Oppenheimer, J. Robert


Oppenheimer, J. Robert (1904-1967), American physicist and government adviser, who directed the development of the first atomic bombs.


Oppenheimer was born in New York City on April 22, 1904, and was educated at Harvard University and the universities of Cambridge and Göttingen. After serving with the International Education Board (1928-1929), he became a professor of physics at the University of California and the California Institute of Technology (1929-1947), where he built up large schools of theoretical physics. He was noted for his contributions relating to the quantum theory, the theory of relativity, cosmic rays, positrons, and neutron stars.


During a leave of absence (1943-1945), Oppenheimer served as director of the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos, New Mexico. His leadership and organizational skills earned him the Presidential Medal of Merit in 1946. In 1947 he became director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey, serving there until the year before his death. He was also chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, or AEC, from 1947 to 1952 and served thereafter as an adviser. In 1954, however, he was suspended from this position on charges that his past association with Communists and so-called fellow travelers made him a poor security risk. This action reflected the political atmosphere of the time, as well as the dislike of some politicians and military figures for Oppenheimer's opposition to development of the hydrogen bomb and his support of arms control; his loyalty was not really in doubt. Subsequently, efforts were made to clear his name, and in 1963 the AEC conferred on him its highest honor, the Enrico Fermi Award. Oppenheimer devoted his final years to study of the relationship between science and society; he died in Princeton on February 18, 1967. His writings include Science and the Common Understanding (1954) and Lectures on Electrodynamics (pub. posthumously 1970).



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Oppenheimer, Julius Robert




born , April 22, 1904, New York City

died Feb. 18, 1967, Princeton, N.J., U.S.




U.S. theoretical physicist and science administrator, noted as director of the Los Alamos laboratory during development of the atomic bomb (1943–45) and as director of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton (1947–66). Accusations as to his loyalty and reliability as a security risk led to a government hearing that resulted in the loss of his security clearance and of his position as adviser to the highest echelons of the U.S. government. The case became a cause célčbre in the world of science because of its implications concerning political and moral issues relating to the role of scientists in government.



Oppenheimer was the son of a German immigrant who had made his fortune by importing textiles in New York City. During his undergraduate studies at Harvard University, Oppenheimer excelled in Latin, Greek, physics, and chemistry, published poetry, and studied Oriental philosophy. After graduating in 1925, he sailed for England to do research at the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, which, under the leadership of Lord Rutherford, had an international reputation for its pioneering studies on atomic structure. At the Cavendish, Oppenheimer had the opportunity to collaborate with the British scientific community in its efforts to advance the cause of atomic research.



Max Born invited him to Göttingen University, where he met other prominent physicists, such as Niels Bohr and Paul Dirac, and where, in 1927, he received his doctorate. After short visits at science centres in Leiden and Zürich, he returned to the United States to teach physics at the University of California at Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology.



In the 1920s the new quantum and relativity theories were engaging the attentions of science. That mass was equivalent to energy and that matter could be both wavelike and corpuscular carried implications seen only dimly at that time. Oppenheimer's early research was devoted in particular to energy processes of subatomic particles, including electrons, positrons, and cosmic rays. Since quantum theory had been proposed only a few years before, the university post provided him an excellent opportunity to devote his entire career to the exploration and development of its full significance. In addition, he trained a whole generation of U.S. physicists, who were greatly affected by his qualities of leadership and intellectual independence.



The rise of Hitlerism in Germany stirred his first interest in politics. In 1936 he sided with the republic during the Civil War in Spain, where he became acquainted with Communist students. Although his father's death in 1937 left Oppenheimer a fortune that allowed him to subsidize anti-Fascist organizations, the tragic suffering inflicted by Stalin on Russian scientists led him to withdraw his associations with the Communist Party—in fact, he had never joined the party—and at the same time reinforced in him a liberal democratic philosophy.



After the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany in 1939, the physicists Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard warned the U.S. government of the danger threatening all of humanity if the Nazis should be the first to make a nuclear bomb. Oppenheimer then began to seek a process for the separation of uranium-235 from natural uranium and to determine the critical mass of uranium required to make such a bomb. In August 1942 the U.S. Army was given the responsibility of organizing the efforts of British and U.S. physicists to seek a way to harness nuclear energy for military purposes, an effort that became known as the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer was instructed to establish and administer a laboratory to carry out this assignment. In 1943 he chose the plateau of Los Alamos, near Santa Fe, N.M., where he had spent part of his childhood in a boarding school.



For reasons that have not been made clear, Oppenheimer in 1942 initiated discussions with military security agents that culminated with the implication that some of his friends and acquaintances were agents of the Soviet government. This led to the dismissal of a personal friend on the faculty at the University of California. In a 1954security hearing he described his contribution to those discussions as “a tissue of lies.”



The joint effort of outstanding scientists at Los Alamos culminated in the first nuclear explosion on July 16, 1945, at Alamogordo, N.M., after the surrender of Germany. In October of the same year, Oppenheimer resigned his post. In 1947 he became head of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University and served from 1947 until 1952 as chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, which in October 1949 opposed development of the hydrogen bomb.



On Dec. 21, 1953, he was notified of a military security report unfavourable to him and was accused of having associated with Communists in the past, of delaying the naming of Soviet agents, and of opposing the building of the hydrogen bomb. A security hearing declared him not guilty of treason but ruled that he should not have access to military secrets. As a result, his contract as adviser to the Atomic Energy Commission was cancelled. The Federation of American Scientists immediately came to his defense with a protest against the trial. Oppenheimer was made the worldwide symbol of the scientist, who, while trying to resolve the moral problems that arise from scientific discovery, becomes the victim of a witch-hunt. He spent the last years of his life working out ideas on the relationship between science and society.



The Cold War having declined, Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson in 1963 formalized Oppenheimer's reinstatement by presenting him the Enrico Fermi Award of the Atomic Energy Commission. He retired from Princeton in 1966 and died of throat cancer the following year.



Michel Rouzé







Additional reading



Michel Rouze, Oppenheimer (1962; Robert Oppenheimer: The Man and His Theories, 1965), is the only biography (to 1961). Oppenheimer's philosophical ideas are expressed in his two books, Science and the Common Understanding (1954) and The Open Mind (1955). Certain aspects of Oppenheimer's elusive personality are revealed in his letters published in Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections, ed. by Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner (1980). His scientific work is spread in many reports, published in particular in Physical Review, from 1928 to 1948. In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: Transcript of Hearings Before Personnel Security Board, Washington, D.C. April 12, 1954 Through May 6, 1954 (1954), is the fundamental document on Oppenheimer's trial by the Atomic Energy Commission. Among the numerous publications on this trial (all of them in favour of Oppenheimer), see Philip M. Stern, The Oppenheimer Case: Security on Trial (1969); and Peter Michelmore, The Swift Years: The Robert Oppenheimer Story (1969). Haakon Chevalier, the professor denounced by Oppenheimer, describes this issue in The Man Who Would Be God (1959) and Oppenheimer: The Story of a Friendship (1965).