From Harvard to the Manhattan Project

Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) was a man of many interests and passions, and at first, science was not one of them.  Growing up in a wealthy family, he had a lot of time to pursue his education, and he whizzed through school, perfecting classes and skipping grades as he went.  It did not become clear that he was destined to be a scientist until soon before his graduation, when he became engrossed with chemistry.  A year later, he was enrolled in Harvard College, majoring in the subject.  Just like before, he was extremely successful in school, and was inducted into the honors society his first year, a rare privilege given only to the best of students. Oppenheimer was able to opt out of many basic physics courses, and begin studying advanced material right away.  This sparked his interest in experimental physics.

After finishing up and obtaining his degree from Harvard, Oppenheimer wanted to continue his education.  He was looking into various places of study in Europe, and was looking to push forward with experimental physics.  He was accepted to Christ's College, Cambridge, but for the wrong subject.  Despite his passion for experimental physics, he was known for being clumsy in the lab, and was told by many that he should go into theoretical physics instead.  He eventually ended up doing a bit of both.  After Christ's College, he went on to study at the University of Göttingen, where he was known by many of his peer as being over-enthusiastic, to the point of annoyance and frustration.  He earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Göttingen while studying under Max Born.  Afterwards, he continued to work there with Born, and the two made many huge advancements in quantum mechanics, a new and evolving field.

J. Robert OppenheimerCredit:

Once finished at Göttingen, Oppenheimer continued studying in a collegiate environment, splitting his time between the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and an accepted job as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.  This compromise continued for many years.  Even after accepting a full time position at Berkeley, Oppenheimer still made enough time to teach a six-week course at Caltech every year.  His split schedule like this went on for many years, until he was approached for help on Franklin Roosevelt's newly approved plan, the Manhattan Project.

Developing the Atomic Bomb

As is now common knowledge, the Manhattan Project was program for some of the world's renowned scientists to come together and attempt to develop the atomic bomb.  It was given the official name after its director Leslie Groves was appointed in 1942.  There were some initial concerns about admitting Oppenheimer to the project, especially with all of the secrecy surrounding it.  He was known for having some liberal leaning political views, which in those days made many people wary of having ties to the Communist Party.  Furthermore, many questioned his social ability to both work alongside and lead other scientists.  However, after Groves saw just how good a grasp Oppenheimer had at the concepts essential to development of the bomb, as well as background in nearly all of the required fields, he knew that he was the man for the job.

Robert became one of those selected to help pick out the site for the government's secret research facility for the project, and was actually the one who suggested the Los Alamos site.  Despite some of the initial concerns, he soon became heralded as one of the most significant, if not the most important, member of the project.  He was considered masterful when it came to directing the massive amount of people involved in the research, quelling any doubts about his leadership ability.  Furthermore, many people were impressed by his drive and ambition towards achieving the common goal.


Finally, in 1944, the scientists had something to show for their efforts.  The test site of Alamogordo, New Mexico was selected, and was codenamed "Trinity" by Oppenheimer himself.  On July 16, 1945, the test was conducted, and the world's first nuclear bomb was an explosive success.  At the time, Oppenheimer noted a selection from the Hindu holy book- "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 ..."  However, he is well known for another verse from the same book, so much so that it is often mis-credited as a direct quote from him- "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

Post World War II and Communist Ties

Soon after, the military dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, much of the secrecy of the Manhattan Project became public knowledge.  Oppenheimer was considered one of the leading individuals behind it, and became world-famous.  However, this popular view in the public eye would not last.  Before long, many began to question Oppenheimer's political views, which had become more open and passionate since the early 1930s, and in 1949, he was brought before the courts to testify about his ties to the Communist Party.

Things did not look good for Oppenheimer.  He admitted that many of the students he formed relationships with at both Caltech and Berkeley were members of the Communist Party, as was his brother and sister-in-law.  Suddenly, many accusations around the country began being flung at him.  He was falsely accused of holding communist meetings at his home, as well as after class at Berkeley with both students and faculty.  In addition to all of this, many of the concerns about him that had come up before his admittance ot the Manhattan Project came up once again.  It didn't help that the only reason he had received such high security clearance was because he had been deemed too important to the project.

Trials of Robert OppenheimerCredit:

The investigations and allegations continued on for years, and the accusations became more and more wild.  Eventually, he was accused of not only having ties to the Communist Party, but actually leaking information to the Soviets as a traitor.  Finally, President Eisenhower revoked Oppenheimer's clearance in 1953.  At the time, this infuriated many in the scientific community.  He spent much of the rest of his life at St. John in the Virgin Islands.  A chain smoker his whole life, he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1965, and died from two years later.  His legacy and influence over the scientific community continued to grow long after his death.  

During the years following his death, many of the accusations thrown at him were disproven and put to rest.  In 2009, several experts on Soviet espionage found proof that not only did Oppenheimer refuse to give the KGB information on the Manhattan Project, but he also reported several of his fellow scientists for being Communists, and had their security clearances revoked.  Not only did Robert Oppenheimer refuse to betray his country, he was a true patriot, serving it as best he could during decades of uneasy transitional warfare and development.