The pacifist who made the Atomic Bomb

The pacifist who made the Atomic Bomb
The pacifist who made the Atomic Bomb

Robert J Oppenheimer was born in 1904 in New York City to Jewish parents who had emigrated from Germany to America in 1888. Oppenheimer enjoyed a privileged childhood attending the private Ethical School in Manhattan. Like many gifted children he was more comfortable with grown-ups than his peers, and at age 12, he was accepted into the prestigious New York Mineralogical Society. He had a prodigious memory, learned a number of languages in high school and graduated valedictorian in 1921. 

At Harvard University where he was accepted in spite of a prevalent anti- semitism, Oppenheimer was initially a chemistry major. However under the influence of Perry Bridgman he became interested in in physics before graduating summa cum laude (Summa cum laude indicates the greatest distinction of three commonly used types of academic honours recognised in the United States, expressed in Latin. The other two are called magna cum laude and cum laude, representing degrees earned “with great distinction” and “with distinction,” respectively).

Oppenheimer went on a fellowship to the prestigious Cavendish laboratory of the Cambridge University, England in 1924 but his stay in England was not happy and was marked by emotional instability. However he did realise that he had a flair for theoretical physics and that he would not be a successful experimentalist.

He then went to the University of Gottingen in 1926, where he met some of the great scientists who were laying the foundations of Quantum Mechanics e.g. Max Born, Heisenberg and Pauli. He received his Ph.d in 1927, remained in Europe and was one of the first to work on the Quantum Theory as it applied to electrodynamics. His most important work with Max Born led to the theory of molecular behaviour which came to be called the Born- Oppenheimer approximation. Born found young Oppenheimer arrogant and disliked him. It may be noted that on the other hand India’s CV Raman himself said once that he did not exactly find Max Born a friendly person.

 Oppenheimer returned to America in 1922. By then he had acquired a reputation as a leading American authority on new Quantum Physics. He accepted a post as professor at the University of Berkeley and also at the California Institute of Technology. Oppenheimer eventually became an outstanding and engaging teacher who attracted a long list of successful graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. His friend Nobel Laureate, Hans Bethe, observed that at Caltech “Oppenheimer created the greatest school of theoretical physics that the United States has ever known”. During the 1930s Oppenheimer made significant contributions in respect of the theory of the positron the first ” antiparticle “which the great British physicist Paul Dirac had predicted and which was later verified experimentally by Anderson. They both got the Nobel Prize. 

With the beginning of World War II, in Europe, consideration was given to building a nuclear fission bomb; the idea gained momentum when the United States entered the war at the end of 1941. By this time Oppenheimer had already begun Nuclear research and one of his first accomplishments was to estimate the amount of uranium isotope U- 235 needed to make an atomic bomb. There is a misconception that Einstein, the greatest physicist of the 20th century, was directly involved in the process of the making of the Atomic Bomb. He was not. In July 1940, the U.S. Army Intelligence office denied Einstein the security clearance needed to work on the Manhattan Project!. The hundreds of scientists on the project were forbidden from consulting with Einstein, because the left-leaning political activist was deemed a potential security risk! But his famous mass- energy equation (E=MC 2) where E = Energy, M =Mass, C=Velocity of light is the principle on which the Atomic Bomb is based. 

Oppenheimer was chosen to head the team entrusted with the task of building the Atomic Bomb. According to Gerald Holden no one else could have directed so well the large group of about four thousand five hundred scientists assembled at Los Alamos under the difficult and harsh conditions of war.

Late in 1942, Oppenheimer became director of the new research facility at Los Alamos, the top secret laboratory associated with the Office of Scientific Research and Development where the atomic bomb was developed and built. Oppenheimer was able to gain the confidence of scientists including many European emigrés and his capacity for bringing practical results from theory impressed the U.S. Military. Although he did not have a background in administration he turned out to possess considerable organisational capabilities and understood how to usefully coordinate work with universities.

Under Oppenheimer’s guidance, the laboratories at Los Alamos were constructed. There, he brought the best minds in physics to work on the problem of creating an atomic bomb. The joint work of the scientists at Los Alamos resulted in the first nuclear explosion at Alamagordo on July 16, 1945, which Oppenheimer named “Trinity.”

