Oppenheimer - Father of The Bomb  
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Oppenheimer - Father of The Bomb

By Ronen Rabinovici

Oppenheimer - Father of The Bomb by Ronen Rabinovici

A short essay giving you some less-known insights into the life of this American legend. As a tribute to the new Oppenheimer movie.


Julius Robert Oppenheimer lived not a long life, but a very exciting one - good and bad - having to deal with tremendous responsibilities and moral issues. He headed the United States’ nuclear development program - under the Manhattan Project - racing Hitler’s Nazi Germany to the bomb. Although Germany had started its program earlier, Oppenheimer’s program was successful in winning this most important race. Had it been the other way around - the world as we know it might have looked very very different, under a Nazi hegemony. Much of the impossible success of the American Manhattan Project - was due to Oppenheimer’s personal being & influence.

The Manhattan Project

On October 9th, 1941, two months before the United States entered World War II, President Roosevelt approved a crash program to develop an atomic bomb. In May 1942, National Defense Research Committee Chairman Conant, who had been one of Oppenheimer’s lecturers at Harvard, invited Oppenheimer to take over work on fast neutron calculations, a task Oppenheimer threw himself into with full vigor. He was given the title “Coordinator of Rapid Rupture”, which specifically referred to the propagation of a fast neutron chain reaction in an atomic bomb. One of his first acts was to host a summer school for bomb theory at his building in Berkeley. The mix of European physicists and his own studentsโ€”a group including Robert Serber, Emil Konopinski, Felix Bloch, Hans Bethe and Edward Tellerโ€”kept themselves busy by calculating what needed to be done, and in what order, to make the bomb.

In June 1942, the USA Army established the Manhattan Engineer District to handle its part in the atom bomb project, beginning the process of transferring responsibility from the Office of Scientific Research and Development to the military. In September, Leslie Groves was appointed director of what became known as the Manhattan Project. He selected Oppenheimer to head the project’s secret weapons laboratory. This choice surprised many, because Oppenheimer had left-wing political views and no record as a leader of large projects. Groves was concerned by the fact that Oppenheimer did not have a Nobel Prize and might not have had the prestige to direct fellow scientists.

Groves was impressed by Oppenheimer’s singular grasp of the practical aspects of designing and constructing an atomic bomb and by the breadth of his knowledge. As a military engineer, Groves knew that this would be vital in an interdisciplinary project that would involve not just physics but also chemistry, metallurgy, ordnance, and engineering. Groves also detected in Oppenheimer something that many others did not, an “overweening ambition” that Groves reckoned would supply the drive necessary to push the project to a successful conclusion. Isidor Rabi considered the appointment “a real stroke of genius on the part of General Groves”.

Oppenheimer and Groves decided that for security and cohesion, they needed a centralized, secret research laboratory in a remote location. Scouting for a site in late 1942, Oppenheimer was drawn to New Mexico, not far from his ranch.

Los Alamos grew from a few hundred people in 1943 to over 6,000 in 1945. Oppenheimer at first had difficulty with the organizational division of large groups but rapidly learned the art of large-scale administration after he took up permanent residence on the mesa. He was noted for his mastery of all scientific aspects of the project and for his efforts to control the inevitable cultural conflicts between scientists and the military. He was an iconic figure to his fellow scientists, as much a symbol of what they were working toward as a scientific director.

Oppenheimer directed these studies, theoretical and experimental, in the real sense of the words. Here his uncanny speed in grasping the main points of any subject was a decisive factor; he could acquaint himself with the essential details of every part of the work.

He did not direct from the head office. He was intellectually and physically present at each decisive step. He was present in the laboratory or in the seminar rooms, when a new effect was measured, when a new idea was conceived. It was not that he contributed so many ideas or suggestions; he did so sometimes, but his main influence came from something else. It was his continuous and intense presence, which produced a sense of direct participation in all of us; it created that unique atmosphere of enthusiasm and challenge that pervaded the place throughout its time.

In 1943, development efforts were directed to a plutonium gun-type fission weapon called “Thin Man”. Initial research on the properties of plutonium was done using cyclotron-generated plutonium-239, which was extremely pure but could be created only in tiny amounts. When Los Alamos received the first sample of plutonium from the X-10 Graphite Reactor in April 1944, a problem was discovered: reactor-bred plutonium had a higher concentration of plutonium-240, making it unsuitable for use in a gun-type weapon.

In July 1944, Oppenheimer abandoned the gun design in favor of an implosion-type weapon. Using chemical explosive lenses, a sub-critical sphere of fissile material could be squeezed into a smaller and denser form. The metal needed to travel only very short distances, so the critical mass would be assembled in much less time. In August 1944, Oppenheimer implemented a sweeping reorganization of the Los Alamos laboratory to focus on implosion. He concentrated the development efforts on the gun-type device, a simpler design that only had to work with uranium-235, in a single group. This device became Little Boy in February 1945. After a mammoth research effort, the more complex design of the implosion device, known as the “Christy gadget” after Robert Christy, another student of Oppenheimer’s, was finalized in a meeting in Oppenheimer’s office on February 28, 1945.

