J. Robert Oppenheimer

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(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: As director of the Los Alamos Laboratories, Oppenheimer was in charge of the team of scientists who developed the nation’s first nuclear weapons.

Early Life

J. Robert Oppenheimer was born April 22, 1904, in New York City, the firstborn son of wealthy Jewish parents. Oppenheimer and his younger brother Frank were educated at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, where Oppenheimer became interested in science and literature. An aloof, serious young boy, he did poorly in sports but loved sailing and horseback riding.

In 1922, Oppenheimer entered Harvard, where he majored in chemistry and was introduced to physics. After graduating, Oppenheimer went to England in 1925, to study physics at Cambridge. Oppenheimer had planned to study experimental physics but proved inept at laboratory work. Theoretical physics fascinated him, but the creative, sustained, and solitary mental effort necessary for effective work drove him to the point of mental collapse. After a summer’s vacation, however, Oppenheimer recovered his stability. Realizing that he was not cut out for lab work, he left Cambridge to study at the University of Göttingen, Germany, then a center for theoretical physics.

Oppenheimer made a reputation at Göttingen, writing papers dealing with aspects of the then new theory of quantum physics. In 1927, Oppenheimer was awarded a doctorate from Göttingen. After a year’s further study with leading European physicists, he returned to the United States in 1929.

Life’s Work

Oppenheimer hoped to build an American center for the study of physics. In 1929, he was appointed assistant professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, where Ernest Lawrence was building a reputation as one of the nation’s leading experimental physicists. Together, Oppenheimer and Lawrence made Berkeley the best-known graduate school for physics in the nation during the 1930’s.

At Berkeley, Oppenheimer became a famous, charismatic teacher. Tall, thin, with striking blue eyes, he stood before the blackboard with chalk in one hand and an ever-present cigarette in the other. He was best known for his ability to communicate abstruse theoretical material clearly. Although some found Oppenheimer an arrogant intellectual snob, to favored students he was “Oppie,” a charming mentor who introduced them to art, Eastern literature, gourmet foods, and fine wines as well as physics.

Independently wealthy, Oppenheimer had lived a sheltered life and paid little attention to economic or world events. In the 1930’s, as the Great Depression worsened and Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, Oppenheimer began to take more interest in politics. Also in the 1930’s, he became involved with various local reform groups, many of which were affiliated with the Communist Party. Communism was popular among many intellectuals because it seemed to offer hope for social justice at home and resistance to Fascism overseas. Many of Oppenheimer’s friends were leftists. His brother, Frank, became a Communist Party member.

In November, 1940, Oppenheimer married Kathryn Puening. She had been married three times before, once to a dedicated Communist who had been killed during the Spanish Civil War; she was also a Party member.

In 1942, the United States, at war with the Axis, began a crash program to produce an atomic weapon. Oppenheimer was chosen to head the Los Alamos Laboratories, near Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the proposed weapon would be assembled and tested. At Los Alamos, Oppenheimer coordinated the work of more than three thousand scientists, technicians, and military personnel. His performance as director of the Los Alamos scientific staff, which included past and future Nobel Prize winners, was superb. His skills as a communicator helped him coordinate the project that produced the first nuclear weapon.

On July 16, 1945, the first atom bomb was tested. Oppenheimer said later that, as the first mushroom cloud rose above the New Mexico...

(The entire section is 1,636 words.)