Oppenheimer who had seriously studied Sanskrit opined about the first test explosion of the A- Bomb in July 1945 with famous words ” we knew the world will not be the same ” and recalled a line of the Bhagavadgita ” Now I am destroyer Death , the destroyer of worlds. His career is a potent illustration of interplay between science, the aims of Government and more than these two, a genuine pacifism. 

While he never became a Hindu in the devotional sense, Oppenheimer found it a useful philosophy to structure his life around. “He was obviously very attracted to this philosophy,” says Stephen Thompson, who spent more than 30 years studying and teaching Sanskrit. According to him Oppenheimer’s interest in Hinduism was a way of making sense of his own actions.

The Bhagavad Gita is the best known, and most influential of Hindu scriptures.While Hinduism is known for its diversity and its synthesis therefrom, the Bhagavad Gita has a unique pan-Hindu influence . Gerald Larson, an Indologist and scholar of classical Hindu philosophy, states that “if there is any one text that comes near to embodying the totality of what it is to be a Hindu, it would be the Bhagavad Gita. The Bhagavad Gita summaries the substance of the upanishads and vedas. 

Unable to deal with the immediate problem of fighting his own relations and elders (the Kauravas) Arjuna, one of the five Pandavas, who were the cousins, of the Kauravas, approached Lord Krishna for a palliative to overcome the anguish he was experiencing. Krishna did not just advise him on his immediate problem, but digressed to give a profound discourse on the philosophy of life. Hence, the purpose of the Bhagavad Gita, above everything else, is to impart Brahma Vidya, the science of God realisation. The Bhagavad Gita is not content with providing a lofty philosophical understanding; it also describes clear-cut techniques for implementing its spiritual precepts for everyday life. These techniques of applying the science of spirituality in our lives are termed “Yoga.” Hence, the Bhagavad Gita is also called “Yoga Shastra,” meaning, the scripture that teaches the practice of Yoga.

On July 16, 1945 at 5.20A.M Fat Man the first nuclear bomb was detonated in the New Mexico desert. It melted the sand and created an enormous crater. Oppenheimer belonged to a panel of four scientists which recommended after some consideration that the bomb be used on Japan, a decision he later regretted. . On August 6th, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima followed three days later by a second on Nagasaki. On August 10, the war ended with Japan’s surrender the death toll from the two bombs was about 140000 in 1945 and another 60000 deaths from the long range effects occurred over the next five years.

In 1946; Oppenheimer was awarded the Presidential Medal of Merit by Harry. S. Truman. Oppenheimer became for a long time an important maker of scientific policy, and became a symbol of the new status of science in America society. His thin handsome face and figure replaced Einstein’s wrinkled face and disheveled hair as the public image of genius. 

However Oppenheimer opposed building further nuclear arms and at a meeting told Truman that ” I have blood on my hands”. This led the president to characterise Oppenheimer as a ” crybaby scientist “. He reportedly said” ” Don’t ever bring that damned fool here again. He didn’t set the bomb off. I did. This kind of snivelling makes me sick”.

In 1947 Oppenheimer was appointed director of the Princeton Institute for advanced Study, where he remained till the end of his life. It was in his capacity as chairman of Atomic Energy Commission’s board of advisers from 1947 to 1952 that Oppenheimer came into conflict with the proponents of the U.S. nuclear arms buildup. He did not like the increasingly paranoid style of American government and he advocated a policy of openness instead of secrecy. Oppenheimer stood in favour of peaceful applications of nuclear energy and reduced funding for weapons research- largely in consonance with the pacifist views of Einstein, Neils Bohr and many European scientists. Oppenheimer therefore tangled with the military unlike his friend Jon Von Neumann who was solicitous of army generals. 

One drawback for the Government was Oppenheimer’s political conscience; as stated above until the war he had considered himself a pacifist.

After the war, Oppenheimer was appointed Chairman of the General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), serving from 1947 to 1952. It was in this role that he voiced strong opposition to the development of the hydrogen bomb. In 1953, at the height of U.S. anticommunist feeling, Oppenheimer was accused of having communist sympathies, and his security clearance was taken away. The scientific community, with few exceptions, was deeply shocked by the decision of the AEC. In 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson attempted to redress these injustices by honouring Oppenheimer with the Atomic Energy Commission’s prestigious Enrico Fermi Award. Earlier President Kennedy had invited him to a dinner given to Nobel Laureates.

