Robert Oppenheimer

Robert Oppenheimer, Physicist, NYC


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Robert Oppenheimer

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J. Robert Oppenheimer (April 22, 1904 - February 18, 1967) was an American theoretical physicist, best known for his role as the director of the Manhattan Project, the World War II effort to develop the first nuclear weapons, at the secret Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico. Known as "the father of the atomic bomb," Oppenheimer lamented the weapon's killing power after it was used to destroy the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war, he was a chief advisor to the newly created United States Atomic Energy Commission and used that position to lobby for international control of atomic energy and to avert the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. After invoking the ire of many politicians and scientists with his outspoken political opinions during the Red Scare, he had his security clearance revoked in a much-publicized and politicized hearing in 1954. Though stripped of his direct political influence, Oppenheimer continued to lecture, write, and work in physics. A decade later, President John F. Kennedy awarded him the Enrico Fermi Award as a gesture of political rehabilitation. As a scientist, Oppenheimer is remembered most for being the chief founder of the American school of theoretical physics while at the University of California, Berkeley.

Work

In September 1927, Oppenheimer returned to Harvard as a young maven of mathematical physics and a National Research Council Fellow, and in early 1928 he studied at the California Institute of Technology.

While at Caltech he received numerous invitations for teaching positions, and accepted an assistant professorship in physics at the University of California, Berkeley. In his words, "it was a desert", yet paradoxically a fertile place of opportunity. He maintained a joint appointment with Caltech, where he spent every spring term in order to avoid isolation from mainstream research. At Caltech, Oppenheimer struck a close friendship with Linus Pauling and they planned to mount a joint attack on the nature of the chemical bond, a field in which Pauling was a pioneer-apparently Oppenheimer would supply the mathematics and Pauling would interpret the results. However, this collaboration, and their friendship, was nipped in the bud when Pauling began to suspect that the theorist was becoming too close to his wife, Ava Helen. Once when Pauling was at work, Oppenheimer had come to their place and blurted out an invitation to Ava Helen to join him on a tryst in Mexico. She flatly refused and reported this incident to Pauling. This, and her apparent nonchalance about the incident, disquieted him, and he immediately cut off his relationship with the Berkeley professor. Later, Oppenheimer invited Pauling to be the head of the Chemistry Division of the atomic bomb project, but Pauling refused, saying that he was a pacifist.

In the autumn of 1928, Oppenheimer visited Paul Ehrenfest's institute at the University of Leiden, the Netherlands, where he impressed those there by giving lectures in Dutch despite having little experience with the language. There he was given the nickname of "Opje," which was later Anglicized by his students as "Oppie". From Leiden he continued on to Zurich, Switzerland to work with Wolfgang Pauli on problems relating to quantum theory and the continuous spectrum, before heading back to the United States. Oppenheimer highly respected and liked Pauli, and some of his own style and his critical approach to problems was said to be inspired by Pauli. During his time with Ehrenfest and Pauli, Oppenheimer polished his mathematical skills.

Before his Berkeley professorship began, Oppenheimer was diagnosed with a mild case of tuberculosis, and with his brother Frank, spent some weeks at a ranch in New Mexico, which he leased and eventually purchased. When he heard the ranch was available for lease, he exclaimed, "Hot dog!"-and later on the name of the ranch became "Perro Caliente," which is the translation of "hot dog" into Spanish. Later, Oppenheimer used to say that "physics and desert country" were his "two great loves", loves that would be combined when he directed the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos in New Mexico.

He recovered from his tuberculosis and returned to Berkeley, where he prospered as an advisor and collaborator to a generation of physicists who admired him for his intellectual virtuosity and broad interests. Nobel Prize winner Hans Bethe later said about him:

" Probably the most important ingredient Oppenheimer brought to his teaching was his exquisite taste. He always knew what were the important problems, as shown by his choice of subjects. He truly lived with those problems, struggling for a solution, and he communicated his concern to the group. "

He also worked closely with (and became good friends with) Nobel Prize winning experimental physicist Ernest O. Lawrence and his cyclotron pioneers, helping the experimentalists understand the data their machines were producing at the Lawrence's Radiation Laboratory.

Oppenheimer became known as a founding father of the American school of theoretical physics, and developed a reputation for his erudition in physics, his eclecticism, his quick mind, his interest in languages and Eastern philosophy, and the eloquence and clarity with which he thought. But he was also emotionally troubled throughout his life, and professed to experiencing periods of depression. "I need physics more than friends," he once informed his brother. A tall, thin chain smoker who often neglected to eat during periods of intellectual discomfort and concentration, Oppenheimer was marked by many of his friends as having a self-destructive tendency, and during numerous periods of his life worried his colleagues and associates with his melancholy and insecurity. When he was studying in Cambridge and had taken a vacation to meet up with his friend Francis Ferguson in Paris, a disturbing event had taken place. During a conversation in which Oppenheimer was narrating his frustration with experimental physics to Ferguson, he had suddenly leapt up and tried to strangle him. Although Ferguson easily fended off the attack, the episode had convinced Ferguson of his friend's deep psychological troubles. Oppenheimer developed numerous affectations, seemingly in an attempt to convince those around him-or possibly himself-of his self-worth. He was said to be mesmerizing, hypnotic in private interaction but often frigid in more public settings. His associates fell into two camps: one that saw him as an aloof and impressive genius and an aesthete; another that saw him as a pretentious and insecure poseur. His students almost always fell into the former category, adopting "Oppie's" affectations, from his way of walking to talking and beyond-even trying to replicate his inclination for reading entire texts in their originally transcribed languages.



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