Robert Oppenheimer: Biography, Los Alamos Laboratory & Legacy
Often called the “Father of the Atomic Bomb,” the renowned physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer led the “Manhattan Project” that created the first atomic bomb. He was the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, where he headlined the research and design of the bomb.
Who was J.R. Oppenheimer? And what were some of his major contributions to physics in general? Finally, did the scientist have any regret about the creation of the atomic bomb? Below, World History Edu explores early life, education and major works of Oppenheimer.
Childhood & Early Educational Endeavors
Born to German-Jewish immigrant father and a New York-born mother in New York City, Oppenheimer attended Alcuin Preparatory School and later enrolled at Harvard University, where he majored in chemistry. At this point, he had developed a strong interest in physics and wanted to pursue it.
After Harvard, he set sail to England to further his studies at Christ’s college in Cambridge. In 1925, during his graduate studies, he initiated his research into atoms at the Cavendish Laboratory and later, returned to Harvard to read mathematical physics. Prior to that, he had worked as an assistant professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, and as a national research council fellow at the California Institute of Technology.
University of Göttingen
Oppenheimer came to the realization that his interest was geared towards theoretical and not experimental physics. So, he teamed up with Max Born, the director of the Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of Göttingen, and trained under him. During that period, he met other great physicists such as Niels Bohr, Max Born, and Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac.
In 1927, he published many relevant papers about quantum theory and earned his doctorate at Göttingen. It was around this time that he and fellow physicist Max Born began developing what later became known as the Born-Oppenheimer method (or the Born-Oppenheimer Approximation). After some visits to science centers in Leiden and Zürich, he returned to the United States to teach physics at both the University of California at Berkeley and Caltech.
In 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Three renowned physicists – Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner – sent a cautionary message alerting the U.S. government of the potential danger to all of humanity if the Nazis were to be the first to build a nuclear bomb. Oppenheimer also looked on with great concern over the political situation in Germany, which at the time was seeing the rise of the Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler.
The government consequently charged Oppenheimer to set up a laboratory and oversee the Manhattan Project, a government-sponsored top-secret experiment intended to produce atomic energy for military purposes.
At the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Oppenheimer put together an efficient team of some of the greatest minds in physics and attempted to separate uranium-235 from natural uranium. Oppenheimer and his team worked day and night to find out the mass of uranium required to make a nuclear bomb. In 1942, he led the scientific part of the project in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
The laboratories at Los Alamos were built under his supervision. Ultimately, he managed over 3,000 people and led in finding solutions to the mechanical and theoretical problems. Although the US government had originally budgeted the project at $6,000, the entire project cost the tax payers an estimated $2 billion to complete.
Oppenheimer’s efforts culminated in the first successful test of the atomic bomb – i.e., the Trinity Test – on July 16, 1945. The physicist and his colleagues, including Leslie Groves, were present during the test in the desert of New Mexico. The mushroom cloud from the test went about close to 40,000 feet into the air; and the crater that was made by the bomb in the ground was about half a mile wide.
Read More: Timeline of Important Events of World War II
A month later, two atomic bombs were deployed; one to Nagasaki and the other to Hiroshima. These operations essentially brought an end to World Word II.
It must be noted that the Allied powers had already vanquished Nazi Germany by this time. However, a very resilient Japan appeared to be prolonging the end of World War II in the Pacific region. Furthermore, Japan was inflicting a lot of pain on the Allied forces, as the death toll skyrocketed. Hence, the U.S. government decided to show to the world its latest weapon of mass destruction in order to quicken the end of the war.
After World War II
Oppenheimer was appointed to chair the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission. The commission protested against the development of hydrogen bombs. Oppenheimer was accused by some member of the scientific community of having ties with the Communists. These events saw his suspension from classified nuclear researches in 1953.
A decade later, President John F. Kennedy, in an attempt to pay homage to his contribution to science, announced that Oppenheimer would receive the Enrico Fermi Award. President Lyndon B. Johnson presented the award after Kennedy was assassinated.
Retirement & Death
In his later years, Oppenheimer worked for the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton University. The physicist channeled his efforts and popularity toward raising awareness of the devastating effects of nuclear bombs as well the need to control the production and usage of atomic energy. Together with Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and Joseph Rotblat, he founded the World Academy of Arts and Science in 1960. He travelled all over the world to give lectures at various universities and other places. Five years after the Enrico Fermi award, he died of throat cancer in Princeton, New Jersey.
Oppenheimer was nominated 3 times (1945, 1951, and 1967) for the Nobel Prize for Physics, but never won the coveted honor.
Atomic bomb versus hydrogen bomb
Upon realizing just how devastating the hydrogen bomb (then referred to as the “Super Bomb”) is, Oppenheimer, who was the Chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, tried to convince his colleagues to halt works in the development. The atomic bomb dwarfs in comparison to the hydrogen bomb, which is many, many times (about thousand times) more devastating that the atomic bomb.
His opposition to the development of the hydrogen bomb resulted some leading politicians on Capitol Hill and across the United States to tag him as a communist. The anti-Communist hysteria, which was partly inspired by the works of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, led some Americans to believe that Oppenheimer was working in cohorts with the Soviet Union to bring down the United States. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) opened a file on the scientist and monitored his activities for a while.
