The Eccentric and Ingenious Father of the Atomic Bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer

Jørgen Veisdal
Dec 26, 2019 · 38 min read

«He was once overheard telling an older girl, “Ask me a question in Latin and I will answer you in Greek!”»

The so-called “Father of the Atomic Bomb” Julius Robert Oppenheimer was described by people who knew him as “a genius of the nuclear age and also the walking, talking conscience of science and civilization”. Born at the outset of the 20th century, his early interests in chemistry and physics would eventually bring him to Göttingen University during the “golden age of quantum physics” in the 1920s, where he worked alongside his doctoral supervisor Max Born, close friend Paul Dirac and eventual adversary Werner Heisenberg.

“I’m glad that’s over. He was at the point of questioning me”

From his time as student at Harvard, to becoming a postgraduate researcher in Cambridge and Göttingen, a professor at UC Berkeley, the scientific head of the Manhattan project and after the war, the Director of the Institute for Advanced Study, wherever Oppenheimer went he could hold his own with the greatest minds of his age. Max Born, Paul Dirac, John von Neumann, Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel, Richard Feynman, they all admired “Oppie”. When he died in 1967, his published articles in physics totaled 73, ranging from topics in quantum field theory, particle physics, the theory of cosmic radiations to nuclear physics and cosmology. His funeral was attended by over 600 people, and included numerous associates from academia and research as well as government officials, heads of military, even the director of the New York City Ballet.


Early Life (1904–1922)

Julius Robert Oppenheimer was born on April the 22nd, 1904 in New York City to parents Julius Oppenheimer and Ella Friedman. His father was an extroverted, wealthy textile importer who immigrated to the United States in 1888 at the age of 17 with no money, higher education or knowledge of the English language. His mother Ella was an accomplished painter who also collected art, including works by Picasso and Van Gogh. She also taught for a period, at Hunter College.

Left: J. Robert Oppenheimer at age x. Right: Frank and J. Robert Oppenheimer in 1915 (AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives).

“When I was 10 or 12 years old, minerals, writing poems, and building blocks were the three things I did.”

When he was five or six, his mother Ella insisted that he take piano lessons, which young Robert dutifully did, practicing every day, hating it all the while (Bird & Sherwin, 2005). He completed the third and fourth grade in one year, and also skipped half of the eight grade. By the age of twelve, Robert was using the family typewriter to correspond with well-known local geologists about rock formations in Central Park. Unaware of the age of the young Oppenheimer, one of his correspondents soon nominated him for membership in the New York Mineralogical Club and shortly thereafter, to deliver a lecture for its members. Dreading the idea of having to speak in front of adults, Oppenheimer turned to his father Julius to please explain to them that they had invited a twelve-year-old to speak. Bemused, his father Julius encouraged Robert to instead accept the invitation:

Robert showed up at the club with his parents, who proudly introduced their son as "J. Robert Oppenheimer". The startled audience of geologists and amateur rock collectors burst out laughing when he stepped up to the podium: a wooden box had to be found for him to stand on so that the audience could see more than the shock of his wiry black hair sticking up above the lectern. Shy and awkward, Robert nevertheless read his prepared remarks and was given a hearty round of applause.- Excerpt, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin (2005)

As a student

He was once overheard telling an older girl, “Ask me a question in Latin and I will answer you in Greek”

Robert’s parents knew early that their son was gifted. “They adored him, worried about him and protected him. He was given every opportunity to develop along the lines of his own inclinations and at his own rate of speed”, his cousin Babette Oppenheimer recalled (Bird & Sherwin, 2005). Of Robert’s high school period Rabi (1969) later described:

My wife, who was in some classes with him, remembers him as brilliant and as being so recognized by the whole school. From conversations with him, I have the impression that his own regard for the school was not affectionate. Too great a dose of ethical culture can often sour the budding intellectual who would prefer a more profound approach to human relation and man's place in the universe.- Excerpt, J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life by Abraham Pais (2006)
I think the most important change came in my junior year in high school ... The teacher of physics and chemistry was marvellous; I got so excited that after the first year , which was physics, I arranged to spend the summer working with him setting up equipment for the following year and I would then take chemistry and would do both. We must have spent five days a week together; once in a while we would even go off on a mineral-hunting junket as a reward for this. [...] I know that I had a great sense of indebtedness to him.- Excerpt, J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life by Abraham Pais (2006)

