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J. Robert Oppenheimer

22 April 1904, New York, New York, USA
18 February 1967, Princeton, New Jersey, USA

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Achievement

U.S. theoretical physicist and science administrator. Noted as director of the Los Alamos laboratory during the development of the atomic bomb. (1943-45). Director of the institute for advanced study Princeton (1947-66)

Biography

J. Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York City on April 22, 1904. His father was a German immigrant who had made his fortune importing textiles, and his mother was an American-born painter who had studied in Paris. Robert and his brother, Frank, were raised in a comfortable,
upper-middle class fashion, and both attended the Ethical Culture School from grammar school through high school. He not only studied math and the sciences, but also Greek, Latin, French, and German, and graduated in 1921.(4)

His early education was at the Ethical Culture School in New York. He took math and science classes, but also enthusiastically studied Greek, Latin, French, and German. He had a feel for languages and often learned one quickly just to read something in its original language. He learned Dutch in six weeks in order to give a technical talk in the Netherlands. He also maintained an interest in classics and eastern philosophy throughout his life.

Oppenheimer attended Harvard University for his undergraduate studies. Besides excelling in physics and chemistry, he continued to study
languages, published poetry, and developed an interest in Oriental philosophy.

He was always an intense person, tall, thin, contemplative, and probing. After the oral exam for his PhD, the professor administering it is reported to have said, "Phew, I'm glad that's over. He was on the point of questioning me." He obtained his PhD in Germany after graduating from Harvard in 1925 and studying at Cambridge University under Ernest Rutherford. In 1929 he returned to the United States and positions at Berkeley and Cal Tech. He was an extraordinary teacher and an excellent theoretician. His analyses predicted many later finds, such as the neutron, positron, meson, and neutron stars.

Absorbed in his studies and the theoretical world of physics, he was often somewhat distracted from the "real world." But the rise of fascism in the 1930s caught his attention, and he took a strong stand against it. By 1939, Niels Bohr brought news to the U.S. that Germans had split the atom. The implication that the Nazis could develop extremely powerful weapons prompted President Roosevelt to establish the Manhattan Project in 1941. In June 1942, Robert Oppenheimer was appointed its director. Preliminary research was being done at Columbia University, the University of Chicago, and in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, but Oppenheimer set up a new research station at Los Alamos, New Mexico. There he brought the best minds in physics to work on the problem of creating an atomic bomb. In the end he was managing more than three thousand people, as well as tackling theoretical and mechanical problems that arose. (4)

As World War II unfolded in Europe in the Fall of 1939, defecting German scientists began to warn of Germany's efforts to split the atom and develop a nuclear bomb. This prompted President Roosevelt to fund the Manhattan Project, a project designed to insure that the United States harnessed nuclear power first. Robert Oppenheimer was named as the Manhattan Project's director in 1942. In 1943, he consolidated research from a variety of locations into a new laboratory on the plateau of Los Alamos, New Mexico. The project was successful and the world's first explosion of a nuclear bomb took place in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945, after the surrender of Germany. The blast was comparable to 20,000 tons of dynamite. Oppenheimer said, "We knew the world would not be the same." Within a month, two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were targeted by atomic bombs, and Japan surrendered on August 10, 1945.(4)

Oppenheimer had brought together over 3,000 people at Los Alamos, and his efforts earned him the Presidential Medal of Merit in 1946. He was named director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University in 1947. He was also chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, or AEC, from 1947 to 1952. He opposed the development of even more powerful bombs, and after President Truman did approve the hydrogen bomb, Oppenheimer found the political atmosphere had turned against him. In 1953, his security clearance was revoked and his contract with the Atomic Energy Commission was canceled. The scientific community rallied to his support and he became a symbol of a scientist trying to resolve moral problems arising out of scientific discoveries. His final years were focused on the relationship between science and society.(4)

On July 16, 1945, Oppenheimer witnessed the first explosion of an atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert. "We knew the world would not be the same," he said. Within a month, two atomic bombs were dropped on Japanese cities. Japan surrendered on August 10, 1945.

After the war, Oppenheimer chaired the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. He opposed developing an even more powerful hydrogen bomb. When President Truman finally approved it, Oppenheimer did not argue, but his initial reluctance and the political climate turned against him. In 1953, at the height of U.S. anticommunist feeling, Oppenheimer was accused of having communist sympathies, and his security clearance was taken away. He had, in fact, had friends who were communists, mostly people involved in the antifascist movement of the thirties. This loss of security clearance ended Oppenheimer's influence on science policy. He held the academic post of director of the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton, and in the last years of his life, he thought and wrote much about the problems of intellectual ethics and morality. He died of throat cancer in 1967.

"Science is not everything, but science is very beautiful."(2)

Chronology

1904
Julius Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York City on April 22, 1904.

1925
He graduated from Harvard University in 1925 and went to England to do research at Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory.

1927
In 1927 he received his doctorate from Gottingen University in Germany, where he met other prominent physicists such as Niels Bohr and P.A.M. Dirac.

1943
Upon his return to the United States, he became a professor of physics at the University of California at Berkeley and California Institute of Technology. In 1943 Oppenheimer selected the Los Alamos site for the laboratory.

1945
On July 16, 1945, Oppenheimer witnessed the first explosion of an atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert. "We knew the world would not be the same," he said. Within a month, two atomic bombs were dropped on Japanese cities. Japan surrendered on August 10, 1945.

1947
After the war he resigned is post, and from 1947 to 1966 he was the director of Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study.

1925 After graduating Harvard in 1925, he sailed to England to study quantum mechanics at the University of Cambridge, where he worked with Ernest Rutherford, one of the pioneers of atomic theory.

1927
Further studies at Gottingen University yielded his doctorate in 1927. He returned to the United States to teach physics at the University of
Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology.

1930's
During the 1930's, Oppenheimer was able to put together teams of talented, young theoretical physicists, and his early research was devoted to subatomic particles, including electrons, positrons, and cosmic rays.

1954
In 1954, during the period of anti-Communist hysteria promoted by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin, the federal Personnel Security Board withdrew his military security clearance. Oppenheimer thus became the worldwide symbol of the scientist who becomes the victim of a witch-hunt while trying to solve the moral problems rising out of scientific discoveries.

1963
His clearance was reinstated by President Lyndon Johnson in 1963, and he was given the Enrico Fermi Award of the Atomic Energy Commission.

1967
On February 18, 1967, he died of throat cancer at Princeton. (1)

Honors and awards

1963, The Enrico Fermi Award of the Atomic Energy Commission.

 

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Footnotes & References

1 atomic archive .com
2 www.pbs.org
3 www.collected.thoughts
4 www.inventors.com

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