Julius Robert Oppenheimer was a first class theoretical
physicist, a synthesiser of ideas, an inspiring teacher, an able
scientific administrator, a nuclear policy-maker and an advocate
of international arm control. However, Oppenheimer is mainly remembered
for his association with the Manhattan Project. This project spearheaded
by Oppenheimer led to the development of the atomic bomb. This was
one of the most controversial scientific enterprises of the 20th
century. The story of Oppenheimer or the story of how the atomic
weapon was made, is really gripping. Oppenheimer was one of the
most brilliant men of the twentieth century. Thus his longtime associate
Charles Lauritsen said: “This man was unbelievable. He always
gave you the answer before you had the time to formulate the question.”
He was one of the most inspiring teachers of his time. The story
of Oppenheimer’s life and work make a compelling reading.
It is compelling not only because he headed a project that unleashed
a terrifying power that changed the world for ever but it also clearly
demonstrated what dominating role science would play in the world
Oppenheimer was born on April 22, 1904 to a wealthy
family in New York. In those days New York was the scientific and
commercial capital of the USA. His father Julius Oppenheimer had
come to the USA from Germany at the age of 17 in 1888. At the time
of his arrival, Julius had no fortune. He possessed few job skills
and he could speak little English. However, he prospered in his
adopted country as a successful garment importer. To make a career,
Julius was helped by his other family members, who were already
in the USA. Two of his older cousins had come to New York about
10 years before Julius’ arrival. Julius Oppenheimer was quite
active in many community affairs. He was interested in art and music.
In his collection of paintings he had three Van Gogh’s. Oppenheimer’s
mother, Ella Oppenheimer (nee Freedman) was a painter, who had studied
in Paris. Oppenheimer attended the New York School for Ethical Culture.
It is in this school Oppenheimer spent almost the whole period of
his pre-college studies. The school, run by Felix Adler, a philosopher
and an educator, was one of the best schools in New York. At all
levels, the school curriculum stressed the responsibility of the
individual to the larger society. In school he was taught language,
literature including Greek and French literature, science, art and
ethics. He had a true feel for language. He could learn a new language
in a period of one or two months. He learnt Sanskrit. He had developed
a keen interest in literature. He had even written some philosophical
Oppenheimer’s interest in science developed
very early. Since his childhood he was always eager to explore the
nature around him and to understand its different phenomena. Already
at the age of five, Oppenheimer collected mineralogical specimens.
It was his grandfather who made him interested in mineralogy. One
of his biographers, Jack Rummel, wrote: “When he was five,
his parents took him and his brother Frank back to Germany to visit
his grandfather, Benjamin, who had remained in Europe after Julius
Oppenheimer immigrated to the United States. His grandfather gave
Robert a gift of a collection of minerals. The chiseled and glittering
stones immediately captivated the boy. After he returned to the
United States, he became a devoted amateur mineralogist, often touring
the countryside during weekends in search of new samples to add
to his collection. His fascination with geology and mineralogy became
so strong that by his 11th birthday he had become an elected member
of the New York Mineralogical Club. His first scientific paper was
a report about minerals that he read to the club when he was 12.”
After completing his school education in 1922,
Oppenheimer joined the Harvard University. In 1925 he graduated
with a major in chemistry. He took just three years for the normal
four-year course. In addition to studying the science subjects he
learnt Latin and Greek. At Harvard he was very much influenced by
Percy Williams Bridgman (1882-1961), an original experimental physicist.
It was Bridgman, who attracted Oppenheimer to the world of physics.
In Oppenheimer’s own words Bridgman was “wonderful teacher
because he never really was quite reconciled to things being the
way they were and he always thought them out; his exercises were
a good way to learn where the bones were in …physics…He
was a man to whom one wanted to appreciate.” At Harvard Oppenheimer
did not miss any chance to gain knowledge. Later he said: “I
had a real chance to learn. I loved it. I almost came alive. I took
more courses than I was supposed to, lived in the library stacks,
just raided the place intellectually.”
In the last year of his graduation, Oppenheimer
had made up his mind to plunge into the world of physics. The decision
was not easy. He knew that his degree majoring in chemistry would
not be welcomed by the renowned physicists at the leading European
universities, with whom Oppenheimer would like to work for his graduate
study in physics. He also knew that he had only a beginner’s
knowledge in physics. With a letter of recommendation from Percy
Bridgman, Oppenheimer left USA for England in September 1925. This
was the beginning of his four-year tour to the great centres of
physics in Europe. The year 1925, in which Oppenheimer decided to
enter physics, was very important in the history of physics. In
this year the modern quantum mechanics came into being. He spent
the year 1925-26 at the Cavendish Laboratory of the Cambridge University,
where he came in contact with Lord Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937),
one of the finest research physicists of the twentieth century.
