimilation . . . however, it appears to me that it is a bit of a gamble as to whether Oppenheimer will ever make any real contributions of an important character, but if he does make good at all, I believe that he will be a very unusual success, and if you are in a position to take a small gamble without too much trouble, I think you will find a more interesting betting proposition." Rutherford declined, instead assigning Oppenheimer to work with J.J. Thomson. Oppenheimer's time at Cambridge was not a happy one. As he later recalled: "By the time I decided to go to Gottingen I had great misgivings about myself on all fronts . . . ." A chance encounter with Niels Bohr changed his life.
Oppenheimer decided to get out of experimental physics and into the newly transformed world of theoretical physics. "I met Niels Bohr and at that point I . . . decided to try to learn the trade of being a theoretical physicist #hellip; I was fully aware that it was an unusual time, that great things were afoot."
Oppenheimer transferred to the University of Gottingen in 1925 to study under Max Born. He received his doctorate in just two years. From 1927 to 1929, Oppenheimer held National Research Council fellowships in both the United States and Europe. He had his eye, however, on an appointment to the University of California, Berkeley. "When I visited Berkeley in 1927, I thought I'd like to go there. It was a desert . . . because there was no theoretical physics and I thought it would be nice to start something." He accepted a dual appointment at Berkeley and at the California Institute of Technology.
After a somewhat inauspicious start as teacher, Oppenheimer found his calling. He became a phenomenal instructor. Many of his students went on to achieve international recognition and also provided much of the intellectual core of the future wartime laboratory at Los Alamos. Robert Serber, perhaps Oppenheimer's most recognized student, said "Oppenheimer's fascinating personality played a major part in his unique powers as a teacher. His course was an inspirational, as well as an educational achievement. He transmitted to his students a feeling of beauty of the logical structure of physics and an excitement in the development of science."
The 1930's were a time of great professional achievement for Oppenheimer. As he was transforming the study of theoretical physics at Berkeley, he collaborated on major papers with some of his students, including Melba Phillips, Robert Serber, George Volkoff, and Hartley Snyder. As the historian John Rigden wrote in 1995, "Oppenheimer built the foundation for contemporary studies of molecular physics. He was the first to recognize quantum-mechanical tunneling. . . . He fell just short of predicting the existence of the positron. . . .. He raised several crucial difficulties in the theory of quantum electrodynamics. He developed the theory of cosmic-ray showers. And long before neutron stars and black holes were part of our celestial landscape, Oppenheimer showed that massive stars can collapse under the influence of gravitational forces."
The 1930's were, as well, a time when Oppenheimer engaged in activities that were to haunt his later life. By some accounts, and there is no consensus, Oppenheimer engaged in left-wing campus activities. Compounding this activity, some of his graduate students appeared to be communist, as did his brother, Frank. When Oppenheimer married Katherine (Kitty) Peuening, the widow of a communist who had died in the Spanish Civil War, the die was cast. Perhaps, though, the single biggest problem for Oppenheimer was himself. He didn't seem to understand the consequences of his environment, nor was he later able to recount clearly and simply his political ideology. None of these things would have mattered, except that he was chosen to create, build, and lead the nuclear weapon laboratory at Los Alamos by General Leslie Groves.
That J. Robert Oppenheimer was chosen to lead Los Alamos was at once a matter of practicality on Groves's part as well as a stroke of genius. As the world grew closer and closer to world war, many scientists became engaged in what was euphemistically called "war work." This situation was particularly true of any scientist who had administrative experience. Although involved on the periphery of war work, Oppenheimer did not have any fulltime duties. Hence, after a making a favorable impression on Groves, he was selected to lead Los Alamos based in no small way on his availability. That Oppenheimer proved so capable as a scientific administrator surprised many and made Groves appear to be a genius at personnel selection. As Groves later stated: "I knew he was qualified to handle the theoretical aspects of the work, but how he would do on the practical experimentation or how he would handle the administrative responsibilities, I had no idea." I.I. Rabi said, "A less likely choice on the basis of personality and experience could hardly be imagined . . . Yet he constructed that laboratory from the ground up and made it into a most effective and deadly instrument for the application of science to destruction. At the same time, he created an atmosphere of excitement, enthusiasm, and high intellectual and moral purpose that still remains with those who participated." According to Hans Bethe, " It was a marvelous choice. Los Alamos might have succeeded without him, but certainly only with much greater strain, less enthusiasm, and less speed. As it was, it was an unforgettable experience."
