Robert Oppenheimer

American physicist Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project in which the atomic bomb was developed.
American physicist Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project in which the atomic bomb was developed.


The son of a wealthy New York City textile importer (Julius) and a painter (Elle Friedman), Julius Robert Oppenheimer enjoyed an affluent childhood. He graduated from the Ethical Culture School of New York at the top of his class in 1921 and summa cum laude from Harvard in 1925. He then studied at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England, and with Max Born at the University of Göttingen, in Germany, where he earned a doctorate in 1927. Although a rising star, he often was plagued by deep self-doubts and dark moods.

In 1929 Oppenheimer moved to California and for many years taught at both the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the University of California, Berkeley. He made several contributions to subatomic physics, including (with his former mentor) the Born–Oppenheimer approximation, which posited that the spin and vibration of protons could be ignored in theoretical calculations. Thin, wiry, enigmatic, and charismatic, Oppenheimer was associated with several leftist groups, which he helped fund. In 1940 he married biologist Katherine Harrison, a former member of the Communist Party.

Oppenheimer declared his leftist ties severed soon after he joined a secret group of elite scientists working with Ernest O. Lawrence at Berkeley's radiation laboratory to develop an atomic bomb. In spite of continuing suspicions about his loyalty, the U.S. Army appointed him director of the bomb design unit in October 1942. Oppenheimer's team of hundreds of gifted young scientists was secluded at a facility in Los Alamos, New Mexico. One of the brightest, Edward Teller, became a disaffected rival of Oppenheimer, but most found him a brilliant and inspiring leader.

Pushing the boundaries of theoretical physics , Oppenheimer's Los Alamos scientists followed two technological paths simultaneously. One was a "gun assembly" designed to fire two masses of uranium at each other to initiate a chain reaction. But because fissionable uranium was exceedingly difficult to refine, other scientists worked on a design using more readily available but less stable plutonium, imploding a hollow sphere of the fuel with high explosives. Both designs worked, and they were used against Japan—a uranium bomb was dropped over Hiroshima, a plutonium one over Nagasaki—in early August 1945 to end World War II.

Initially, Oppenheimer was elated over these technical achievements, but he quickly be came regretful and despondent about a nuclear future. As director of the prestigious Center for Advanced Study at Princeton (1947–1952) and chair of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), he was an outspoken advocate for the international sharing of nuclear technology and for international arms control, and he opposed further development of the hydrogen bomb. After a 1954 hearing, the AEC security board affirmed his loyalty but revoked his security clearance. Although there is little hard evidence that Oppenheimer ever passed atomic secrets to the former Soviet Union, the controversy surrounding this claim continues. Oppenheimer spent his final years sailing in the Virgin Islands and writing about science and Western culture. He died in Princeton, New Jersey, on February 18, 1967.

EDWARD TELLER (1908–2003)

Edward Teller was a physical chemist and an important, if controversial, voice in the politics of nuclear science. His work contributed to an understanding of both fusion and fission bombs. Regarded as the "father of the H-bomb," he was an ardent anticommunist and cold war warrior and he staunchly advocated the development and stockpiling of nuclear weapons. He opposed treaties limiting nuclear arsenals and testing, and he supported the development of space-based weapons.

—Valerie Borek

SEE ALSO Lawrence, Ernest ; Manhattan Project .

David B. Sicilia


Herken, Gregg (2002). Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

Rhodes, Richard (1986). The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Rhodes, Richard (1995). Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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