J. Robert Oppenheimer: Life and Work

Tristan Beck
March 23, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017

Early Life

Fig. 1: Portrait of J. Robert Oppenheimer from the Los Alamos Laboratory. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York on April 22, 1904. His father was a German immigrant and textile distributer, and a very successful one. His mother was an American painter from Baltimore who had studied painting in Paris. For most of his life, Oppenheimer was quite well off, attending one of the best private schools in the city where he quickly developed a love for collecting minerals- a love which at age 11 got him inducted into the New York Mineralogical Club. [1] In 1922, at the age of 18, Robert Oppenheimer was admitted to Harvard University where he studied chemistry at first, but then switched to his eventual major: physics. Oppenheimer studied at Harvard for three years, getting his degree in physics as well as learning Greek and Latin, and in 1925 graduated summa cum laude despite graduating a year early. After graduating, he travelled to England and spent two years at Cambridge, studying with the likes of Schrödinger, Heisenberg, and Born whilst the trio was working on the development of quantum mechanics. [2] Shortly after these studies, Oppenheimer and Born moved to Germany to study at Gottingen, where at age 22 Oppenheimer earned his PhD after only two years of studies. It is at Gottingen where he helped develop the Born-Oppenheimer approximation on the movement of the nucleus versus the electrons of an atom in certain mathematical equations. [3] In 1929, Oppenheimer returned to the US and took on an associated professor position at both the California Technical Institute and the University of California, Berkeley. He taught for many years at Berkeley and CalTech, and in 1940, married his wife Katherine Harrison and they had a son named Peter and a daughter named Katherine. [2]

The Manhattan Project

While teaching at Berkeley, Oppenheimer became close friends with another experimental physicist named Earnest Orlando Lawrence who had been in contact with the government on the proposal of putting together a project to begin work on creating a nuclear explosion. Lawrence felt strongly that Oppenheimer would be an essential addition to this team, and lobbied extensively to have him invited. However, Oppenheimer had extensive ties to leftist organizations such as the Teacher's Union and American Committee for Democracy and Intellectual Freedom, two organizations that fell under heavy scrutiny for having Communist ties. [4] These uncertain leftist viewpoints left Oppenheimer on the "outside" of discussions for the project, however, his extensive and indisputable contributions to "Uranium problem" meetings (where physicists would discuss how best to use Uranium for a bomb) are what led to Oppenheimer being named the leader of the Manhattan Project when the US joined the war in 1942. In that year, Oppenheimer, whose Los Alamos portrait is shown in Fig. 1, was charged with assembling the team of scientists from around the country who would be recruited for the job, and he managed to assemble a spectacular team. From there, Oppenheimer was noted for the high morale and general feeling of comradery which he inspired in the camp, and for the incredible work which he and his fellow scientists achieved. [5] That work manifested itself when on July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was successfully detonated on the Alamogordo Air Base near the Los Alamos Laboratory. [6]

Post Manhattan Project

Oppenheimer was originally aligned with the Federation of American Scientists, a federation of which he was an esteemed member; however, this alignment wavered over the topic of an international body to regulate nuclear usage. He took the government task of heading the Atomic Energy Commission from 1946 through 1952 and served to advise the US on how to proceed with nuclear power- specifically weapons- after the war. [3] Similarly, he voiced the strong opinion that a system must be established to detect nuclear weapon testing by any other countries worldwide, a system which was successful in detecting the Soviet nuclear detonation in 1949. [2] In 1953, Oppenheimerâ's clearance for classified work was revoked amongst the McCarthy Communist Panic and he was brought to trial. The government cut all ties with Oppenheimer following these investigations, and the relationship was not reconciled until 1961, when President Kennedy invited him to a White House dinner to be recognized for his service. Oppenheimer lived out the next six years advising at Princeton until, on February 18, 1967, J. Robert Oppenheimer died at the age of 62. [3]

© Tristan Beck. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.

Works Cited

[1] T. Anderson, "Oppenheimer's Dilemma," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.

[2] A. Pais and P. C. Robert, J. Robert Oppenheimer a Life (Oxford University Press, 2006).

[3] H. A. Bethe, "J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1904-1967," Biogr. Mem. Fellows R. Soc, 14, 390 (1968).

[4] K. Bird and M. J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Vintage Books, 2006).

[5] C. Thorpe and S. Shapin, "Who Was J. Robert Oppenheimer? Charisma and Complex Organization," Soc. Stud. Sci., 30, 4, (2000).

[6] L. R. Groves, Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project (Da Capo Press, 1983).