In just twenty-eight months, Los Alamos produced two atomic bombs of very different designs. Their combat use against Japan did not win the war, but they did contribute significantly to ending it. By some accounts, over seventy million people lost their lives in a conflict that began in China in1933, spread to Europe and did not end until September 1945 in Tokyo Bay.
When he assumed leadership of Los Alamos, Oppenheimer left forever the world of research and teaching. The war and his role at Los Alamos transformed him into a scientific administrator and ultimately into an international spokesman on atomic matters. Although he returned for a brief time to California after the war ended with the goal of returning to academia, he quickly was drawn into the international debate on the role of atomic energy in world affairs. He was a key contributor to the Acheson-Lilienthal report to the United Nations and served as an advisor to Bernard Baruch. He had become a very public figure and government advisor.
At first, Oppenheimer appeared somewhat hopeful that mankind could deal with the reality of atomic weapons. "We believe that the safety of this nation - as opposed to its ability to inflict damage on an enemy power - cannot lie wholly or even primarily in its scientific or technical prowess. It can be based only on making future wars impossible. It is our unanimous and urgent recommendation to you that . . . all steps be taken, all necessary international arrangements be made to this end." When the United Nations proved unable to reach an agreement on the international control of atomic energy, whatever hope Oppenheimer had quickly evaporated. "I am ready to go anywhere and do anything, but am bankrupt of further ideas. And I find that physics and the teaching of physics, which is my life, now seems irrelevant."
Oppenheimer became the director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, a role that allowed him the opportunity to continue as a government advisor while at the same time allowing him to practice his new skills as a scientific administrator. Oppenheimer transformed the Institute into a leading center for the study of theoretical physics. He recruited a prestigious staff, including Freeman Dyson, Abraham Pais, Tsung-Dao Lee, and Chen Ning Yang. Lee and Yang won the Nobel Prize in physics while working at the Institute. Oppenheimer also accepted the chairmanship of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission - a position that effectively made him the preeminent scientist in the world on atomic energy matters. He also made significant contributions to both the State and Defense Departments as those two agencies wrestled with the new world of atomic weapons.
It was Oppenheimer's role and influence as chair of the GAC and his own arrogance that caused him to be accused of being a security threat. He had made a powerful enemy in Lewis Strauss, the chair of the AEC, by humiliating Strauss before a congressional panel. Refusing to simply resign and fade away, In 1953 Oppenheimer stood before a security hearing that ultimately recommended that his clearance - and by extension his government service - be ended. He could not explain his prewar actions in simple, understandable terms. As Dorothy McKibbin remarked "He was naive in politics. If he hadn't been, his career would have been quite different."
Despite the loss of his security clearance and the stain of governmental censure, Oppenheimer was reappointed to his directorship at Princeton, where he served until 1966. Ironically, the man most responsible for Oppenheimer fall from grace - Lewis Strauss - also served on the Institute's board and did not oppose Oppenheimer's reappointment.
During his years at the Institute, Oppenheimer became a "wise man" and spokesman on the value and importance of science. He lectured widely, even giving the prestigious Reith Lecture in 1953. By the early 1960's the political climate that cost Oppenheimer so dearly was more understanding, and he was awarded the Enrico Fermi Prize for contributions to physics. In making the award presentation, President Lyndon Johnson said "Dr. Oppenheimer, I am pleased that you are here today to receive formal recognition for your many contributions to theoretical physics and to the advancement of science in our nation. Your leadership in the development of an outstanding school of theoretical physics in the United States and your contributions to our basic knowledge make your achievements unique in the scientific world."
Oppenheimer was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1966. He had been a very heavy smoker for years. He retired from the Institute that year and died on February 18, 1967, in Princeton. Of all the eulogies, the one by Abraham Pais seems most poignant:
"Any single one of the following contributions would have marked Oppenheimer as a pre-eminent scientist: his own research work in physics; his influence as a teacher; his leadership at Los Alamos; the growth of the Institute of Advanced Studies as a leading center of theoretical physics under his directorship; and his efforts to promote a more common understanding of science. When all is combined we honor Oppenheimer as a great leader of science. When all is interwoven with the dramatic events that centered around him we remember Oppenheimer as one of the most remarkable personalities of this century."