Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” led the Manhattan Project during World War II, developing the world’s first nuclear weapon. His invention forever changed the world, introducing the immense power of atomic energy and shaping our understanding of scientific responsibility.
Oppenheimer’s ID badge from the Los Alamos Laboratory
Julius Robert Oppenheimer, born on April 22, 1904, in New York City, came from a wealthy German Jewish immigrant family. After graduating from Harvard, he went to England and joined the University of Cambridge at the age of 21, focusing on atomic research at the Cavendish Laboratory. However, he soon realized his true passion was theoretical physics rather than experimental science.
Oppenheimer then joined Max Born at Göttingen University, where he earned his doctorate and made a significant contribution to quantum molecular theory known as the Born-Oppenheimer approximation. After completing his studies, he returned to the United States to teach at the University of California, Berkeley, and the California Institute of Technology.
In 1939, following the Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard, and Eugene Wigner took action to alert the U.S. government about a grave danger looming over humanity. Their concern stemmed from the possibility that the Nazis might be the first to develop a nuclear bomb, which would pose a significant threat to the world.
Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer at the Institute for Advanced Study, c. 1950
In August 1942, the U.S. Army took charge of coordinating the collaboration between British, Canadian, and U.S. physicists with a common goal: finding a way to utilize nuclear energy for military applications. This ambitious undertaking, famously known as the Manhattan Project, entrusted Oppenheimer with the task of establishing and managing a laboratory dedicated to this mission. In 1943, he made the decision to set up the laboratory on the vast plateau of Los Alamos, situated near Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The project began with a small team but rapidly expanded to over 6,000 individuals by 1945. Among them were numerous scientists who had fled from fascist regimes in Europe. Their collective objective was to investigate a recently discovered fission process utilizing uranium-235, with the goal of developing a nuclear bomb before Adolf Hitler. Initially, the U.S. government provided a modest budget of $6,000 for the project. However, as the work progressed and reached its culmination in 1945, the budget swelled to a staggering $2 billion.
On July 16, 1945, Oppenheimer and his team of scientists achieved a momentous breakthrough—the world’s first nuclear explosion. This historic event took place in the Jornada del Muerto desert in New Mexico and was codenamed “Trinity.” As the detonation unfolded before their eyes, Oppenheimer’s mind echoed with a verse from the Bhagavad Gita:
I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
Oppenheimer and Leslie Groves, a director of the Manhattan Project, at the remains of the Trinity test in New Mexico, September 1945
Initially, Oppenheimer felt a sense of satisfaction regarding the atomic bomb. However, his emotions took a different turn following the Trinity test and the subsequent bombing of Hiroshima, which occurred just three weeks later. It was the bombing of Nagasaki that truly shook him, as he deemed it unnecessary from a military standpoint.
In a White House meeting with President Harry S. Truman, Oppenheimer boldly stated that he had “blood on his hands,” a remark that deeply angered the president. Despite the bombings effectively bringing an end to World War II, the catastrophic impact of these weapons compelled Oppenheimer to advocate against further development. He resigned from his position the same year.
Atomic bomb mushroom clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right)
After the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer became chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). In 1949, the Soviet Union's unexpected successful atomic bomb test increased pressure on the US to develop a more formidable weapon—the hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer opposed this on practical and ethical grounds, but President Truman decided to proceed.
Oppenheimer's opposition led to accusations of Communist sympathies. In 1954, the AEC held a security hearing targeting him, resulting in the suspension of his nuclear research involvement and the revocation of his security clearance. This turn of events was a deeply personal and professional humiliation, effectively terminating his role in government and policy.
Nevertheless, Oppenheimer’s reputation experienced some restoration in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy announced that he would be awarded the prestigious Enrico Fermi Award. This recognition served as a testament to his significant contributions to science.
Tragically, Oppenheimer, a devoted chain smoker, died of throat cancer on February 18, 1967, in Princeton, New Jersey. His demise marked the end of a remarkable life characterized by scientific achievement and complex political challenges.
Words of wisdom
“I made one great mistake in my life, when I signed a letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made.” —Albert Einstein
“There are no secrets about the world of nature. There are secrets about the thoughts and intentions of men.” —J. Robert Oppenheimer
“I’m all in favor of the democratic principle that one idiot is as good as one genius, but I draw the line when someone takes the next step and concludes that two idiots are better than one genius.” —Leo Szilard
“An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.” —Niels Bohr