“I was an unctuous, repulsively good little boy. […] My life as a child did not prepare me for the fact that the world is full of cruel and bitter things”

The ordeal culminated in Robert being locked naked in an icehouse over night, with his genitals and buttocks painted green (Pais, 2006). Reportedly, Robert suffered the humiliation — later described by a a friend as a “torture” — in stoic silence, neither complaining nor asking to leave the camp. Writing home to his parents, the young Oppenheimer instead wrote that he was glad he had come to the camp because the other boys were teaching him the “facts of life” (Bird & Sherwin, 2005).

“Robert himself was painfully aware of the costs of knowing so much more than his classmates”

In University (1922-1927)

Oppenheimer graduated from high school at the age of 17, but suffered a bout of colitis while looking for rocks and minerals during a family vacation to Europe, causing him to have to postpone his university studies by a year.

At Harvard University (1922- 25)

“I plow through about five or ten big scientific books a week.”

Oppenheimer enrolled at Harvard University in September 1922. Prior to his enrollment he was awarded a fellowship but declined it on the grounds that he “could get along well without the money”. Instead, Harvard offered him a volume of Galileo’s early writings (Bird & Sherwin, 2005).

Left: Oppenheimer’s 1925 Harvard University graduation photo. Right: Standing Hall, the Freshman dormitories at Harvard where Robert lived for a period

“At Harvard I did a great deal; the maximum number of courses you could take was six but I audited two or three more in my third year […] the free availability of the whole library got me reading very widely.

I almost became alive”

Bird and Sherwin (2005) write that Oppenheimer’s approach to learning physics was “eclectic, even haphazard” in that he would focus himself in on the most interesting, (typically) abstract problems in the field, bypassing the basics. Even years later in 1965, he confessed that because of this method of learning, he still felt insecure about gaps in his knowledge.

“To this day, I get panicky when I think about a smoke ring or elastic vibrations. There’s nothing there — just a little skin over a hole”

Regardless, Oppenheimer graduated summa cum laude with the A.B. degree after three years of study, rather than the regular four, in 1925. He made the dean’s list and was one of thirty students selected for membership in Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest academic honor society in the United States.

At Cambridge University (1925–26)

In September 1925, Oppenheimer was admitted to Christ’s College at Cambridge University. He boarded a ship for England that same month, settling into an apartment he later called a “miserable hole”, taking all of his meals at the college and spending his days in a corner of Nobel Laureate J. J. Thomson’s basement laboratory making thin beryllium films for use in the study of electrons. Recalling his year there, he later expressed discontent with the state of physics in America at the time, stating

“I was still, in the bad sense of the word, a student. I didn’t learn about quantum mechanics until I got to Europe. I didn’t learn about electron spin until I got to Europe. I don’t believe that they were actually known in ’25 in the spring in America; anyway, I didn’t know them”

Upon first arriving in Cambridge, Oppenheimer had applied to study physics under Sir Ernest Rutherford (1871–1937), but been denied. “Rutherford wouldn’t have me. My credentials were peculiar and not impressive”. He was instead sent to Thomson, whom he worked under for a year, while attending theoretical seminars and catching up on contemporary journals, including the Zeitschrift für Physik. Oppenheimer later recalled being confronted with Heisenberg’s 1925 paper Über quantentheoretische Umdeutung kinematischer und mechanischer Beziehungen while there, which laid the foundation for matrix mechanics, the first conceptually autonomous and logically consistent formulation of quantum mechanics:

“I remember not liking it. I think I was interested in what the hell the electrons were doing. I didn’t like the looseness of the relation between waves and events”

Paul Dirac (middle row, second from left) next to Oppenheimer in Leiden, Netherlands (1926)

“I am having a pretty bad time. The lab work is a terrible bore, and I am so bad at it that it is impossible to feel that I am learning anything . . . the lectures are vile.”

