Julius Robert Oppenheimer was an American physicist who is often called “father of the atomic bomb” due to the prominent role he played in the “Manhattan Project” during World War II. Oppenheimer was born in New York City on April 22, 1904. His father, Julius Oppenheimer, was a wealthy Jewish businessman, and his mother, Ella Friedman, was a painter. He had a brother Frank who was also a physicist.
Oppenheimer was a brilliant student throughout his life. After finishing high school, he enrolled at Harvard – a year later than expected due to health reasons. He took on additional courses each semester and graduated within three years, achieving the highest academic distinction. After finishing his undergraduate studies, he enrolled at Cambridge University in London in 1924. Here he studied under Nobel laureate and physicist J. J. Thompson but in 1926, left Cambridge and enrolled at the University of Göttingen to study under the brilliant physicist and mathematician Max Born. He excelled under Born’s leadership but was often known to vex other students with his over enthusiastic participation in discussions. Oppenheimer published some of his best research at Göttingen, including a paper in collaboration with his mentor Born. This paper explained the famous Born-Oppenheimer method, and was a crucial contribution to quantum molecular theory.
In 1927, Oppenheimer was awarded a United States National Research Council fellowship to the California Institute of Technology. However, Bridgman, his old professor from Harvard, also wanted Oppenheimer to work with him, so in order to reach a compromise, Oppenheimer split his time between Caltech and Harvard. He lectured at the University of Leiden, Netherlands for a short period, surprising everyone by lecturing in Dutch despite having little prior knowledge of the language. He then returned to America, and after a brief illness, became an adviser and collaborator at the University of California, Berkeley where he flourished and gained a large fan following of students in the process.
In the late 1930s, on the brink of American involvement in World War II and after the invasion of Poland by Germany, President Franklin D. Roosevelt commissioned the building of an atomic bomb. This project came to be known as the Manhattan Project and it need to be executed as quickly and secretly as possible. Oppenheimer was chosen to head the project’s secret weapons laboratory. This was built in New Mexico and called the “Los Alamos Laboratory”, named after the boys’ school it was built on. The Manhattan Project resulted in the first ever atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima, Japan in August 1945.
Although the project would be called a success from the American government’s point of view, Oppenheimer was devastated at the destruction it had caused. After the war, Oppenheimer was made the chairperson of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission where he opposed the building of the hydrogen bomb. This led to much speculation about his political affiliations, and many people labeled him a communist especially as his wife, brother and many of his associates openly held communist views. After a lengthy investigation by the FBI, he was stripped of his security privileges after a public hearing in 1954. Almost a decade later, President John F. Kennedy awarded him with the Enrico Fermi Award as a gesture of appreciation for his war efforts.
In his personal life, J. Robert Oppenheimer was a quiet and aloof personality. He was a chain smoker and underweight due to his erratic eating habits and strenuous working hours. He was married to Katherine Puening Harrison; the two had an affair before being married but Katherine divorced her husband to marry Oppenheimer. They had two children, but during his married life Oppenheimer continued his affair with his previous girlfriend Jean Tatlock. He spent the last years of his life living on the island of St. John in the Virgin Islands, and spending time with his wife and daughter. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1965 and died in February 1967 at the age of 62. His contributions to molecular science, and the course of world history are unsurpassed. Even though he might have regretted the consequences of his research, and was surrounded with controversy especially in his later life, his genius cannot be denied and the magnitude of his work cannot be undermined.