The scientist lost his job on the General Advisory Committee. His security clearance was revoked, and palpable efforts were made by very powerful people to tarnish his credibility and standing in the scientific community. Regardless, the physicist did not flinch in the pursuit of his goal of ending the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
He married Katherine “Kitty” Peuning Harrison, with whom he had two children – Katherine and Peter. Before she met him, she had had three failed marriages. Kitty was a German-American botanist who worked briefly as a lab technician at Los Alamos. She worked under the supervision of Dr. Louis Hempelmann, but quit a year later.
Other interesting facts about Robert J. Oppenheimer
- Oppenheimer’s father, Julius Oppenheimer, was a German immigrant who was involved in the textile business. His mother, on the other hand, was painter. Ella Friedman’s family had been based in New York for many, many years.
- He had a younger brother called Frank, who was also a physicist.
- After seeing the horrors caused by his creation, he spent the remainder of his life working to avoid international nuclear proliferation.
- His life-long hobby of rock collection was triggered by his German father, who gave him a box full of minerals. Growing up, he was a member of the New York Mineralogical Club.
- At the age of 19, he presented his first scientific paper.
- Due to his brief flirting with communism in the 1930s, he came to be tagged as a communist sympathizer. In actual sense, Oppenheimer was anything but a communist, as he had heard the unimaginable horror stories of suffering in the Soviet Union.
Origin story of Oppenheimer’s infamous quote: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”
American physicist Oppenheimer’s infamous quote – which was taken from a line from the Bhagavad-Gita, a sacred Hindu text – best captures the mental state the physicist was in when he discovered just how devastating his invention the atomic bomb is. The scientist took to reading Hindu text as a way of coping with any guilt that he was feeling for his involvement in the creation of a weapon that could level cities, killing tens of millions.
Brilliantly written in Sanskrit, the 700-verse Bhagavad-Gita tells the story of Prince Arjuna’s interaction with Lord Krishna, who is one of the most important incarnations of the many mouthed and eyed Hindu god Vishnu. Krishna, himself a major deity in Hinduism, is the god of protection, love and compassion. In the epic poem, Krishna serves as the Prince’s charioteer during the Kurukshetra War – a family rivalry that pits the Pandavas against their cousins, the Kauravas.
Just as Prince Arjuna of the Pandavas is about to charge into battle, he is devastated by the thought of killing his own cousins for the throne. The Prince tells Krishna of his intention to abandon the entire quest and renounce his claim to the throne. Krishna counsels the warrior prince to go ahead with the war, explaining to young prince that it’s his duty to fight for righteousness and what is good (i.e., dharma, which is also known as the truth).
Lord Krishna tells the prince that his quest in the war is a selfless action that would put the prince on the path of spiritual enlightenment. This Hindu text basically reveals the immense ethical dilemmas that humans have to deal with sometimes. It is symbolic for the journey one has to take by killing their anti-spiritual side, which is represented by the Kauravas.
Oppenheimer saw many similarities between the role he played and that of the warrior Prince Arjuna in the Gita. The physicist perhaps tried to rationalize his involvement in the development of a world-destroying weapon, a weapon to end fascism.
Unlike Arjuna, Oppenheimer never believed in perpetual nature of the soul. Arjuna’s guilt of slaughtering his own brethren could be softened, if not eradicated, by the belief that the souls of his dead cousins would go on to live forever. So, although the physicist can take some bit of consolation in knowing that his creation helped bring an end to fascism, he simply could not shake off the knowledge of the lives and souls of the people his bomb killed.
Did Robert Oppenheimer regret his role in the creation of the Atomic Bomb?
The atom bomb that the U.S. dropped over Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed an estimated 80,000 and 40,000 people, respectively. The first bomb was dropped on August 6, while Nagasaki’s one occurred on August 9. The bombs were nicknamed ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’, respectively.
‘Little Boy’, which was a uranium-based bomb, was delivered via a parachute around 8 A.M. It went off about 1,800 feet above the city of Hiroshima. The blast, which is the equivalent of about 14,000 tons of TNT, laid to waste about 4.5 square miles of the city. ‘Fat Man’, which used plutonium, was dropped on August 9, 11:02 AM. It was more devastating than ‘Little Boy’ as it packed a punch. The mountainous nature of Nagasaki in some way helped reduce the impact of the bomb. Regardless, the bomb was still able to lay to waste about 2.5 square miles of the city.
In spite of the sheer number of deaths that his creation caused, the physicist never once came out to explicitly express his remorse for the creation of the atomic bomb. However, he was dismayed by the U.S. government’s pursuit of nuclear weapons far more destructive than the atomic bomb. He reprimanded fellow scientists like Edward Teller, who was busy creating a world-ending weapon as devastating as the hydrogen bomb. This was primarily the main reason Oppenheimer abandoned his involvement with the Los Alamos Laboratory and then committed the rest of his life to ending the proliferation of such weapons of mass destruction.
Robert Oppenheimer: Fast Facts
Born: April 22, 1904
Name at birth: Julius Robert Oppenheimer
Place of birth: New York City, New York, United States
Died: February 18, 1967
Parents: Julius Oppenheimer and Ella Friedman
Education: Cambridge University, University of Göttingen, Harvard
Spouse: Katharine Puening Harrison
Children: Peter and Katherine
Most famous for: The Manhattan Project