“His difficulties in the laboratory were compounded by his deteriorating emotional state. One day Robert caught himself staring at an empty blackboard with a piece of chalk in his hand, muttering over and over ‘The point is.. The point is.. The point is..’”. Walking into his room one day, a friend caught Robert laying on the floor, groaning and rolling from side to side. By the end of the fall term, Fergusson concluded that Robert was experiencing a “first class case of depression”:

An episode occurred aboard a train that indicated that Robert was losing control emotionally. "He found himself in a third-class carriage with a man and woman who were making love, and though he tried to read thermodynamics he could not concentrate. When the man left Robert kissed the woman. She did not seem unduly surprised [...] but he was at once overcome with remorse, fell on his knees, his feet sprawling, and with many tears begged her pardon" [...] Assuming Fergusson accurately reported the story he was told, it seems clear that Robert was caught up in a fantasy.- Excerpt, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin (2005)

The “Poisoned Apple” Incident

While still at Christ’s College Oppenheimer developed an antagonistic relationship with his tutor, the experimental physicist Patrick Blackett who was a few years his senior. Consumed by feelings of inadequacy and intense jealousy, he one day — according to Fergusson — poisoned an apple with chemicals from the laboratory and left it on Blackett’s desk. Fortunately Blackett didn’t eat the apple, but Cambridge got word of the story and concluded that if the alleged “poison” used was lethal, then what Robert had done amounted to attempted murder.

“When Rutherford introduced me to Bohr, he asked me what I was working on. I told him and he said, ‘How is it going?’ I said ‘I’m in difficulties.’ He said ‘Are the difficulties mathematical or physical?’ I said ‘I don’t know’. He said ‘That’s bad’”.

Reportedly, Bohr vividly remembered the encounter because Oppenheimer had looked unusually young and Rutherford had turned to him after he (Oppenheimer) left the room and remarked that he had high expectations of him. The outcome of his meetings with these great men, was Roberts’ first two research papers, written in Cambridge and submitted for publication in May and July of 1926. Both papers dealt with quantum theory, the first with molecular spectra and the second with transitions to continuum states in hydrogenic atoms (Pais, 2006).

At Göttingen University (1926–27)

“The science is much better than at Cambridge and on the whole, probably the best to be found. I find the work hard, thank god, and almost pleasant”

A year after first arriving in England, Oppenheimer in September 1926 left Cambridge for the University of Göttingen, to study under physicist Max Born, whom he had met while still in Cambridge. At the time, Born had submitted but not yet published his paper Zur Quantenmechanik der Stoßvorgänge (“On the Quantum Mechanics of Collisions”) where he defined what is now known as the Born rule, giving the probability that a measurement on a quantum system will yield a given result. As the chairman of the physics department, Born had helped nurture the work of Heisenberg, Eugene Wigner, Wolfgang Pauli and Enrico Fermi. He had coined the term “quantum mechanics” and was the first to suggest that the outcome of any interaction as the scale of the quantum is determined by chance.

Left: Oppenheimer in Göttingen, 1926/27. Right: Dirac, unknown and Oppenheimer in 1926.

“Something which for me — more than most people — is important began to take place, namely, I began to have some conversations, […] something that I probably would not ever have gotten to if I’d been locked up in a room”

Although he still experienced bouts of anxiety and panic, once even fainting and falling to the floor in front of Paul Dirac, on the whole Robert thrived in Göttingen. By the time he arrived in the fall of 1926, his two first research papers had been published by the Cambridge Philosophical Society. The recognition that followed allowed him to engage himself enthusiastically in seminar discussions, often to the chagrin of other students. “He was a man of great talent […] and conscious of his superiority in a way that was embarrassing and led to trouble”.

