J. Robert Oppenheimer; Chasing the Elusive Man Who Designed Atomic Bombs

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 2, 2004 | Go to article overview

J. Robert Oppenheimer; Chasing the Elusive Man Who Designed Atomic Bombs


Byline: Jeffrey Marsh, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The Nobel Prize-winning physicist I. I. Rabi, a friend of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-67), once told Jeremy Bernstein that Oppenheimer "lived a charade." Now, almost 40 years after Oppenheimer's death, Mr. Bernstein has attempted to uncover that charade - which included the famous scientist's very name. Oppenheimer customarily told people that the initial "J." in his name did not stand for anything, a claim accepted by numerous biographers, including Mr. Bernstein himself in his earlier years. Oppenheimer's birth certificate, however, reveals that he shared the first name Julius with his father.

Mr. Bernstein theorizes that Oppenheimer thought the name sounded too Jewish, but does not explain how dropping it would have hidden his origins, given his surname and his family's affiliation with Ethical Culture, a late-19th-century movement of self-denying Jews.

Oppenheimer finished Harvard in three years, graduating summa cum laude, then left for Europe. His first stop was Cambridge, where he suffered a nervous breakdown, manifested most dramatically when he suddenly tried to strangle a friend.

Nevertheless, his brilliance as a physicist was clear, and he was soon invited to Goettingen, where he earned his Ph.D. under Max Born, a founding father of the newly emerging quantum mechanics, with whom he derived an approximation that remains a standard technique for calculations involving molecules.

However, Oppenheimer's habit in seminars of interrupting the speakers to demonstrate his own superior grasp of every topic so irritated his fellow students (some of them future Nobelists) that they circulated a petition threatening to boycott the seminar unless he was stopped.

In 1929 Oppenheimer accepted a joint position at the University of California, Berkeley, and at Caltech in Pasadena, where he became the charismatic leader of a generation of students, many of whom fell so much under his spell that they imitated his mannerisms and speech.

The most important of many significant papers he and his students published in the 1930s is probably one written jointly with Harlan Snyder which introduced the concept of a black hole. Mr. Bernstein suggests that, had Oppenheimer lived another few years, this work might have won a Nobel Prize.

With substantial private means on top of his academic income, he also enjoyed an active social life. In the late 1930s, he became heavily involved in left-wing politics, a dramatic change from his previous indifference that he attributed to factors including "a continuing, smoldering fury about the treatment of Jews in Germany"; an awareness of the effects of the Depression on those who lacked his financial resources; and his love affair with Jean Tatlock, a Berkeley professor's daughter and an on-again, off-again member of the Communist Party.

After breaking up with Tatlock he fell in love with Kitty Harrison, also a former Communist, a married woman whom he impregnated and, following her divorce, married himself. This scandalized some of the more conservative figures on the Berkeley faculty (yes, there were such people), including Ernest O. Lawrence, the inventor of the cyclotron, formerly a close friend of Oppenheimer's.

Early in 1942, the United States launched the top-secret Manhattan Project in response to fears that Germany was building an atomic bomb. Brig. Gen. Leslie R. Groves, who had been in charge of constructing the Pentagon, was appointed head of the project, and picked Oppenheimer as director of the Los Alamos laboratory, established overnight on a remote site in New Mexico where Oppenheimer had often spent vacations.

Mr. Bernstein remarks, "Never before, or since, has such a collection of scientific talent been assembled to carry out one task." Under Oppenheimer's leadership, within three years two kinds of atomic bombs were designed, built and dropped, ending the war against Japan. …

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