Father of the Atomic Bomb
He was an outstanding scientist who devoted his entire life to theoretical physics. He is called the "Father of the Atomic Bomb," although he was one of many people who worked on the Manhattan Project.
Falsely accused of spying for the Soviet Union, he was rehabilitated by President Kennedy, but lived for many years with the stigma of being a compromised person.
He lobbied for international control to prevent nuclear proliferation and a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union.
It was not until 2022 that the U.S. government formally recognized and acknowledged the scientist's loyalty.
He lived from 1904 to 1967.
Robert was born in New York City on April 22, 1904.
His father was Julius Seligmann Oppenheimer, a wealthy textile importer who came to the United States from Germany as a teenager in 1888. He had no money, no education, and no knowledge of English. Julius was hired by the textile company and after ten years became its president.
Robert's mother, Ellie Friedman, whose family also came from Germany but had settled in New York in the 1840s, was a painter.
The Oppenheimers lived in Manhattan, a neighborhood known for its luxury mansions and townhouses. They had an impressive art collection, including works by Pablo Picasso, Edouard Vuillard, and Vincent van Gogh (at least three original paintings).
Frank was also a physicist - a particle physicist, a professor of physics at the University of Colorado, and the founder of the Exploratorium, a science, technology, and art museum in San Francisco.
As a child, Frank studied painting. He also learned to play the flute under the tutelage of nationally renowned teacher George Barrera. He reached such a level of proficiency on the instrument that he even considered a career as a flutist. However, he followed the advice of his older brother Robert and began studying physics.
He was also interested in English and French literature, as well as mineralogy. From the time when he was given a collection of minerals by his grandfather in Germany at the age of five years, he started to collect them. He was especially interested in uranium deposits.
He attended the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, founded by Felix Adler (professor of political and social ethics) to promote a form of ethical education based on the Ethical Culture movement, whose motto was "deed before creed".
His interest in chemistry led him to attend Harvard College. He began this study at the age of 18 (one year after graduating from the Ethical Culture School) because he suffered from colitis while on a family vacation in Europe. While in Europe, Robert's activities included mineral prospecting in Jachymov, Czech Republic, where the continent's largest uranium mine was located.
Oppenheimer recuperated in New Mexico, where he fell in love with horseback riding and the southwestern United States.
To compensate for a year's delay in starting his studies, he took six courses each semester (Harvard science students were also required to study history, literature, philosophy or mathematics).
The results of his efforts were recognized by his admission to Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest academic honor society, the most prestigious ( due to its long history and academic selectivity) in the United States.
He graduated with honors in three years.
He then became interested in experimental physics. Since there were no world-class experimental physics centers in the United States at that time, he was offered the opportunity to continue his studies in Cambridge, in Ernest Rutherford's Cavendish Laboratory in the Department of Physics.
The most prominent physicists of the time - Max Planck, Max von Laue, Albert Einstein - were teaching at European universities.
He concluded at that time that theoretical physics would be closer to his heart than experimental physics. He was also still at odds with his teacher, Patrick Blackett, who was not much older than he was.
On one occasion, Oppenheimer left an apple doused with harmful chemicals on Bleckett's desk. University authorities informed Oppenheimer's parents of this fact and threatened consequences in the form of probation. The parents, however, used their own connections to prevent this from happening.
Oppenheimer then became addicted to cigarettes, which he smoked in large quantities, one after another. He was a tall, thin man who often neglected to eat, and friends pointed out his destructive tendencies.
Oppenheimer decided to see a psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with the beginnings of schizophrenia.
Even as a child, he had trouble interacting with his peers. Children thought he was arrogant and taciturn, always with his nose in a book. He shunned people and felt most comfortable interacting with science.
He battled depression throughout his life, once telling his brother, "I need physics more than friends".
He chose to go to the world center of theoretical physics - the University of Göttingen, where he continued his studies with one of the founders of quantum mechanics, Max Born. At the university he also met many other prominent figures, including Werner Heisenberg, Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, Pascual Jordan, Wolfgang Pauli, Paul Dirac.
He was so enthusiastic that he sometimes took over the seminar, which did not please the other participants. They threatened to boycott the class if Oppenheimer was not silenced.