“Oppenheimer was the only [student] frank and rude enough to say it without joking. I was not offended; it actually increased my esteem for his remarkable personality” — Max Born

In the winter term of 1927, Paul Dirac arrived and found lodgings in the same villa as Robert. As Robert later stated “the most exciting time in my life was when Dirac arrived and gave me the proofs of his paper on the quantum theory of radiation”. Dirac, who was two years older had just completed his seminal paper on the principles of quantum mechanics. Oppenheimer later stated about Dirac that he was “was not easily understood, not concerned with being understood” adding “I thought he was absolutely grand”. Dirac, when later confronted with a statement from Robert that he saw more of him than anyone else in Göttingen, is to have replied with characteristic mercuriality that “That is so. We sometimes went for long walks together, although I had many walks alone” (Pais, 2006).

Research

In addition to his first two papers written in Cambridge, Oppenheimer would publish another seven papers on quantum physics while still at Göttingen, a incredible output for a 23-year-old graduate student (Bird & Sherwin, 2005). Impressed, Born on one occasion bragged to then-president of MIT Karl Taylor Compton about his student:

“We have here a number of Americans […] One man is quite excellent, Mr. Oppenheimer.”

Over the course of his career, Oppenheimer would publish 73 papers in total, ranging from topics in quantum field theory, particle physics, the theory of cosmic radiations, nuclear physics and cosmology. The following discoveries are amongst his most recognized:

The Born-Oppenheimer approximation (1927)

Prompted by a remark from Heisenberg, Robert in 1927 grew interested in using the new methods of quantum theory to explain, as he put it “why molecules were molecules” (Bird & Sherwin, 2005). Presenting his notes to Born, the professor agreed to collaborate on a paper explaining Oppenheimer’s new idea. In the paper, written while Robert was still in Göttingen, Born and Oppenheimer came to define what is now known as the Born-Oppenheimer approximation, in quantum chemistry and molecular physics the assumption that the motion of atomic nuclei and electrons in a molecule can be treated separately.

Left: Oppenheimer in 1928. Right: Born & Oppenheimer (1927). Zur Quantentheorie der Molekeln in Annalen der Physik.
"I visited Berkeley and I thought I'd like to go to Berkeley because it was a desert. There was no theoretical physics and I thought it would be nice to try to start something. [...] I liked it enough to want to come back and enough to feel that it was a place where I would be checked if I got too far off base and where I would learn of things that might not be adequately reflected in the published literature" - J. Robert Oppenheimer- Excerpt, J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life by Abraham Pais (2006)

“If there ever was a period during which Robert was happy, those were his California years in the 1930s, I would think” — Abraham Pais

In 1931, he co-authored a paper with his student Harvey Hall entitled Relativistic Theory of the Photoelectric Effect in which they based on empirical observations dispute that Dirac’s assertion that two of the energy levels of the hydrogen atoms have the same energy. Another of his doctoral students, Willis Lamb, later determined that this was a consequence of what is now known as the Lamb shift, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1965.

Left: Oppenheimer in 1931. Right: Oppenheimer (1930). Note on the Theory of the Interaction of Field and Matter in Physical Review

The Oppenheimer-Phillips process (1935)

By 1935, Robert was professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Together with his student Melba Phillips they published the paper Note on the Transmutation Function for Deuterons which appeared in Physical Review 48. The paper describes a type of deuteron-induced nuclear reaction wherein the neutron half of a stable isotope of hydrogen with one proton and one neutron fuses with a target nucleus, the target is transmuted to a heavier isotope while ejecting a proton. The process has since become known as the Oppenheimer-Phillips process, and successfully explains, for instance, the nuclear transformation of carbon-12 to carbon-13. The discovery was made from experiments conducted at the UC Berkeley cyclotron, which showed that some elements became radioactive under deuteron bombardment.

