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J#Note:_On_Oppenheimer's_first_initial Robert Oppenheimer (April 22, 1904 - February 18, 1967) was a Jewish-American physicist and the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, the World War II effort to develop nuclear weapons, at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
Oppenheimer (right) with Albert Einstein
Oppenheimer was born in New York in 1904 to Julius (a wealthy textile-importer who had immigrated to the USA from Germany in 1888) and Ella Friedman Oppenheimer (an artist). He studied at the Ethical Culture Society school where, in addition to mathematics and science, he was exposed to a variety of subjects ranging from Greek to French literature. He entered Harvard one year late due to an attack of colitis. During the interim period he went with a former English teacher to New Mexico to recuperate, where he fell in love with horseback riding and the mountains and plateaus of the American southwest. He returned reinvigorated and made up for the delay by graduating in just three years with a major in chemistry. One of the most brilliant men of the twentieth century, he studied science and the humanities with equal ease and insight.
While at Harvard he was introduced to experimental physics during a course on thermodynamics taught by Percy Bridgman. However, while undertaking postgraduate work at Ernest Rutherford's famed Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge, he came to realize that his forte was theoretical, not experimental physics, as he was quite clumsy in the laboratory working under J.J. Thomson. In 1926 he pursued this interest by studying under Max Born at the University of Göttingen, one of the top centers for theoretical physics in Europe, and obtained his PhD at the age of 22.
He had a true feel for languages and could study a new one in a period of just one or two months. He was deeply interested in Sanskrit and Indian philosophies. During the period spent at Göttingen, Oppenheimer published many important contributions to the then newly-developed quantum theory. In September 1927, he returned to Harvard as a National Research Council Fellow and in early 1928 he studied at the California Institute of Technology. Here he received numerous invitations for teaching positions, and eventually opted to accept an assistant professorship in physics at the University of California, Berkeley as, in his words, "it was a desert", and yet paradoxically also a fertile place of opportunity. He maintained a joint appointment with Cal Tech, where he spent every spring term, in order to avoid potential isolation. Before his Berkeley professorship began, however, he was diagnosed with a mild case of tuberculosis, and with his brother Frank, spent some weeks at a ranch, "Perro Caliente," in New Mexico, which he leased and eventually purchased outright. Recovered, he returned to Berkeley to inspire a whole generation of physicists who idolized him for his intellectual virtuosity and amazingly versatile interests. While at Berkeley he also worked closely with (and became good friends with) Ernest O. Lawrence and his cyclotron pioneers. He is credited with creating the American school of theoretical physics.
Oppenheimer did important research in astrophysics, nuclear physics, and spectroscopy. In 1936 he became involved with Jean Tatlock, who sparked his interest in politics. Like many young intellectuals in the 1930s he became a supporter of Communist ideas, and having much more money than most professors (he inherited over $300,000 after his father's death in 1937, a massive sum at the time) was able to bankroll many left-wing efforts. In November 1940 he married Katherine Puening Harrison, a radical Berkeley student, and by May 1941 they had produced their first child, Peter.
When World War II started, Oppenheimer eagerly became involved in the on-going war effort to develop an atomic bomb which was already taking up much of the activities of Lawrence's Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley. He threw himself into the task with full vigor. Much to Lawrence's frustration and the surprise of many, the Manhattan Project head General Leslie Groves appointed Oppenheimer as the scientific director, despite knowing of his past security complications.
Scouting for a site to create a new secret laboratory to be in charge of the scientific work behind the bomb, Oppenheimer was again drawn to New Mexico, not far from his ranch. On a flat mesa near the city of Santa Fe, Los Alamos was formed as a rag-tag collection of barracks and mud. There Oppenheimer collected a group of the most brilliant physicists of his day, which included Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe, Richard Feynman, Edward Teller, and Victor Weiskopf. He succeeded superbly as director and kept all the details of the project, from chemistry to engineering, in his mind. His wife gave birth to their second child, Katherine (called Toni), in 1944 while at the lab. The joint work of the scientists at Los Alamos resulted in the first nuclear explosion at Alamogordo on July 16, 1945. Witnessing the explosion, he later said, recalled to Oppenheimer a verse in Sanskrit from the Bhagavad Gita: Kalosmi lokaksaya krt pravrddho - "I am Death, destroyer of worlds."
After the Nazis surrendered and the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, Oppenheimer objected to these weapons being used to defend the United States from the Soviet Union. He became Chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, and rallied vigorously for international arms control and against the development of the hydrogen bomb. In 1947, he took Albert Einstein's old position as the director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.
His previous ties to Communists and his leftist politics led to tensions between him and politicians, and he was accused of being a security risk and had his security clearance suspended by President Eisenhower in 1953. This led to a much publicized hearing, and despite support from dozens of fellow scientists and colleagues, his security clearance was withdrawn. Edward Teller, with whom Oppenheimer disagreed on whether the more powerful hydrogen bomb should be developed, did not support Oppenheimer in his hearing, an act which lead to much outrage by the scientific community.
Stripped of his political power, Oppenheimer continued to lecture, write, and work on physics. He toured Europe, and even Japan, giving talks about the history of science, the role of science in society, and the nature of the universe. At the Institute for Advanced Study he worked to bring together intellectuals from a variety of disciplines at the height of their powers to solve the most pertinent questions of the current age, but largely felt that he had failed to make any serious progress. In 1963 he was reinstated by President Lyndon Johnson and was awarded the Enrico Fermi Award as a sign of gratitude for his services to the nation. It was, however, only symbolic in its effects, as he still lacked security clearance and had not been consulted on official policy since it was stripped.
Note: On Oppenheimer's first initial
The meaning of the "J" in J. Robert Oppenheimer has been the source of confusion among many. Historians Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner sum it up best, in their volume Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and recollections (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1980), on page 1:
In Peter Goodchild's J. Robert Oppenheimer: Shatterer of Worlds (Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 1981), it is said that Robert's father, Julius, added the empty initial to give Robert's name additional distinction, but the Goodchild's book has no footnotes so the source of this assertion is unclear. Robert's claim that the J. stood "for nothing" is taken from an autobiographical interview conducted by Thomas S. Kuhn on November 18, 1963, which currently resides in the Archive for the History of Quantum Physics. In the absence of a birth certificate, it seems most appropriate to go with both Robert and his brother Frank's appraisal of the situation. When investigating Oppenheimer in the 1930s and 1940s, the FBI was terribly puzzled by the "J," deciding that it probably stood for either Jerome or Julius.