Dr. Julius Robert Oppenheimer
Julius Robert Oppenheimer was an American physicist and government
adviser, who directed the development of the first atomic bombs. To scientists,
he was not only the builder of the atomic bomb and a pioneer in atomic energy,
but a master of many languages, a good conversationalist and a brilliant
mathematician. He was also a writer, and an expert in both the history of
architecture and the religions of the world.
Oppenheimer, who was born in New York City on April 22, 1904, and
educated at Harvard University and the Universities of Cambridge and
Gottingen, grew up in a middle class neighborhood. He was raised by his
mother, who was an artist who provided a nice apartment with a subdued,
tasteful atmosphere. His grandfather came from Germany where he was a
peasant farmer and grain merchant. The Oppenheimers family business was
importing fabric for the clothing industry. As a child in grade school,
Oppenheimer excelled in all subjects. This continued straight through all of his
During his years at Harvard University, Oppenheimer excelled in Latin,
Greek, physics and chemistry. He also published poetry and studied Oriental
philosophy. After graduating in 1925, he sailed to England to do research in
the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University , which, under the
leadership of Lord Rutherford, had an international reputation for its pioneering
studies on atomic structure. Oppenheimer was fortunate to enter physics in
1925 because that is when modern quantum mechanics came into being. He
was one of the first scientists to use quantum mechanics for the exploration of
problems which had been insoluble with the old quantum theory. While at
Cambridge, Oppenheimer had the opportunity to work with the British scientific
community in its efforts to advance the cause of atomic research.

Shortly thereafter, Max Born invited him to Gottingen University, where
he met other prominent physicists, such as Niels Bohr and Paul Dirac, and
where, in 1927, he received his doctorate. He then returned to the United
After serving with the International Education Board from 1928 to 1929,
Oppenheimer became a professor of physics at the University of California at
Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology where he worked from1929
to 1947. There he built up large schools of theoretical physics. He was noted
for his contributions relating to the quantum theory, the theory of relativity,
cosmic rays, positrons, and neutron stars. He was also able to show that a
baffling movement of a deuteron (heavy hydrogen nucleus), being loosely
bound, surrenders its neutron on entering the field of a heavy nucleus. The
effect was that the heavy nucleus captures the stripped neutron, becomes
unstable and then radioactive. This discovery helped to later develop the
hydrogen bomb, which is thousands of times more powerful than the atomic
In his early years of teaching, Oppenheimer had little success and
many students complained to the head of the physics department about how
quiet he was and how he overestimated his audience. The department head,
Raymond T. Birge, knew that Oppenheimer already knew that he was not
getting through to the students and therefore did not need to be told. Soon
enough he began to interact with his audience by dropping his pace of delivery
and going to great lengths to make connections between ideas clearer. By
doing this he attracted a small group of some of the brightest students. These
students thought of him as a brilliant lecturer and some remarked that he was
one of their most inspiring professors.

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In 1940 Oppenheimer married a woman named Katherine Harrison.
They had one son whom they named Peter and a daughter whom they named
Katherine. They lived in a beautiful house on Eagle Hill in the San Francisco
Bay area.

During a leave of absence that lasted from 1943 until 1945,
Oppenheimer served as director of the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos,
New Mexico. After warnings from Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard, both
respected scientists, that the world would be in grave danger if the Nazis were
the first to create an atomic bomb, Oppenheimer began to seek a process for
the separation of uranium-235 from natural uranium. He also strove to
discover a way to determine the critical mass of uranium required to make such
a bomb. On July 16, 1945, the joint effort of outstanding scientists at Los
Alamos created the first nuclear explosion. This took place at Alamogordo,
New Mexico. That October, Oppenheimer resigned from the project. His
leadership and organizational skills during the project earned him the
Presidential Medal of Merit in 1946.
In 1947 Oppenheimer became director of the Institute for Advanced
Studies in Princeton, New Jersey, serving there until the year before his death.
He was also chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy
Commission, or AEC, from 1947 to 1952 and served thereafter as an adviser. In
1954, however, he was suspended from this position on charges about his past
association with Communists.
Oppenheimer had been notified of a military security report that was
unfavorable of him and that dealt with his alleged associations with Communists
in the past. One of these alleged associations was with his wife and brother who
were both known to be Communists. He also had no close friends that were not
Communists. He had made substantial sums of money monthly to the
Communist party which further contributed to his indictment. There was also
evidence that his ties with Communism had survived the Nazi-Soviet Pact and
the Soviet attack on Finland, that he belonged only to Communist organizations
apart from professional affiliations. The people whom he had recruited into the
early wartime Berkeley project were exclusively Communists and he had been
instrumental in securing recruits for the Communist party, but his worst and most
incriminating action was certainly his frequent contact with Soviet espionage

During the war, Oppenheimer was responsible for employing many
Communists, some of them being non-technical, at wartime Los Alamos. He
selected one of these individuals to write the official Los Alamos history.
He was also accused of delaying the naming of Soviet agents and of
opposing the building of the hydrogen bomb. A security hearing that followed
declared him not guilty of treason, but ruled that he should not have access to
military secrets. It was a powerful case that basically tried to label Oppenheimer
as a Communist. It is important to remember that all of the accusations were
alleged and came without proof, but the question still remains today as to
weather Oppenheimer was simply subject to bad coincidences or if the
accusations really had any significance.
As a result of the trial, Oppenheimers contract as adviser to the Atomic
Energy Commission was cancelled. This action reflected the political
atmosphere of the time, as well as the dislike of some politicians and military
figures for Oppenheimer’s opposition to development of the hydrogen bomb and
his support of arms control. The Federation of American Scientists stood behind
him and protested the trial. During this time he wrote his book Science and the
Common Understanding. He also wrote Lectures on Electrodynamics which
wasnt released until 1970.

Subsequently, efforts were made to clear Oppenheimers name, and in
1963 the AEC conferred on him its highest honor, the Enrico Fermi Award. This
prize carries with it a purse of $50,000. He devoted his final years to study of
the relationship between science and society. He died in Princeton on February
18, 1967.
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