Physicists Paul Dirac (1902–1984), Robert A. Millikan (1868–1953) and Oppenheimer in 1935
His theoretical prediction of black holes was by far his greatest scientific achievement, fundamental to the modern development of relativistic astrophysics, and yet he never showed the slightest interest in following it up. So far as I can tell, he never wanted to know whether black holes actually existed. [...] We know that the Oppenheimer-Snyder calculation is correct and describes what happens to massive stars at the end of their lives. It explains why black holes are abundant, and incidentally confirms the truth of Einstein's theory of general relativity. And still, Robert Oppenheimer was not interested. [...] How could he have remained blind to his greatest discovery? [...] Perhaps if the Oppenheimer-Snyder calculation had not happened to coincide with the Bohr-Wheeler theory of nuclear fission and with the outbreak of World War II, Robert would have paid more attention to it.- Excerpt, The Scientist As Rebel (2006) by Freeman Dyson

The Manhattan Project (1942–1945)

“Oppenheimer gave us an example of how large scientific enterprises can be more than the sum of the collaborative effort of their groups. They can be imbued with a creative spirit based upon a common heritage and a common aim” — Victor Weisskopf

If World War I was the “chemist’s war”, then World War II was certainly to become the “physicist’s war”. In the same year Oppenheimer was preoccupied with cosmology and published his paper predicting the existence of black holes, German nuclear physicists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann reported the discovery of uranium fission in a 1939 issue of Die Naturwissenschaften, later identified as nuclear fission by Lise Meitner in the February 11th 1939 issue of Nature. The news of the discovery was brought to America by Niels Bohr and was soon empirically verified in the U.S. by Enrico Fermi at the University of Columbia.

Oppenheimer’s involvement

Starting from 1934 and onward, Oppenheimer had become increasingly concerned with politics and international affairs. Following ‘the great purge of 1933' from Göttingen, in 1934 he began earmarking three percent of his annual salary — about $100 (equivalent to about $2000 in 2019) to support German physicists fleeing Nazi Germany.

“In a few weeks it became apparent that we were not going to find a better man; so Oppenheimer was asked to undertake the task”. — Leslie Groves

Los Alamos, New Mexico

Although it had a director, Project Y had yet to find a location where it would conduct its research. Oak Ridge, Tennessee was considered, as was Reno Nevada, but on Oppenheimer’s suggestion the search was narrowed to the vicinity of Albuquerque, New Mexico where he owned a ranch.

Oppenheimer directed these studies, theoretical and experimental, in the real sense of the words. Here his uncanny speed in grasping the main points of any subject was a decisive factor; he could acquaint himself with the essential details of every part of the work.He did not direct from the head office. He was intellectually and physically present at each decisive step. He was present in the laboratory or in the seminar rooms, when a new effect was measured, when a new idea was conceived. It was not that he contributed so many ideas or suggestions; he did so sometimes, but his main influence came from something else. It was his continuous and intense presence, which produced a sense of direct participation in all of us; it created that unique atmosphere of enthusiasm and challenge that pervaded the place throughout its time.- Excerpt, The Road from Los Alamos by Hans Bethe (1968)

“His function here [at Los Alamos] was not to do penetrating original research but to inspire it. It required a surpassing knowledge of science and of scientists […] A lesser man could not have done it. Scientists are not necessarily cultured, especially in America. Oppenheimer had to be.” — James Tuck

Left: “Jumbo” during transport. Center: The explosion 1/40 second after detonation. Right: The mushroom cloud.

Trinity Test (July 16th 1945 at 05:29 am)

The first detonation of a nuclear device in history was conducted at 05:29am on July 16th 1945 in the Jornada del Muerto desert, 56 kilometers southeast of Socorro, New Mexico. Oppenheimer’s codename for the detonation, Trinity, was inspired by the poem “Holy Sonnet XIV: Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God” by English poet John Donne. When later asked of the codename’s origins by Groves, Oppenheimer’s response was the following:

“There is a poem of John Donne, written just before his death, which I know and love. From it a quotation: As West and East
In all flat Maps—and I am one—are one,
So death doth touch the Resurrection.
That still does not make a Trinity, but in another, better known devotional poem Donne opens, ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God.’” And so this site – where the intense heat of man’s first nuclear explosion would transmute sand into glass – would forever be known as Trinity.”- Excerpt, The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes (1986)
If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one

