“We found out that the world will never be the same. Some laughed, some cried, many remained silent. (…) Now I have become death, destroyer of worlds. I think we all think about it in one way or another.” This reflection, which has been quoted countless times, defines very well what is Oppenheimer for History humanity. The theoretical physicist who, although he did not act alone, officially became father of the atomic bomb. Most familiar face Manhattan Project.

The quote above reproduces “a line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita. Vishnu tries to persuade the prince to do his duty, and to impress him, he assumes his many-armed form and says: I became death, destroyer of worlds.” An expression that fits perfectly with what the team of scientists from the Los Alamos Laboratory, led by Oppenheimer, has achieved.

The weapon is so powerful capable of destroying the planet. According to a study by the same Lab, they calculated that in order to commit such an atrocity, they would need 10 to 100 atomic bombs. A ridiculous figure compared to the number of nuclear bombs exploded since their invention. It’s over. There are about 12,700 nuclear warheads distributed around the world today. And although it still remains a threat, but to a lesser extent, for decades, millions of people lived in fear given the possibility that only one of these bombs was detonated.

But back to Oppenheimer. What do we know about this historical figure, who has repeatedly appeared in fiction? protagonist of Christopher Nolan’s 100th film? The film clearly focuses on his role in the creation of the atomic bomb. But,what do we know about him before and after this sad historical milestone?

Laboratory of Heike Kamerling-Onnes in Leiden. 1926. Oppenheimer second from the left in the second row. Credit: Paul Ehrenfest/Wikipedia

Oppenheimer before the atomic bomb

Robert Oppenheimer, often referred to as Julius Robert or J. Robert, was theoretical physicist and physics teacher at the University of California at Berkeley. Jewish by birth and of German parents, her father made his fortune importing textiles and her mother was an artist. Oppenheimer was born in New York in 1904 and received the best education he could receive, graduating from Harvard University in 1925.

His biographies say that he was a scientist both in sciences such as physics and chemistry and in writing, with a great knowledge of Latin, Greek and Eastern philosophy. He was also good at languages. He even published poetry. Be that as it may, after finishing his studies at the university, he went to the UK to conduct research in the field of experimental physics at the Cavendish Laboratory Cambridge university. There he was under the guidance of a New Zealand physicist and chemist Ernest Rutherford, one of the first researchers of the structure of the atom. The topic that Oppenheimer specialized in during those years of research.

In 1927, Oppenheimer received his doctorate in University of Göttingen, in Germany. Invited there by Max Born, he will meet other key names in physics such as Niels Bohr or Paul Diracboth pioneers of quantum physics. Oppenheimer will also visit research centers in Leiden (Netherlands) and Zurich (Switzerland), where he will collaborate with Paul Ehrenfest And Hendrik Kramers until he finally got together at the University of California and California Institute of Technology.

The Manhattan Project arose from the threat of Nazi Germany building its own atomic bomb.

Time of Troubles

The rise of Hitler and Nazism in Germany and the Spanish Civil War first made Oppenheimer interested in politics. Up to the allocation of part of his salary to support physicists who fled Nazi Germany. Among them, Bob Server, which would later become a member of the Manhattan Project. Also donated part of the fortune left by her father, who died in 1937. anti-fascist organizations. Some historians claim that at the time, Oppenheimer participated in meetings of communist students, the only ones who at the time warned of the danger that Hitler posed to the world. But never joined Communist Party USA. Although, as we will see, in the future he will be accused of this.

After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, many German scientists and activists emigrated to the United States. Among them are physicists Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard And Eugene Wignerwho, in a letter to the President, warned Franklin D Roosevelt what a danger, what the Nazis made a nuclear bomb it was real. Hence arises Manhattan Projectin the strictest secrecy, with a mission build an atomic bomb what the Nazis did. To this end, the United States government and its military did not hesitate to “hire” all the physicists they could in Nazi Germany and the United States.

Oppenheimer during his trip to Los Alamos
Portrait of Oppenheimer in 1944. Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves at the training ground in 1945 Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico

Manhattan Project

It is Oppenheimer who will be on this list of contenders. To do this, in 1941, the FBI will conduct an investigation to find out if he was a member of the US Communist Party. They found no evidence. They found out that he was a member Executive Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union. That it was a communist front for the FBI. Consequently, he was part of the Preventive Detention Index, a list of people who will be arrested in case of national emergency if they went to war with Russia. Recall that all this happened during the Second World War.

However, Leslie R. Groves, senior management of the Manhattan Project, led the project. Robert Oppenheimer. His stripes as a physicist weighed more, despite unfavorable FBI reports. The FBI, which, by the way, controlled John Edgar Hoover, whom historians accuse of exaggerating in their reports of fighting “subversive elements” within the country and of exceeding legal limits in their investigations. But that is another story.

The Manhattan Project begins operations in 1942 and ends on August 15, 1947. At Los Alamos Laboratory, Santa Fe, New Mexico. The laboratory was run by Oppenheimer himself. On this day, August 15, 1947 trinity test will change the history of mankind in an explosion first atomic bomb. Scientists and military personnel from Britain and Canada collaborated on this project along with the United States.

Physicists Albert Einstein and Oppenheimer
Physicists Albert Einstein and Oppenheimer in a 1950 photograph.

Oppenheimer after the atomic bomb

Much has been said about the Manhattan Project, so we won’t dwell on it any further. Returning to Oppenheimer and, as we saw at the beginning of this article, the detonation of the atomic bomb Trinity This had a big impact on him. To which we must add the launches in August 1945 of nuclear warheads that fell on Hiroshima And Nagasaki. To date, it has only been used twice. nuclear weapons against civilians.

Not surprisingly, from then until his death in 1967, Oppenheimer devoted the rest of his life to prevent the use and development of nuclear bombs. But let’s take it step by step. In October 1945, Oppenheimer resigned his position as administrator of the Los Alamos Laboratory. In 1947 he would lead Institute for Advanced Study from Princeton University. And in 1952 he will become part of General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission.

His allegations against the atomic bomb Oppenheimer in the center of the target and become a victim anti-communist persecution cold war. Already in 1953, he was accused of links with the communists in the past. He will also be accused of concealing the identity of Soviet agents who infiltrated the Manhattan Project, and of oppose the production of the hydrogen bomb, more powerful than previous uranium bombs. Of the three accusations, only the last is fully true. Oppenheimer saw the damage done by the uranium bomb. Making more powerful bombs still led to endless escalation increasingly destructive bombs.

Oppenheimer was persecuted for being an opponent of the hydrogen bomb.
A re-enactment of the trial that Oppenheimer suffered for speaking out against the H-bomb A still from the 2023 film Oppenheimer Credit: universal studios

Memory recovery after the fact

Because of these allegations, Oppenheimer ceased to be a member General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1954 despite support received from the Federation of American Scientists. Public persecution was also organized against him. Defamation, leaks to the press, fabrication of evidence…

In an attempt to repair the damage received in 1963, the President of the United States Lyndon B. Johnson awarded Oppenheimer Enrico Fermi Award Atomic Energy Commission. Four years later, in 1967, Oppenheimer died of laryngeal cancer. Married since 1940, has two children.

In 2014, the US Department of Energy declassified court records which Oppenheimer encountered in 1953. The declassified materials clearly showed that some of the evidence was fabricated in order to undermine Oppenheimer’s credibility and accuse him of anti-communist activities. Another victim of McCarthyism. Finally, in 2022, the US Department of Energy lifted an order issued in 1954 that denied Oppenheimer access to classified documents.

Source: Hiper Textual

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