Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer Dr. Julius Robert Oppenheimer Julius Robert Oppenheimer was an American physicist and government adviser, who directed the development of the first atomic bombs. To scientists, he was not only the builder of the atomic bomb and a pioneer in atomic energy, but a master of many languages, a good conversationalist and a brilliant mathematician. He was also a writer, and an expert in both the history of architecture and the religions of the world. Oppenheimer, who was born in New York City on April 22, 1904, and educated at Harvard University and the Universities of Cambridge and Gottingen, grew up in a middle class neighborhood.

He was raised by his mother, who was an artist who provided a nice apartment with a subdued, tasteful atmosphere. His grandfather came from Germany where he was a peasant farmer and grain merchant. The Oppenheimers family business was importing fabric for the clothing industry. As a child in grade school, Oppenheimer excelled in all subjects. This continued straight through all of his schooling. During his years at Harvard University, Oppenheimer excelled in Latin, Greek, physics and chemistry.

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He also published poetry and studied Oriental philosophy. After graduating in 1925, he sailed to England to do research in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University , which, under the leadership of Lord Rutherford, had an international reputation for its pioneering studies on atomic structure. Oppenheimer was fortunate to enter physics in 1925 because that is when modern quantum mechanics came into being. He was one of the first scientists to use quantum mechanics for the exploration of problems which had been insoluble with the old quantum theory. While at Cambridge, Oppenheimer had the opportunity to work with the British scientific community in its efforts to advance the cause of atomic research. Shortly thereafter, Max Born invited him to Gottingen University, where he met other prominent physicists, such as Niels Bohr and Paul Dirac, and where, in 1927, he received his doctorate.

He then returned to the United States. After serving with the International Education Board from 1928 to 1929, Oppenheimer became a professor of physics at the University of California at Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology where he worked from1929 to 1947. There he built up large schools of theoretical physics. He was noted for his contributions relating to the quantum theory, the theory of relativity, cosmic rays, positrons, and neutron stars. He was also able to show that a baffling movement of a deuteron (heavy hydrogen nucleus), being loosely bound, surrenders its neutron on entering the field of a heavy nucleus. The effect was that the heavy nucleus captures the stripped neutron, becomes unstable and then radioactive. This discovery helped to later develop the hydrogen bomb, which is thousands of times more powerful than the atomic bomb.

In his early years of teaching, Oppenheimer had little success and many students complained to the head of the physics department about how quiet he was and how he overestimated his audience. The department head, Raymond T. Birge, knew that Oppenheimer already knew that he was not getting through to the students and therefore did not need to be told. Soon enough he began to interact with his audience by dropping his pace of delivery and going to great lengths to make connections between ideas clearer. By doing this he attracted a small group of some of the brightest students.

These students thought of him as a brilliant lecturer and some remarked that he was one of their most inspiring professors. In 1940 Oppenheimer married a woman named Katherine Harrison. They had one son whom they named Peter and a daughter whom they named Katherine. They lived in a beautiful house on Eagle Hill in the San Francisco Bay area. During a leave of absence that lasted from 1943 until 1945, Oppenheimer served as director of the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos, New Mexico. After warnings from Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard, both respected scientists, that the world would be in grave danger if the Nazis were the first to create an atomic bomb, Oppenheimer began to seek a process for the separation of uranium-235 from natural uranium. He also strove to discover a way to determine the critical mass of uranium required to make such a bomb.

On July 16, 1945, the joint effort of outstanding scientists at Los Alamos created the first nuclear explosion. This took place at Alamogordo, New Mexico. That October, Oppenheimer resigned from the project. His leadership and organizational skills during the project earned him the Presidential Medal of Merit in 1946. In 1947 Oppenheimer became director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey, serving there until the year before his death.

He was also chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, or AEC, from 1947 to 1952 and served thereafter as an adviser. In 1954, however, he was suspended from this position on charges about his past association with Communists. Oppenheimer had been notified of a military security report that was unfavorable of him and that dealt with his alleged associations with Communists in the past. One of these alleged associations was with his wife and brother who were both known to be Communists. He also had no close friends that were not Communists.

He had made substantial sums of money monthly to the Communist party which further contributed to his indictment. There was also evidence that his ties with Communism had survived the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the Soviet attack on Finland, that he belonged only to Communist organizations apart from professional affiliations. The people whom he had recruited into the early wartime Berkeley project were exclusively Communists and he had been instrumental in securing recruits for the Communist party, but his worst and most incriminating action was certainly his frequent contact with Soviet espionage agents. During the war, Oppenheimer was responsible for employing many Communists, some of them being non-technical, at wartime Los Alamos. He selected one of these individuals to write the official Los Alamos history.

He was also accused of delaying the naming of Soviet agents and of opposing the building of the hydrogen bomb. A security hearing that followed declared him not guilty of treason, but ruled that he should not have access to military secrets. It was a powerful case that basically tried to label Oppenheimer as a Communist. It is important to remember that all of the accusations were alleged and came without proof, but the question still remains today as to weather Oppenheimer was simply subject to bad coincidences or if the accusations really had any significance. As a result of the trial, Oppenheimers contract as adviser to the Atomic Energy Commission was cancelled.

This action reflected the political atmosphere of the time, as well as the dislike of some politicians and military figures for Oppenheimer’s opposition to development of the hydrogen bomb and his support of arms control. The Federation of American Scientists stood behind him and protested the trial. During this time he wrote his book Science and the Common Understanding. He also wrote Lectures on Electrodynamics which wasnt released until 1970. Subsequently, efforts were made to clear Oppenheimers name, and in 1963 the AEC conferred on him its highest honor, the Enrico Fermi Award.

This prize carries with it a purse of $50,000. He devoted his final years to study of the relationship between science and society. He died in Princeton on February 18, 1967. Science Essays.