Who was Oppenheimer?


Julius Robert Oppenheimer

J Robert Oppenheimer was an American theoretical physicist who spearheaded the US effort to develop the atomic bomb during the Second World War and is often referred to as 'father of the atomic bomb'.

Early life

Born in New York City in 1904 to German Jewish immigrants, Oppenheimer was educated at Harvard University, the University of Cambridge and the University of Göttingen. He began his atomic research in 1925 and, one year later, teamed up with Max Born to develop the Born-Oppenheimer method, a significant contribution to quantum mechanics theory.

Science and politics become blurred

In 1939, prominent physicists Leó Szilárd and Eugene Wigner drafted the Einstein-Szilárd letter which warned of the danger that Germany might develop nuclear bombs and suggested that the United States should initiate its own nuclear program.

The letter, signed by Albert Einstein, was sent to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. This prompted Roosevelt to take action, and in October 1941, shortly before the United States entered the Second World War, he approved a crash program to develop an atomic bomb.

The Manhattan project and Oppenheimer

In May 1942, Oppenheimer was invited by Chairman of the National Defence Research Committee James B. Conant to take over research on fast neutron calculations and become part of the Manhattan Project.

The first nuclear bomb – the output of the Manhattan Project – was detonated in New Mexico in July 1945. Oppenheimer later remarked that the Trinity Test brought to mind the words from the Bhagavad Gita: 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.'

A month later in August 1945 the US detonated nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and three days later over Nagasaki.

The impact of the bomb

Within four months of the bombings, the acute effects killed 90,000 to 166,000 people in Hiroshima and 60,000 to 80,000 in Nagasaki, with approximately half of those deaths occurring on the first day.

In view of the devastation caused by the bomb, Oppenheimer opposed its further development and resigned from his post as director of Los Alamos Laboratory that same year.

Against the nuclear bomb

Oppenheimer went on to chair the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, which fought against the development of the hydrogen bomb in 1949. As a result, Oppenheimer was accused of being a Communist supporter and, in 1953, was suspended from secret nuclear research and divested of his security clearance by the Atomic Energy Commission.

Return to the mainstream

In 1963, when the political atmosphere had changed significantly in the US, Oppenheimer was given back his security clearance by President Lyndon B. Johnson and awarded the Enrico Fermi Award.

Upon receipt of the award Oppenheimer told Johnson: 'I think it is just possible, Mr. President, that it has taken some charity and some courage for you to make this award today.'

Oppenheimer was nominated for the Nobel Prize for physics three times, in 1945, 1951 and 1967, but never won.

Death and legacy

Robert J Oppenheimer died of throat cancer on 18 February 1967 in New York City. It is believed that the cancer was caused by his habit of chain smoking throughout his life. His memorial service at Princeton University was attended by 600 of his friends and professional peers. His wife buried his ashes at sea close the their home in the Virgin Islands.


by Tom Morton-Smith

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