दिवि सूर्यसहस्रस्य भवेद्युगपदुत्थिता।
यदि भाः सदृशी सा स्याद्भासस्तस्य महात्मनः।।॥११–१२॥

Left: New York Times journalist William Laurence and J. Robert Oppenheimer at the Trinity site in September 1945. Right: Oppenheimer and Groves examining the Trinity detonation site after the successful detonation
It was a success. I believe that in the eyes of the War Department, and other knowledgeable people, it was as early a success as they had thought possible, given all the circumstances, and rather a greater one. There were many indications from the secretary of war and General Groves, and many others, that official opinion was one of satisfaction with what had been accomplished. At the time, it was hard for us in Los Alamos not to share that satisfaction, and hard for me not to accept the conclusion that I had managed the enterprise well and played a key part in its success. But it needs to be stated that many others contributed the decisive ideas and carried out the work which led to this success and that my role was that of understanding, encouraging, suggesting and deciding. It was the very opposite of a one-man show.- Excerpt, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer by the United States Atomic Energy Commission and J. Robert Oppenheimer

Because they had a “great gentleman to serve under”, the Los Alamos scientists invariably “remembered that golden time with enormous emotion”. — James Tuck

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki

About a month after Trinity, on August the 6th and 9th 1945, the United States detonated the first two nuclear weapons over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing between 129,000 and 226,000 people, most of whom were civilians and about half of whom died on the day the bombs were dropped.

Left: Oppenheimer’s letter to the Secretary of War. Right: Oppenheimer discussing the mushroom cloud left over Nagasaki following the detonation of the Fat Man nuclear weapon

“It is our unanimous and urgent recommendation to you that . . . all steps be taken, all necessary international arrangements be made, to this one end.”

In 1965, at the height of the Cold War, Oppenheimer was interviewed for the NBC television program The Decision to Drop the Bomb about his involvement in the Manhattan Project and the development of atomic weaponry. By then 61 years old, Robert’s remarks on the scientists’ reaction to the first nuclear detonation are by now well-known:

Transcript
We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that one way or another.
Oppenheimer (left), Groves (center) and the then-president of UCB Robert G. Sproul at a ceremony presenting the Los Alamos Laboratory with the Army-Navy “E” Award in October 1945

The Institute for Advanced Study (1947–1966)

A man ablaze with power.

Returning to the California Institute of Technology in November 1945, Oppenheimer soon realized that his heart was no longer in teaching and research. He only published five scientific papers after the war. Instead — having succeeded as scientific director at Los Alamos in the preceding three years — Oppenheimer accepted a similar position albeit in civil society, the directorship of the Institute of Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey.

Left: Albert Einstein (1879–1955) and Oppenheimer in 1950. (Photo: Life Magazine). Right: Oppenheimer with John von Neumann (1903–1957) standing in front of the IAS computer mainframe (Photo: Alan Richards)
J. Robert Oppenheimer in his office at the Institute for Advanced Study

FBI investigation

Starting as early as in 1949, Oppenheimer was required to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, describing his loose affiliations with the American Communist Party in the 1930s. As a consequence of the McCarthy witch hunt that would follow in the 1950s, Oppenheimer suffered the revocation of his security clearance in a much-publicized security hearing in 1954 following an FBI investigation lead by J. Edgar Hoover.

Oppenheimer’s decision to participate in the creation of a genocidal weapon was a Faustian bargain if there ever was one [...] And of course we’re still living with it [...]. And like Faust, Robert Oppenheimer tried to renegotiate the bargain — and was cut down for doing so. He had led the effort to unleash the power of the atom, but when he sought to warn his countrymen of its dangers, to constrain America’s reliance on nuclear weapons, the government questioned his loyalty and put him on trial.- Freeman Dyson in The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer & the atomic bomb by Jon Else (1980)
In a great number of cases, I have seen Dr. Oppenheimer act, I understand that Dr. Oppenheimer acted, in a way which was for me was exceedingly hard to understand. I thoroughly disagreed with him in numerous issues and his actions frankly appeared to me confused and complicated. To this extent I feel that I would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understand better, and therefore trust more. In this very limited sense I would like to express a feeling that I would feel personally more secure if public matters would rest in other hands.- Edward Teller, testimony
Edward Teller (1908–2003) and Oppenheimer in 1963

Personality

“To try to be happy is to try to build a machine with no other specification than that it shall run noiselessly.”