Initially Rutherford was not very willing to admit Oppenheimer as
a student at the Cavendish Laboratory. However, relentless pleading
for admittance by Oppenheimer persuaded Rutherford to change his
mind. Oppenheimer was placed under the charge of Joseph John Thomson
(1856-1940), who had discovered electron in 1897.
The stay at Cambridge was not much enjoyable for
Oppenheimer. He had to consult a psychiatrist for treatment for
his emotional problems. He did not like the work at Thomson’s
laboratory. He wrote to one of his Harvard friends, Francis Fergusson:
“I am having a pretty bad time. The lab work is a terrible
bore, and I am so bad at it that it is impossible to feel that I
am learning anything.” At Cambridge he read physics with all
seriousness. He became familiar with the new ideas in physics. He
mastered quantum mechanics. At Cavendish Laboratory Oppenheimer
also met Niels Bohr, who had come there to meet his old teacher
Rutherford. Oppenheimer realized that his aptitude was more suited
to theoretical physics and not experimental physics. Eventually
he overcame his emotional insecurities.
After completing one year at Cambridge he went
to Germany to work with the German-born British theoretical physicist
Max Born (1882-1970) at the University of Gottingen for his PhD.
He completed his PhD within two years after his graduation. With
Born, Oppenheimer wrote a very important paper on the “Quantum
Theory of Molecules.” After obtaining his PhD in 1927, he
returned to the USA for the academic year 1927-28 and became a Fellow
of the National Research Council, first at Harvard University and
then at the California Institute of Technology. As a Fellow of the
International Education Board (1928-29), Oppenheimer visited Leiden
and Zurich. During this period he worked with the Austrian-born
American physicist Wolfgang Pauli (1900-58), who influenced his
scientific work to a great extent. During his stay at Europe, Oppenheimer
also interacted with the German physicist Werner Heisenberg (1901-76),
and the Italian-born American physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-54).
Heisenberg formulated the principle of nuclear indeterminancy and
he was awarded Nobel Prize in physics in 1932. It was Fermi who
directed the construction of the first atomic pile. Fermi was awarded
the Nobel Prize in physics in 1938.
Commenting on the work done by Oppenheimer during
his stay at Europe, Rummel wrote: “Between 1926 and 1929,
his last year in Europe, Oppenheimer published 16 papers on the
physics of quantum mechanics. His papers, which were densely mathematical
and difficult for a non-physicist to understand, used the concept
of quantum theory to focus on different aspects of the atom, such
as electron spin, or the idea that the electron itself spins on
its own axis as it moves around the nucleus in the same way the
Earth spins as it moves around the Sun. The concept of electron
spin helped physicists resolve questions about how the atom binds
together.” The sixteen papers published by Oppenheimer marked
him as a rising theoretical physicist.
After returning from Europe, Oppenheimer accepted
joint appointments at the California Institute of Technology at
Pasadena and the University of California at Berkeley. The areas
in which he worked included quantum electrodynamics, cosmic rays,
nuclear physics and astrophysics including the first theoretical
suggestion of black holes. It was at Berkeley, that Oppenheimer
created his great school of theoretical physics. Most of the best
theoretical physicists who grew up in 1930s or 1940s were trained
by Oppenheimer at one stage or other. Hans Albert Bethe (1906- ),
who worked with Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, wrote: “…Oppenheimer
created the greatest school of theoretical physics that the United
States has ever known. Before him, theoretical physics in America
was a fairly modest enterprise, although there were a few representatives.
Probably the most important ingredient he brought to his teaching
was his exquisite taste. He always knew what were the important
problems, as shown by his choice of subjects. He truly lived with
these problems, struggling for a solution, and he communicated his
concern to his group. In its heyday, there were about eight or ten
graduate students in his group and about six Post-doctoral Fellows.
