J Robert Oppenheimer

In three years Oppenheimer graduated from Harvard with a Bachelor’s degree in physics. This was in 1925, only 21 years after the great physicists birth in New York City. Less than one year later, he published his first paper with the title On the Quantum Theory of Vibration-Rotation Bands. This was a study of frequencies and intensities of molecular band spectra derived from the new mechanics, discovered by Paul Adrian Maurice Dirac, Erwin Schrodinger, and Werner Karl Heisenberg only one year earlier. Indeed, Oppenheimer was quick to pick up new ideas in theoretical physics.
In 1929, he accepted academic positions both at UC Berkeley and at Cal Tech. From then to
1942 he divided his time between the two institutions, and his long list of papers gives proof to his achievemnets during this period. He had a keen sense for what was the next step that needed to be taken in nuclear physics.
He was also a great teacher; his infuence on his pupils was enhanced by his perceptive interest in
people. It was this interest in personal relationships that helped him become a good leader for the
In March 1943, Oppenheimer was assigned to the scientific directorship of the Los Alamos National
Laboratory, but in reality, he had been working on this project for some time before this was official.
When word came from Niels Bohr about nuclear fission, Oppenheimer started thinking about the
practical release of nuclear energy.
At that time in 1942, there were many universities in the United States that were working on the
fission problem. Oppenheimer organized a conference in Berkeley attended by many first rate
theoreticians, including Edward Teller, who, during the conference, first suggested the possibility of a
nuclear bomb. A theoretical group led by Oppenheimer proceeded to work on the potential of an
When the United States government brought the atomic energy work under the auspices of the army
and put General Leslie Groves in charge of the project (code named the “Manhattan Project”), Oppenheimer suggested to Groves that work on the project take place in a single laboratory. He knew that having the dispersion of scientists hampered the speed of work. The workers, including all of the theoretical physicists as well as the chemical engineers, metallurgists, and all of the other support personnel should be grouped together in one facility. Groves accepted the proposal, and on Oppenheimer’s advice chose the site of a former boy’s boarding school in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The remoteness of the site increased the security of the project. Groves named Oppenheimer the facility’s scientific director. None of this work was public knowledge until the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.
Oppenheimer was one of a panel of four scientists who, in May 1945, discussed the case for the
military use of the atomic bomb on Japan. The other men on the panel were A. H. Compton, Enrico
Fermi, and E. O. Lawrence. Their opinion, which Oppenheimer supported, was that a
demonstration of the bomb on a deserted island would not be effective, and that the only way to end
the war was to use it on a real military target in a populated area.
Oppenheimer later commented in 1962, “I believe there was very little deliberation….The
actual military plans at the time… were clearly much more terrible in every way and for everyone
concerned than the use of the bomb. Nevertheless, my own feeling is that if the bombs were to be
used there could have been more effective warning and much less wanton killing…” The implications of the decision to drop the bomb will continue to be studied by historians for years to come.
In 1946, the Atomic Energy Commission was established under the McMahon Act, which provided
for civilian control of atomic energy. The commission appointed Oppenheimer as chairman of the
General Advisory Committee, and he served in this capacity until 1952. The committee did more
than just give technical advice; it had great influence on the policy of the commission. Oppenheimer’s
role on the committee was to clarify and formulate ideas. He served on numerous committees
concerned with policy questions relating to atomic weapons and defense.
Oppenheimer’s loyalty to the United States was called into question before the Gray Board in April
of 1954. There were allegations that he was a communist because of his activities in the 1930s. In
actuality, he was being questioned because he lacked enthusiasm for the development of the
hydrogen bomb. It must be remembered that these allegations were made during the time of
hysterical fear of communists in the Joseph McCarthy era. Further, Oppenheimer had many enemies
who were delighted at this opportunity to curb his influence. Some of these enemies were people that
he had bested in scientific debates, and others were people interested in military policy who feared
his influence. As a result of the Gary Board hearings, Oppenheimer lost his security clearance.
In 1963, however, Oppenheimer was vindicated when he received the prestigious Enrico Fermi
Award, the highest prize awarded by the Atomic Energy Commission, conferred by President
Johnson. Oppenheimer replied to President Johnson after receiving the award, “I think it is just
possible…that it has taken some charity and some courage for you to make this award today”