Also called the “Father of the Atomic Bomb,” J. Robert Oppenheimer was an American physicist. A brilliant man, he is known by most as the director of the Manhattan project, which worked to develop the country’s first nuclear weapons at a classified laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Early life and education
Julius Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York City on April 22, 1904, the son of wealthy Jewish parents.
He attended the Ethical Culture Society School (which later named their physics laboratory after him) and went on to Harvard in 1922. His original plan was to become a chemist, but he soon changed to physics. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1925 at the age of 21, but his education was far from over.
Upon graduation from Harvard, Oppenheimer went to England and began research at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory. In 1926, when he was just 22 years old, he received a Ph.D. from the University of Gottingen. Over the course of his studies, he published a number of essays on the quantum theory. In 1927, he went back to Harvard as a National Research Council Fellow to study mathematical physics. Then in 1928, he went to the California Institute of Technology. At the same time, he became an assistant professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley.
Contributions to science
Oppenheimer made a number of important contributions to mathematics and physics over the course of his life. He was considered a founding father of theoretical physics, but also did research and developed new theories in astrophysics, nuclear physics, spectroscopy, and quantum field theory. His work with cosmic ray showers led to better understanding of quantum tunneling, and it was Oppenheimer who first suggested that black holes existed after publishing a paper on them in the 1930s.
Work with the atomic bomb
When World War II began, Oppenheimer was already a prominent and well-known physicist. He was already involved in the development of an atomic bomb at Berkeley, and was offered the position as the scientific director of the Manhattan project by General Leslie Groves in 1942. From there, the labs in Los Alamos, New Mexico were created and Oppenheimer became responsible for not only gathering other brilliant scientists to help him develop the atomic bomb, but also manage over 3,000 people who were working on the project as well. For this reason, he was often referred to as the father of the atomic bomb.
When the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer was said to be shocked by the force and sheer killing power of the bombs.
Post war work
After World War II, Oppenheimer became the Chairman of the General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission and served in this capacity from 1947 to 1952. While Chairman, he was strongly opposed to the development of a hydrogen bomb. Then in 1953, he was accused of having communist ties and had his security clearance taken away by the Atomic Energy Commission. Their decision was not well-received, even by President Johnson, who awarded Oppenheimer the Atomic Energy Commission’s prestigious Enrico Fermi Award in 1963.
Oppenheimer married Katherine Harrison in 1940, and together they had two children, Peter, born in 1941, and Katherine, born in 1944. He died of throat cancer in 1967.