He met this group once a day in his office, and discussed with one
another the status of the student’s research problem. He was
interested in everything, and in one afternoon they might discuss
quantum electrodynamics, cosmic rays, electron pair production and
In California, Oppenheimer actively participated
in radical politics. Besides joining the radical Teachers’
Union, Oppenheimer was associated with a number of other organizations
secretly controlled by Communist Party activists. To quote Oppenheimer:
“I became a real left-winger…joined the teachers’
Union, had lots of Communist friends. It was what most people do
in college or late high school…but I’m not ashamed of
it. I’m more ashamed of its lateness. Most of what I believed
then, now seems complete nonsense, but it was an essential part
of becoming a whole man.” It is not known whether Oppenheimer
was actually a Communist Party member or not. However, his association
with left politics became major concerns for the authorities when
Oppenheimer was working at Los Alamos for developing the atomic
In May 1942 General Leslie R. Groves appointed
Oppenheimer as Director of the Central Laboratory for Bomb Design
and Development in Los Alamos, New Mexico. This was the beginning
of the Manhattan Project, which led to the development of the atomic
bomb. The choice of Oppenheimer was rather surprising. He was not
a Nobel Laureate and so his stature was not equal to those of some
others who would be expected to join the group. Oppenheimer was
a theorist but he was expected to lead a largely experimental programme.
The Manhattan Project was work of massive scale and significance.
He succeeded in gathering a group of gifted scientists and generating
an atmosphere of urgency. He skillfully handled the interface between
his military superior General Groves and the unorthodox research
scientists under him.
It was a very difficult task. They had only some
theoretical ideas about how to proceed. Victor Weisskopf, a colleague
of Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, said: “The task facing Oppenheimer
and his collaborators was stupendous. When the work started at Los
Alamos not much more was known than the fundamental ideas of a chain
reaction. What happens in a nuclear explosion had to be theoretically
predicted in all details for the design of the bomb since there
was no time to wait for experiments; no fashionable material was
available yet. The details of the fission process had to be understood.
The slowing down of neutrons in matter and the theory of explosions
and implosions under completely novel conditions had to be investigated.
Nuclear physicists had to become experts in fields of technology
unknown to them such as shock waves and hydrodynamics. Oppenheimer
directed these studies, theoretical and experimental, in the real
sense of the words. Here his uncanny speed in grasping the main
points of any subject was a decisive factor; he could acquaint himself
with the essential details of every part of the work.
He did not direct from head office. He was intellectually
and even physically present at each decisive step. He was present
in the laboratory or in seminar rooms, when a new effect was measured,
when a new idea was conceived. It was not that he contributed so
many ideas or suggestions; he did so sometimes, but his main influence
came from something else. It was his continuous and intense presence,
which produced a sense of direct participation in all of us; it
created that unique atmosphere of enthusiasm and challenge that
pervaded the place throughout its time.”
It was Oppenheimer’s intelligence, his unique
capacity for assimilating different ideas and his administrative
and leadership qualities which made the Manhattan Project successful.
Edward Teller, who worked with Oppenheimer and who later worked
for the development of the hydrogen bomb, wrote: “Oppie (Oppenheimer)
knew in detail what was going in every part of the laboratory. He
was incredibly quick and perceptive in analyzing human as well as
technical problems…Oppie knew [what the staff’s] relationships
with one another were and what made them tick. He knew how to organize,
cazole, humor, soothe feelings—how to lead powerfully without
seeming to do so. He was an exemplar of dedication, a hero who never
lost his humanness. Disappointing him somehow carried with it a
sense of wrongdoing.”
After four years’ of hard work the team
headed by Oppenheimer at Los Alamos designed and built two types
of atomic bombs. The first type was a uranium bomb that was triggered
by U-235 “bullet” that was impelled into a U-235 sphere
by an explosive. It was called ‘Little Boy”. The other
was a plutonium implosion-type bomb consisting of a plutonium core,
surrounded by an initiator of polonium and beryllium and a circle
of explosive. This type was called “Fat Man”. By July
1945, four bombs were built—two bombs of plutonium-assembly
type, one bomb for test and another for keeping in reserve, two
bombs, one of each type, for possible use.
Oppenheimer named the site for the first-ever
site for atomic explosion Trinity after a sonnet by the English
poet John Donne. This is because Oppenheimer thought Donne’s
sonnet set the proper tone for the experiment at Trinity. The test
of the first atomic bomb called the Fat Man at the Trinity Site
on July 16, 1945 was a step into the unknown. No one including the
scientist who actually built the bomb knew exactly what would happen
when the bomb exploded. The test, though there were several hours
of delays because of bad weather and dangerous winds, went exactly
as planned. Finally the first atomic bomb exploded over the desert.
It changed the world for ever. Enrico Fermi who viewed the explosion
from an elevated desert floor called Compania Hill, thirty kilometres
away from the actual site said: “ Although I did not look
directly toward the object. I had the impression that suddenly the
countryside became brighter than in full daylight…After a
few seconds the rising flames lost their brightness and appeared
as a huge mushroom that rose rapidly beyond the clouds.”
After seeing the all-illuminating flash of
the explosion of the atomic weapon, Oppenheimer recited a Sanskrit
verse from the Bhagvad Gita.