Throughout his life Oppenheimer was renowned for his extraordinarily gifted yet eccentric mind. The later Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann who worked with Oppenheimer at the Institute for Advanced Study in 1951 once stated about Oppenheimer that “He didn’t have Sitzfleisch, ‘sitting flesh,’ when you sit on a chair. As far as I know, he never wrote a long paper or did a long calculation, anything of that kind. He didn’t have patience for that; his own work consisted of little aperçus, but quite brilliant ones. But he inspired other people to do things, and his influence was fantastic.”

“Even at Los Alamos, Oppenheimer didn’t talk about weapons or physics. He talked about the mystery of life […] He would rub his palms together and look to the side […] He kept quoting the Bhagavad Gita” — Charles Critchfield

In 1933, at the age of 29, Oppenheimer taught himself Sanskrit so that he could read the Hindu religious text Bhagavad Gita in its original text. He later cited it as one of the books that most shaped his views on the philosophy of life. Regarding this interest, Nobel Laureate Isidor Rabi would later state:

Oppenheimer was overeducated in fields which lie outside the scientific tradition, such as his interest in religion, in the Hindu religion in particular, which resulted in a feeling of mystery of the universe that surrounded him like a fog. He saw physics clearly, looking toward what had already been done, but at the border he tended to feel there was much more of the mysterious and the novel than there actually was- Excerpt, Oppenheimer (1969) by Isidor Rabi
Oppenheimer’s Van Gogh “Enclosed Field with Rising Sun”
He clearly relished the role history had assigned him and tried hard to play the part well. While most of the Institute's permanent scholars walked around in sports jackets (Einstein favored a rumpled sweater), Oppenheimer often wore expensive English wool suits hand-tailored for him and Langrocks, the local tailor for Princeton's upper crust. [...] Where many scholars got around Princeton on bicycles, Oppie drove a stunning blue Cadillac convertible. Where once he'd worn his hair long and bushy, now he had it "cut like a monk's, skin-tight."- Excerpt, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin (2005)

Eccentricity

Oppenheimer was a “tall, thin chain smoker”, who often neglected to eat during periods of intense thought and concentration. Throughout his life, he was plagued by periods of depression, and he once told his brother that “I need physics more than friends”. Many of his friends described him as having self-destructive tendencies.

J. Robert Oppenheimer in 1958
At nineteen, Robert was an oddly handsome young man. Every feature of his body was of an extreme. His fine pale skin was drawn taut across high cheekbones. His eyes were the brightest pale blue, but his eyebrows were glossy black. He wore his coarse, kinky black hair long on top, but short on the sides, so he seemed even taller than his lanky five feet, ten-inch frame. [...] His diet often consisted of little more than chocolate, beer and artichokes. Lunch was often just a "black and tan", a piece of toast slathered with peanut butter and topped with chocolate syrup. [...] He weighed so little, never more than 130 pounds, that he gave an impression of flimsiness. As he talked, his long, thin hands made his gestures seem somehow contorted.- Excerpt, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin (2005)

He seemed incapable of not flaunting his eccentricities.

While in Göttingen, Robert got into the habit of working until early in the morning before sleeping until late in the afternoon. Dressed in expensive clothing, he walked around with a chronic cough attributable both to his frequent colds and his chain-smoking (Bird & Sherwin, 2005), which developed into a life-long habit:

“At forty-three, he seemed delicate, even frail. […] He was very thin, nervous, jittery. He constantly moved around; he couldn’t sit still for five seconds; you had the impression of somebody who was tremendously ill at ease. He smoked all the time” — Freeman Dyson