Max Born put a petition signed by disgruntled students on his desk, hoping Oppenheimer would read it. And he did.
The exam was chaired by the German physicist and Nobel laureate James Franck, who is reported to have said at the end: "I'm glad that's over. He was at the point of questioning me".
Upon his return to the States, he wanted to work on promoting quantum mechanics in American universities. He accepted a position as an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Before he started working at the university, he was diagnosed with a mild form of tuberculosis. To cure himself, he went with his brother Frank for several weeks to a ranch in New Mexico that he leased and eventually bought. He called it "Perro Caliente". He later said that "physics and the desert were his two great loves".
The first year of his professorship went poorly, he could not relate to the students, could not explain complicated physical problems, and spoke unintelligibly and quietly. After a few months of lecturing, he was left with only one loyal listener.
However, he was not discouraged, he worked on himself, and in the years that followed he became a very popular professor, known to his students as "Oppie," and his most loyal listeners as "Oppie's boys".
He learned about the economic crisis of 1929 from students who were in financial trouble. When he realized that he was disconnected from the real problems of the world, he decided to change that.
He took a special interest in the situation in Germany and became aware of Hitler's growing power and popularity.
In 1936 he fell in love with a psychology student, Jean Tatlock. She was a supporter of communism and involved the scientist in many left-wing initiatives. Because of her membership in the Communist Party of the United States of America, she was placed under FBI surveillance and her telephone was tapped.
The secret research project involved the development of the first atomic bomb. Its goal was to harness nuclear energy and use it to create a new kind of weapon. The project was headed by General Leslie Groves, who appointed Robert Oppenheimer to work with him in leading a group of the world's most prominent scientists.
The Manhattan Project was headquartered at an abandoned site called Los Alamos in New Mexico.
Enriched uranium was used for one, called ''Little Boy'', and enriched plutonium for the other, called ''Fat Man'', and this type of bomb was decided to be tested.
It took place near the town of Alamagordo, New Mexico. The bomb was given the name "Gadget", and the test was a success. The flash from the explosion was visible in three states.
While most of the scientists working on the test were satisfied with the result, Oppenheimer realized the seriousness of the situation by quoting a phrase from the Bhagavad Gita - the holy book of Hinduism - "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds".
President Harry Truman authorized the dropping of "Little Boy" on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, killing approximately 66,000 people. "Fat Man" was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, killing 42,000 people.
On August 14, 1945, Emperor Hirohito of Japan signed an unconditional surrender.
One of the suspects was Oppenheimer, who was already believed to be a communist sympathizer. The Americans decided to respond to the Russian tests with a hydrogen bomb a thousand times more powerful. Oppenheimer initially opposed the project, but eventually agreed to participate. A successful hydrogen bomb test was conducted in 1952.
After the hydrogen weapon tests, the situation changed and the scientist began to take an interest in the services. There was a trial, during which most scientists supported Oppenheimer, only one man broke out, Edward Teller, a member of the Manhattan Project and creator of the hydrogen bomb, who could have brought the physicist down with his testimony.
Oppenheimer was stripped of access to government information and barred from participating in important military projects.
After Kennedy's assassination, his successor, President Lyndon Johnson, presented Oppenheimer with the award "for his contributions to theoretical physics as a teacher and originator, and for his leadership of the Los Alamos laboratory and the atomic energy program during critical years".
He received a hefty salary of $20,000 a year and the opportunity to live for free in a 17th-century house, with a cook and caretaker. The house was surrounded by woods covering 107 acres.
His collection included works by Cezanne, Derain, Despiau, de Vlamnick, Picasso, Rembrandt, Renoir, van Gogh, Vuillard and others.
Soviet intelligence repeatedly tried to recruit him, but never succeeded. He himself removed several Soviet sympathizers from the Manhattan Project.
In 2022, it was determined that the 1954 revocation of his security clearance was unwarranted and that the trial was biased.
He built a spartan house on the beach, where he came several times a year. He sailed a lot with his wife and daughter Toni.
In 1962, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Society of Great Britain.
He underwent surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. While at his home in Princeton, New Jersey, he fell into a coma and soon died on February 18, 1967, at the age of 62.
The scientist's body was cremated, and his ashes placed in an urn were thrown into the sea by Oppenheimer's wife.