Dr. Julius Robert OppenheimerJulius Robert Oppenheimer was an American physicist and governmentadviser, 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 brilliantmathematician.
He was also a writer, and an expert in both the history ofarchitecture and the religions of the world. Oppenheimer, who was born in New York City on April 22, 1904, andeducated at Harvard University and the Universities of Cambridge andGottingen, grew up in a middle class neighborhood. He was raised by hismother, who was an artist who provided a nice apartment with a subdued,tasteful atmosphere. His grandfather came from Germany where he was apeasant farmer and grain merchant. The Oppenheimers family business wasimporting fabric for the clothing industry.
As a child in grade school,Oppenheimer excelled in all subjects. This continued straight through all of hisschooling. During his years at Harvard University, Oppenheimer excelled in Latin,Greek, physics and chemistry. He also published poetry and studied Orientalphilosophy. After graduating in 1925, he sailed to England to do research inthe Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University , which, under theleadership of Lord Rutherford, had an international reputation for its pioneeringstudies on atomic structure. Oppenheimer was fortunate to enter physics in1925 because that is when modern quantum mechanics came into being. Hewas one of the first scientists to use quantum mechanics for the exploration ofproblems which had been insoluble with the old quantum theory. While atCambridge, Oppenheimer had the opportunity to work with the British scientificcommunity in its efforts to advance the cause of atomic research.
Shortly thereafter, Max Born invited him to Gottingen University, wherehe met other prominent physicists, such as Niels Bohr and Paul Dirac, andwhere, in 1927, he received his doctorate. He then returned to the UnitedStates. After serving with the International Education Board from 1928 to 1929,Oppenheimer became a professor of physics at the University of California atBerkeley and the California Institute of Technology where he worked from1929to 1947.
There he built up large schools of theoretical physics. He was notedfor his contributions relating to the quantum theory, the theory of relativity,cosmic rays, positrons, and neutron stars. He was also able to show that abaffling movement of a deuteron (heavy hydrogen nucleus), being looselybound, surrenders its neutron on entering the field of a heavy nucleus. Theeffect was that the heavy nucleus captures the stripped neutron, becomesunstable and then radioactive.
This discovery helped to later develop thehydrogen bomb, which is thousands of times more powerful than the atomicbomb. In his early years of teaching, Oppenheimer had little success andmany students complained to the head of the physics department about howquiet he was and how he overestimated his audience. The department head,Raymond T. Birge, knew that Oppenheimer already knew that he was notgetting through to the students and therefore did not need to be told. Soonenough he began to interact with his audience by dropping his pace of deliveryand going to great lengths to make connections between ideas clearer.
Bydoing this he attracted a small group of some of the brightest students. Thesestudents thought of him as a brilliant lecturer and some remarked that he wasone of their most inspiring professors.In 1940 Oppenheimer married a woman named Katherine Harrison.
They had one son whom they named Peter and a daughter whom they namedKatherine. They lived in a beautiful house on Eagle Hill in the San FranciscoBay 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, bothrespected scientists, that the world would be in grave danger if the Nazis werethe first to create an atomic bomb, Oppenheimer began to seek a process forthe separation of uranium-235 from natural uranium. He also strove todiscover a way to determine the critical mass of uranium required to make sucha bomb. On July 16, 1945, the joint effort of outstanding scientists at LosAlamos created the first nuclear explosion.
This took place at Alamogordo,New Mexico. That October, Oppenheimer resigned from the project. Hisleadership and organizational skills during the project earned him thePresidential Medal of Merit in 1946. In 1947 Oppenheimer became director of the Institute for AdvancedStudies in Princeton, New Jersey, serving there until the year before his death. He was also chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic EnergyCommission, or AEC, from 1947 to 1952 and served thereafter as an adviser. In1954, however, he was suspended from this position on charges about his pastassociation with Communists. Oppenheimer had been notified of a military security report that wasunfavorable of him and that dealt with his alleged associations with Communistsin the past. One of these alleged associations was with his wife and brother whowere both known to be Communists.
He also had no close friends that were notCommunists. He had made substantial sums of money monthly to theCommunist party which further contributed to his indictment. There was alsoevidence that his ties with Communism had survived the Nazi-Soviet Pact andthe Soviet attack on Finland, that he belonged only to Communist organizationsapart from professional affiliations. The people whom he had recruited into theearly wartime Berkeley project were exclusively Communists and he had beeninstrumental in securing recruits for the Communist party, but his worst and mostincriminating action was certainly his frequent contact with Soviet espionageagents.
During the war, Oppenheimer was responsible for employing manyCommunists, some of them being non-technical, at wartime Los Alamos. Heselected one of these individuals to write the official Los Alamos history. He was also accused of delaying the naming of Soviet agents and ofopposing the building of the hydrogen bomb. A security hearing that followeddeclared him not guilty of treason, but ruled that he should not have access tomilitary secrets. It was a powerful case that basically tried to label Oppenheimeras a Communist. It is important to remember that all of the accusations werealleged and came without proof, but the question still remains today as toweather Oppenheimer was simply subject to bad coincidences or if theaccusations really had any significance.
As a result of the trial, Oppenheimers contract as adviser to the AtomicEnergy Commission was cancelled. This action reflected the politicalatmosphere of the time, as well as the dislike of some politicians and militaryfigures for Oppenheimer’s opposition to development of the hydrogen bomb andhis support of arms control. The Federation of American Scientists stood behindhim and protested the trial. During this time he wrote his book Science and theCommon Understanding. He also wrote Lectures on Electrodynamics whichwasnt released until 1970.Subsequently, efforts were made to clear Oppenheimers name, and in1963 the AEC conferred on him its highest honor, the Enrico Fermi Award.
Thisprize carries with it a purse of $50,000. He devoted his final years to study ofthe relationship between science and society. He died in Princeton on February18, 1967.