The recent Oppenheimer movie was a Box Office hit. The movie chronicled the life of the theoretical physicist and his genius contribution to the nuclear bomb that earned him the ‘destroyer of worlds’ title. Oppenheimer’s nuclear bomb changed the face of World War II, but is that all there is to him? Whether you’ve seen the movie or not, you’re about to discover who the real Oppenheimer was.
His Early Years
Robert Julius Oppenheimer was born in New York City, New York, on April 22, 1904. His father was a German immigrant who became prosperous by importing textiles to New York City. He excelled in physics as an undergraduate student.
As a Harvard undergraduate, Oppenheimer also excelled in chemistry, Latin, Greek, Eastern philosophy, and poetry. He migrated to England in 1925 to research at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory. Known for its atomic structure studies, this laboratory was Oppenheimer’s starting point.
His Research Works
In 1927, Oppenheimer obtained his doctorate at the University of Göttingen. Max Born invited him to the university; he also met Paul Dirac, Niels Bohr, and other famous physicists there. Then he began to teach physics at the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley.
His early research as a university staff was mainly on energy processes of subatomic particles like positrons, cosmic rays, and electrons. He also did some great work on black holes and neutron stars, thanks to his post, which allowed him to explore quantum theory.
The Manhattan Project
In 1939, physicists like Eugene Wagner and Albert Einstein told the United States government about humanity’s danger if the Nazis made a nuclear bomb. This led Oppenheimer on his quest to separate uranium-235 from natural uranium and his bomb research.
The U.S. Army, with the collaboration of U.S. physicists, birthed the Manhattan Project in August 1942. Oppenheimer received the instruction to establish a laboratory for the project’s mission (harnessing nuclear energy for military purposes). He chose the Los Alamos plateau in 1943.
As the time for the first atomic bomb test got closer, Oppenheimer became anxious. As the director of the scientific arm of the Manhattan Project, which built the bomb, his weight dropped significantly. The night before the testing, he reportedly slept for a few hours.
Minutes before the explosion, Oppemheimer’s colleagues affirmed that he scarcely breathed. Immediately after the bomb test detonation, he told interviewers that he felt like he had become ‘Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ He became depressed as he saw what was coming in Japan.
In 1953, a military security report accused Oppenheimer of delaying the name of Soviet agents, associating with communists in the past, and opposing the building of the hydrogen bomb. In 1954, a security hearing found him not guilty of treason. But it ended his career.
The hearing revoked his access to military secrets, making him lose his advisory contract with the U.S Atomic Energy Commission. He explored the relationship between science and society before he died of throat cancer in 1967. Not until 2014 did the hearing transcript reinforce his loyalty claims.