“If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once into the sky,
That would be like the splendor of the Mighty One.
I am become Death
The destroyer of worlds.
Oppenheimer, like any other scientist associated
with the project, was elated at the success of the project. They
were working with a patriotic zeal to ensure the defeat of Germany
and its allies, to wipe out war for ever from the face of the Earth.
However, Oppenheimer was deeply concerned with the ominous implications
of the atomic weapon. At Los Alamos, Oppenheimer had discussed his
concerns with Niels Bohr. In his later life Oppenheimer was a strong
advocate of the international control of the atomic weapon.
At the time of acquiring atomic weapons the Second
World War was not yet over. Japanese forces continued to fight bloody
battles. It has been reported that Japan was given an warning to
surrender or face inevitable complete destruction of Japanese armed
forces and the utter devastation of Japanese homeland. Japan ignored
the warning and resolved to fight for successful conclusion of the
war. The first atomic weapon was dropped on Hiroshima on August
06, 1945. The bomb was “Little Boy” type and the aircraft,
which carried the bomb was called Enola Gay. The destruction was
complete. One member of the crew of Enola Gay later recalled: “I
don’t believe anyone ever expected to look at a sight quite
like that. Where we had seen a clear city two minutes before, we
could no longer see the city.” Japanese did not surrender.
So on August 09, 1945 another atomic bomb, the “Fat Man”
type was dropped on the southern city of Nagasaki. On August 14,
1945, Emperor Hirohito (1901-89) announced Japan’s surrender.
The terms of the surrender were signed on September 02, 1945 aboard
the battleship USS Missouri and the Second World War was ended officially.
Oppenheimer served as the Chairman of the Atomic
Energy Commission’s General Advisory Committee. It was very
important and time-consuming responsibility. The Committee included
Fermi, Rabi, Conant, Dubridge, Smythe and Seaborg and two industrialists,
Worthington and Rowe. The Committee used to have six sessions a
year. It advised the Commission on both scientific matters as well
as matters of general policy. Seaborg wrote: “At the conclusion
of each session, when the AEC Commissioners came in to review our
work, Oppie presented a masterful summary of the proceedings. I
know that my fellow members of the GAC remember with me that this
was pure Oppenheimer at his very best. I regret that tape-recordings
were not made of these eloquent summations of our deliberations,
for I believe that these would provide fascinating historical material.”
As a Chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy
Commission, Oppenheimer played an important role in strengthening
and expanding research in physics particularly in nuclear physics.
Oppenheimer led the General Advisory Committee’s opposition
to the development of the hydrogen bomb. The opposition to the hydrogen
bomb was not entirely on moral ground but also because fusion did
not appear technically feasible. Further the Committee thought that
a crash programme would divert scarce resources from newly developed
fission weapons. President Harry Truman did not heed to the Committee’s
opposition and approved a crash programme for the hydrogen-bomb.
Oppenheimer wanted to resign from the Chairmanship of the Committee
but his resignation was not accepted.
After the war ended, Oppenheimer decided to return
to academic life again. General Groves, though reluctantly, accepted
Oppenheimer’s resignation. Before leaving the Los Alamos,
Oppenheimer accepted the certificate of appreciation from the Army
to the Los Alamos Laboratory. On this occasion Oppenheimer said:
“If atomic bombs are to be added to the arsenals of the world,
or the arsenals of the nations preparing for war, then the time
will come when mankind will curse the name of Los Alamos and Hiroshima.
The peoples of the world must unite or perish. This war, that has
ravaged so much of the earth, has written these words. The atomic
bomb has spelled them out for all men to understand. Other men have
spoken them, in other times, in other wars, or other weapons. They
have not prevailed. There are some, misled by a false sense of human
history, who hold that they will not prevail today. It is not for
us to believe that. By our works we are committed, committed to
a world united, before the common peril, in law and in humanity.”
In 1947, Oppenheimer was appointed as Director
of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. At that time the
most important member of the Institute was Albert Einstein. At Princeton
Oppenheimer himself did not do much research but he certainly inspired
his collaborators. He made the Institute a centre of young physicists.