Throughout his life Oppenheimer cultivated a variety of interests in the world outside Physics. He was interested in Psychoanalysis, and ancient Greek. His mildly left-wing inclinations were by no means unusual in the 1930s. However his enemies exploited his leftist leanings to paint him as a communist. To add to this his wife was the widow of a communist killed in the Spanish civil war. 

Oppenheimer’s generosity was a noble trait. He gave frequent parties for his students and treated them to dinners at fine restaurants. They affectionately referred to him as Opie. So popular was Oppenheimer with his students that they sometimes adopted his mannerisms, his accent and his pipe. The pipe proved fatal. In 1966, he was diagnosed as suffering from cancer of the throat and he died on February 18, 1967.

For his world-changing scientific achievements, J. Robert Oppenheimer would be forever known as the “father of the atomic bomb.” 

The Nobel Prize — the pinnacle of global recognition — was awarded to 18 of Oppenheimer’s Los Alamos colleagues. At Los Alamos in just 27 months (and in a perceived race with Nazi Germany), scientists created the world’s first nuclear weapon. Their efforts brought civilisation into the “Atomic Age” and helped end World War II.

Despite his many accomplishments, Oppenheimer was not awarded the Nobel Prize.

However, Oppenheimer was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Physics three times: in 1946, in 1951 and in 1967. Many of his Colleagues, scholars, and surely Oppenheimer himself, wondered why he was never bestowed the honour. 

The fact that he was not awarded the Nobel Prize does not in any way diminish his stature as a great scientist as was the case with Freeman Dyson who was denied the prize though the three others, Richard Feynman, Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger who formulated Quantum Electrodynamics were awarded the prize. The simplest explanation is that before WWII, Oppenheimer’s published work was not considered significant enough. It was felt that Oppenheimer never made a major discovery, nor ever prove a significant theory.

For his Manhattan Project work, Oppenheimer himself reportedly said that creating the atomic bomb was more inventive than scientific.

When he was first nominated in 1946 for the Nobel Prize, the Nobel committee was hesitant to award it to someone so closely tied to the atomic bomb. Many scholars and scientists through the years have concurred.

Others, though, have said Oppenheimer’s scientific focus would change frequently and he didn’t work sufficiently in any one area to warrant the Nobel Prize. Some scientists, including Nobel laureate Luis Alvarez, speculated that Oppenheimer’s work on black holes may have warranted the prize, had he lived long enough to see them to fruition. (Nobel prizes are not awarded posthumously.) From 1974, the statutes of the Nobel Foundation stipulate that a prize cannot be awarded posthumously, unless death has occurred after the announcement of the Nobel Prize. Before 1974, the Nobel Prize has only been awarded posthumously twice: to Dag Hammarskjold (Nobel Peace Prize 1961) and Erik Axel Karlfeldt (Nobel Prize in Literature 1931) Following the 2011 announcement of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, it was discovered that one of the medicine laureates, Ralph Steinman had passed away three days earlier. The Board of the Nobel Foundation examined the statutes, and an interpretation of the purpose of the rule above led to the conclusion that Ralph Steinman should continue to remain a Nobel Prize laureate, as the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet had announced the 2011 Nobel Prize laureates in physiology or medicine without knowing of his death.

“Did he achieve greatness? Yes, of course. What Oppenheimer led his wartime team of scientists to achieve was nothing short of remarkable. He will always have that incredible scientific legacy.

The Institute has served as the academic home of internationally preeminent physicists, and mathematicians including, the greatest physicist of the 20th century, and Nobel Laureate Albert Einstein, Nobel Laureates, in Physics -Tsung Dao Lee, C.N.Yang, and Frank Wilczek, and eminent mathematicians, Hermann Weyl, John von Neumann, Kurt Gödel, and Harish Chandra,. As Director of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies, Oppenheimer proved his mettle as an able administrator.In the 20th century’s hall of fame Oppenheimer stands alongside  brilliant scientists, like Pauli, Enrico Fermi, and Hans Bethe. 

On a personal note I would like to mention that my uncle, one of the most brilliant physicists our country has produced and founder Director of MATSCIENCE ( MADRAS INSTITUTE OF MATHEMATICAL SCIENCE) spent nine months at the  Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies as a visiting professor on the invitation of Oppenheimer !


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