Oppenheimer , Julius Robert
(1904–1967) American physicist
Oppenheimer came from a wealthy New York City family. He was educated at Harvard, at Cambridge, England, and at Göttingen where he obtained his PhD in 1927. From 1929 to 1942 he was at the University of California, and while there accepted the post of director of the Los Alamos laboratory where he worked on the development of the atom bomb. After the war in 1947 he was appointed director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, a post he held until his death. He also served (1947–52) as chairman of the important General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission.
He is mainly remembered, however, for his work on the Los Alamos project. It has been argued that only Oppenheimer could have made Los Alamos viable for only he could have commanded the allegiance of the world's best talents in physics, who gathered around him in the New Mexico desert. It was also only Oppenheimer who had sufficient independence and authority to persuade the military and General Groves, his superior, to grant sufficient freedom to the scientists to make the project workable.
Freeman Dyson, who saw Oppenheimer in the early 1950s at Princeton with some of his old colleagues, caught in their talk “a glow of pride and nostalgia. For every one of these people the Los Alamos days had been a great experience, a time of hard work and comradeship and deep happiness.” But Oppenheimer stayed on after the war when, by all accounts, there was little comradeship, much divisiveness and, ultimately, tragedy for Oppenheimer and some of his friends. In 1948 he was on the cover of Time magazine; four years later he was summarily dismissed from his post with the Atomic Energy Commission.
Oppenheimer had actually been under investigation since 1942, first as a matter of routine and then more rigorously when reports critical of his loyalty began to arrive at the office of Colonel Pash, who was responsible for security at Los Alamos. It should be emphasized that at no time has any evidence been published to suggest that Oppenheimer was disloyal to his country. Suspicions were aroused because some of his friends had been members of the Communist party and because he had moved freely in left-wing circles. Both his wife and brother were well-known left-wing sympathizers, if not communists.
Before long the suspicions became more precise: it was felt that a Russian agent had made an approach to Oppenheimer and although he had not responded he was guilty of failing to report the approach to the authorities. Oppenheimer finally admitted that an approach had been made to him but he refused to disclose any names for he felt the man was no longer involved and in any case had merely been a messenger. In a classic dialogue with his inquisitor he kept insisting that, “I feel that I should not give it. I don't mean that I don't hope that if he's still operating that you will find it ... But I would just bet dollars to doughnuts that he isn't still operating.”
Finally, at the end of 1943, the Army lost patience and Groves put it clearly to Oppenheimer that he must either provide names or go. He named Haakon Chevalier, a professor of romance languages at the University of California whom he had known since 1938. Chevalier was of course ruined and, although no charges were ever laid against him, it became impossible for him to find academic employment ever again in America. Whether Oppenheimer had behaved honorably by his own judgment is far from clear as there is too much conflicting evidence about the crucial approach. For some, Chevalier was a totally innocent man maligned by a man consumed by ambition; for others Chevalier was a Russian agent who was lucky not to collect a heavy sentence. Where precisely the truth lies must await the release of further documentation.
Oppenheimer was thus free to develop the bomb and at 5.30 a.m. on 16 July 1945 the first bomb was tested. When Oppenheimer saw the huge cloud rising over the desert, he later reported, a passage from the Bhagavad Gita came to him: “I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.” A move by senior scientists led by James Franck and Leo Szilard to arrange for a public demonstration of the bomb's power rather than its military use on a Japanese city was referred to Oppenheimer for comment. He was in favor of using it on a Japanese town.
After the war, when he could reasonably have left Government service and devoted himself to theoretical physics, he – for reasons that are not clear – remained as the leading adviser on nuclear weapons, taking responsibility for the development of the hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer had made many enemies and when accusations were made that he had in fact obstructed the program to build the fusion bomb they were more than willing to work for his downfall. A commission to investigate his loyalty reported in 1954 that “Dr. Oppenheimer did not show the enthusiastic support for the Super (H-bomb) program which might have been expected of the chief adviser of the Government” and rendered its judgment that he was unfit to serve his country. Although Oppenheimer never regained his security clearance, peace of a sort was made with the authorities when in 1963 he received the Fermi award from President Kennedy. Four years later, after bearing his illness with great courage, he died of cancer of the throat.

Scientists. . 2011.

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