Bethe wrote: “…on Oppenheimer’s arrival, the physics
department of the Institute changed. While its emphasis had been
on well-established professors before, it now became a centre for
young physicists. Five research associates from Berkeley came with
him in 1947. Thereafter the Institute was open to dozens of post-doctoral
fellows, from the United States and abroad. Even more than Berkeley
in the 1930’s, the Princeton Institute became the centre of
physics. Nearly everybody who was anybody passed its stimulating
In 1953, his political background and his support
for making the hydrogen bomb was questioned. In fact Oppenheimer
was under investigation since 1942, first as a matter of routine
and then more rigorously when reports critical of his loyalty to
the interest of the State, began to arrive at the office of Colonel
Pash, the in-charge of security at Los Alamos. He came under suspicion
because some of his friends had been members of the Communist Party
and also because he moved freely in left-wing circles. Joseph McCarthy,
one of the most conservative Senators in the US Congress started
investigating Oppenheimer’s communist links. The Joint Congressional
Committee on Atomic Energy also started an investigation into Oppenheimer’s
past. The Joint Committee brought out a series of damaging charges
against Oppenheimer. Alarmed by the charges brought out by the Joint
Committee against Oppenheimer, the Atomic Energy Commission began
investigating against Oppenheimer. He was asked to resign from the
post of Chairman of the General Advisory Committee but when Oppenheimer
refused to do so, the Commission ordered the proceedings of the
trial against Oppenheimer. The hearings ran from April 5 until May
6, 1954. On June 28, 1954, the US Atomic Energy Commission stripped
Robert Oppenheimer of his security clearance. Though Oppenheimer
was not found guilty of espionage but the Commission judged that
Oppenheimer possessed “substantial defects of character and
imprudent dangerous associations (with) known subversive”
and so he could not be trusted anymore with military/government
secrets. After this Oppenheimer found himself cut off from inside
circles of nuclear policy. Oppenheimer accepted his downfall with
The Atomic Energy Commission trial had its effect
on the personal life of Oppenheimer. His brother Franck was dismissed
from his teaching job at the University of Minnesota because of
his former ties to the Communist Party. A number of friendships
and personal associations were either severed or strained. But there
were people who lent him their emotional support. Among them were
Hans Bethe, Niels Bohr and one of his former colleagues at Caltech
and Los Alamos.
In 1963, the General Advisory Committee elected
Oppenheimer for its Enrico Fermi Award for excellence in the field
of nuclear research. The award was to be presented by President
John Fitzgeral Kennedy (1917-63). But two weeks before the award
ceremony, President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963.
Finally, the President Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908-73) presented
the award on December 02, 1963.
Oppenheimer had a complex personality. He took interest in a number
of human activities including religion. Isador Isaac Rabi (1898-1988):
“[Oppenheimer] was overeducated in those fields which lie
outside the scientific tradition, such as his interest in religion,
in the Hindu religion in particular, which resulted in a feeling
of mystery of the universe that surrounded him almost like a fog.
He saw physics clearly, looking toward what had already been done,
but at the border he tended to feel there was much more of the mysterious
and novel than there actually was.”
Not long after this award ceremony he returned
to California to join the Faculty of the California Institute of
Technology in Pasadena. The success of the atomic bomb had made
Oppenheimer a well-known and highly respected public figure. He
was no more a simple theoretical physicist. At California he again
started doing research in theoretical physics. He succeeded in publishing
a few research papers.
There are two books by Oppenheimer. The first
book, Science and the Common Understanding (1954) offers a firsthand
look at physics, quantum mechanics and the role of scientist in
modern society. The second book The Open Mind, (1955) is based on
lectures given by Oppenheimer during 1946 and 1954. In these lectures
Oppenheimer addressed the problems of atomic weapons and the relationship
between science and society.
Oppenheimer died on February 18, 1967 at his home
in Princeton. He was 62 years old.
1. Chevalier, Haakon. Oppenheimer: The Story of
a Friendship. New York: Braziller, 1965.
2. Davis, Nuel Pharr. Lawrence and Oppenheimer. New York: Simon
& Schuster, 1968.
3. Goodchild, Peter. J. Robert Oppenheimer: Shatterer of Worlds.
New York: Fromm International, 1985.
4. Michelmore, Peter. The Swift Year: The Robert Oppenheimer Study.
New York: Dodd, Mead, 1969.
5. Rabi, I. I., Robert Serber, Victor Weiskopf, Abraham Pais, and
Glenn Seaborg. Oppenheimer, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,
6. Rummel, Jack. Robert Oppenheimer: Dark Prince. Hyderabad: Universities
Press (India) Ltd., 1999.
7. Smith, Alice and Charles Weiner. Robert Oppenheimer: Letters
and Recollections. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.
8. Stern, Phillip (with Harold Green). The Oppenheimer Case: Security
and Trial. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.
9. Spangenburg, Ray and Diane K. Moser. The History of Science:
From 1895 to 1945. Hyderabad: Universities Press (India) Ltd., 1999.
10. A Dictionary of Scientists. Oxford: Oxford University Press,