As a young professor at UC Berkeley, Oppenheimer briefly dated his graduate student Melba Phillips, who he co-developed the Oppenheimer-Phillips process with. On one date, Robert drove her up the Berkeley hills to look at the view of the San Francisco Bay. After wrapping her in a blanket, Oppenheimer is to have said: “I’ll be back presently, I’m going for a walk”. When he came back, Phillips had fallen asleep. Oppenheimer didn’t noice, but announced: “Melba, I think I’ll walk on down to the house, why don’t you bring the car down?” and left again. When he hadn’t returned for two hours, Melba got worried and contacted a nearby policeman who initiated a search and rescue operation which eventually found Oppenheimer asleep in his bed. Apologetic, he explained that he had forgotten all about his date (Bird & Sherwin, 2005).

“I’m awfully erratic, you know. I just walked and walked — and I was home and I went to bed. I’m so sorry.”

The story was later reported on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle and syndicated around the world under the headline “Forgetful Prof Parks Girl, Takes Self Home”.

As a teacher

During his time in Berkeley in the 1930s, Robert’s closest confidant was Robert Serber, an American physicist who later participated in the Manhattan Project. He described Oppenheimer’s approach to teaching in the following way:

Oppie was quick, impatient, and had a sharp tongue. In the earliest days of his teaching he was reputed to have terrorized the students. [...] After five years of experience, he had mellowed, if his earlier students were to be believed. His course was an inspirational as well as an educational achievement. He transmitted to his students a feeling of the beauty of the logical structure of physics and an excitement in the development of science. Almost everyone listened to the course more than once, and Oppie occasionally had difficulty in preventing students from coming a third time. One Russian woman attempted to come a fourth time, and defeated Oppie's efforts to dissuade her by going on a hunger strike. [His students] carried [the course], each in his own version, to many campuses.Oppie's way of working with his research students was also original. His group would consist of eight or ten graduate students and about a half dozen postdoctoral fellows. He would meet the group once a day in his office. A little before the appointed time its members would straggle in and dispose themselves on the tables and about the walls. Oppie would come in and discuss with one after another the status of the student's research problem, while the others listened and offered comments. All were exposed to a broad range of topics. Oppenheimer was interested in everything, and one subject after another was introduced and coexisted with all the others.- Excerpt, Peace and War by Serber and Crease (1998)

Personal life

Oppenheimer met his future wife Katherine “Kitty” Puening in August of 1939. A radical student at UC Berkeley, Kitty was a former Communist Party member and had already been married before. A botanist, she was the ex-wife of activist Joe Dallet. Together, Robert and Kitty had two children. Peter Oppenheimer was born in 1941, and Katherine (“Toni”) Oppenheimer was born in 1944.

Left: Katherine “Kitty”, Katherine (“Toni”) and Peter Oppenheimer. Right: Peter, Toni and Robert.

Acknowledgements

Throughout his career as a researcher and civil servant, Robert Oppenheimer was acknowledged with numerous recognitions and awards, even appearing on the front cover of Time Magazine twice, in 1948 and ‘54.

Oppenheimer appeared on the cover of Time Magazine twice, in 1948 and 1954
Oppenheimer photographed in his office at the IAS in the 1960s (Photo: Marvin Koner)

Death

Oppenheimer remained at the Institute for Advanced Study until just before his death in 1967. His love of tobacco would lead to his development of throat cancer, diagnosed in late 1965. After an inconclusive surgery, unsuccessful radiation treatment and chemotherapy in 1966, he eventually fell into a coma and died in his home in Princeton on February the 18th, 1967. He was 62 years old. His memorial service was attended by over 600 people, a testament to his larger-than-life character.

Televised Interview

While still the Director of the Institute for Advanced Study, Oppenheimer appeared on the CBS television program See It Now hosted by Edward R. Murrow. The interview survives, and gives one the sense of Robert’s personality, passions and peculiarities in a way words simply cannot:


Cantor’s Paradise

Medium’s #1 Math Publication!

Jørgen Veisdal

Written by

Editor-in-Chief at Cantor’s Paradise. Research fellow at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Cantor’s Paradise

Medium’s #1 Math Publication!

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