Oppenheimer’s huge bet worked - and only 6 months later - that new design idea has become the world’s first operational nuclear bomb, that effectively ended world war 2.

Ups and Downs

But, despite his big success and huge personal contribution to the United States and its allies, Oppenheimer’s life had many ups and downs. Although he was the ‘father of the atomic bomb’, he was in a sense betrayed by the USA government years later, when his security clearing was publicly revoked due to ‘communist’ connections in his past. His own responsibility to the deadliest weapon the world has ever seen occupied him tremendously, and he had numerous initiatives trying to prevent a nuclear arms race.

A week after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Aug 6 โ€“ Aug 9, 1945), he traveled to Washington to hand-deliver a letter to Secretary of War Stimson expressing his revulsion and his wish to see nuclear weapons banned. He felt enormous responsibility and the heavy weight of the moral issues arising from using the bomb against civilian targets - killing more than 100,000 people - most of whom were civilians - women, children and elderly. Two months later, Oppenheimer was granted an interview with President Truman. The meeting went badly after Oppenheimer said he felt he had “blood on my hands”. The remark infuriated Truman and put an end to the meeting. Truman later told his Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson, “I don’t want to see that son-of-a-bitch in this office ever again”. Still, Oppenheimer was awarded the Medal for Merit by President Truman in 1946.

He was plagued by periods of depression throughout his life. We can also learn something about his marriage life from the fact that he had numerous affairs while married. This is usually an indicator to unfulfilling marriage. He had 2 children - a son and a daughter. By the age of 32, his daughter performed suicide after her second marriage ended. This comes to show us that life is complicated - to everyone - even to superstars. The human soul is most complex - and being apparently successful in business, science or other - does not necessarily mean being happy or fulfilled.

Looking for meaning

Julius Robert Oppenheimer was born on April 22nd, 1904, to a Jewish family in New York City. He had one brother, who also became a physicist. He died at his home in Princeton, New Jersey, aged 62, due to throat cancer caused by smoking. Throughout his life he was looking for meaning, beyond the world’s apparent physical state. He learned the Greek and Hindu philosophies - and said once: “I have read the Greeks; I find the Hindus deeper.”

Oppenheimer’s diverse interests sometimes interrupted his focus on science. He liked things that were difficult and since much of the scientific work appeared easy for him, he developed an interest in the mystical and the cryptic. After leaving Harvard, he began to acquaint himself with the classical Hindu texts, eventually reading literary works such as the Bhagavad Gita and Meghaduta in the original Sanskrit, and deeply pondered them. He later cited the Gita as one of the books that most shaped his philosophy of life. He later gave copies of it as presents to his friends and kept a personal, worn-out copy on the bookshelf by his desk.

Early Life

As a child, Oppenheimer was a versatile scholar, interested in English and French literature, and particularly in mineralogy. He completed third and fourth grades in one year and skipped half of eighth grade.

He developed a love for horseback riding and the southwestern United States, when he stayed in New Mexico for recovering from colitis, he contracted at age 17.

At age 18, after his recovery from colitis, Oppenheimer entered Harvard College, where he majored in chemistry; To speed it up, he took six courses each term instead of the usual four. In 1925, after only three years, Oppenheimer graduated from Harvard with summa cum laude.

Oppenheimer was a tall, thin chain smoker, who often neglected to eat during periods of intense concentration. Many friends said he could be self-destructive. Fergusson once tried to distract Oppenheimer from his apparent depression by telling him that he (Fergusson) was to marry his girlfriend; Oppenheimer jumped on Fergusson and tried to strangle him. Oppenheimer was plagued by periods of depression throughout his life, and once told his brother, “I need physics more than friends”.

Scientific Contribution

Oppenheimer obtained his Doctor of Philosophy degree in March 1927 at age 23, supervised by Max Born. After the oral exam, James Franck, the professor administering, reportedly said, “I’m glad that’s over. He was on the point of questioning me.” Oppenheimer published more than a dozen papers while in Europe, including many important contributions to the new field of quantum mechanics. He and Born published a famous paper on the Bornโ€“Oppenheimer approximation, which separates nuclear motion from electronic motion in the mathematical treatment of molecules, allowing nuclear motion to be neglected to simplify calculations. It remains his most cited work.

Once asked what he considered his most important scientific contributions, Oppenheimer cited his work on electrons and positrons, not his work on gravitational contraction, concerning neutron stars and black holes. Oppenheimer was nominated for the Nobel Prize for physics three times, in 1946, 1951 and 1967, but never won. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Alvarez have suggested that if he had lived long enough to see his predictions substantiated by experiment, Oppenheimer might have won a Nobel Prize for his work on gravitational collapse.

* This essay is mainly based on the following wiki article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._Robert_Oppenheimer