Who Was J. Robert Oppenheimer?
Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer served as director of the Los Alamos Laboratory during the development of the atomic bomb. After the 1939 invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, Oppenheimer was selected to administer a laboratory to carry out the Manhattan Project, the program that developed the first nuclear weapon during World War II. After resigning from his post in 1945, he became the chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission. Prior to his assassination in 1963, President John F. Kennedy announced Oppenheimer would receive the Enrico Fermi Award for his achievements in physics. He was presented with the award by President Lyndon B. Johnson in December of that year. The “Father of the Atomic Bomb” died from cancer at the age of 62 in Princeton, New Jersey in 1967.
Early Life and Education
Oppenheimer was born on April 22, 1904, in New York City, to German Jewish immigrants. After graduating from Harvard University, Oppenheimer sailed to England and enrolled at the University of Cambridge, where he began his atomic research at the Cavendish Laboratory in 1925. A year later, he teamed with Max Born at Göttingen University, where he met a host of prominent physicists, including Niels Bohr. He received his doctorate at Göttingen while also developing what became known as the "Born-Oppenheimer method," an important contribution to quantum molecular theory.
The Manhattan Project
Oppenheimer became politically active in the 1930s and agreed with Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard that the Nazis could develop a nuclear weapon. Following the 1939 invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, Oppenheimer was selected to administer a laboratory to carry out the Manhattan Project, a U.S. Army experiment aimed at harnessing atomic energy for military purposes. He led the scientific end of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, beginning in 1942.
The project was populated by many scientists who had escaped fascist regimes in Europe, and their mission was to explore a newly documented fission process involving uranium-235, with which they hoped to make a nuclear bomb before Adolf Hitler could develop it. The project was initially allotted $6,000 by the U.S. government, but by the time the work culminated in 1945, the budget had grown to $2 billion. That year marked the first test of the bomb, and with its success, two more bombs were deployed in the following month: one in Nagasaki, Japan and the other in Hiroshima. These actions essentially ended WW II.
After seeing the bomb's devastation, however, Oppenheimer argued against its further development, and he resigned from his post that same year.
Life After WWII
Oppenheimer went on to become chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, which, in October 1949, opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb. This shocking opposition led to accusations that Oppenheimer was a Communist supporter. Thusly, in 1953, he was suspended from secret nuclear research, stripped of his security clearance by the Atomic Energy Commission. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy announced Oppenheimer would receive the Enrico Fermi Award. After Kennedy's assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented the award to him in December of that year.
Oppenheimer continued to support international control of atomic energy in his later years. He died of throat cancer on February 18, 1967, in Princeton, New Jersey. Today, he is often called the "father of the atomic bomb."
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