“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”, said Robert Oppenheimer in a haunting 1965 television interview, reciting a sacred text from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita. That’s bone-chilling, right?
Well, you gotta’ buckle up, ‘cause we’re about to embark on a journey into the heart of one of humanity’s most fascinating and devastating creations – the atomic bomb- and his so-called “father”, Doctor Julius Robert Oppenheimer.
Fascinating Facts About Oppenheimer, the Father of the Atomic Bomb
It’s a journey of science, intrigue and enigmas that have gone down in history as facts!
Oppenheimer was a child prodigy
Robert Oppenheimer, famously known as the ‘father of the atomic bomb’, was born on April 22, 1904, to a non-practising Jewish family in New York City. His mother, Ella, was a painter, and his father, Julius, a successful textile businessman who emigrated from Germany with barely a penny to his name. They lived in a plush neighborhood in Manhattan and had an impressive collection of artworks, including originals by Van Gogh and Picasso.
Robert was a bright, curious student with interests ranging from literature to mineralogy, and he quickly moved through his grades. During his last year at school, he fell in love with chemistry.
Robert Oppenheimer enrolled in Harvard College, majoring in chemistry but also studying history, literature, and either philosophy or mathematics. He graduated just three years after enrolling, with a Bachelor of Arts, summa cum laude. His fascination with experimental physics was sparked by a thermodynamics course taught by Percy Bridgman. Quite a journey for a young man, isn’t it?
He May Have Tried to Poison His Professor with an Apple
In 1924, Oppenheimer secured a spot at the University of Cambridge.
However, his time at Cambridge wasn’t smooth sailing. He struggled with lab work and clashed with his tutor, Patrick Blackett, even allegedly leaving a chemically-infused apple on his desk. This resulted in probation and mandatory sessions with a psychiatrist.
He loved physics more than his friends
Oppenheimer, a chain smoker known for neglecting meals during periods of intense focus, was described as self-destructive by friends. He even admitted to needing “physics more than friends,” a testament to his enduring periods of depression.
Leaving Cambridge in 1926, he moved to the University of Göttingen to study under Max Born, joining a hub of future successful physicists. His enthusiasm in discussions was so pronounced that it prompted a student petition for him to tone down.
At 23, Oppenheimer received his Doctor of Philosophy degree, supervised by Born. During his time in Europe, he published numerous papers contributing significantly to quantum mechanics, including the famous Born-Oppenheimer approximation, his most-cited work.
He never won a Nobel prize
Oppenheimer’s scientific research was vast, covering theoretical astronomy, nuclear physics, spectroscopy, quantum field theory, and quantum electrodynamics. His work notably foresaw the discovery of the neutron, meson, and neutron stars. That’s a lot of science.
Apparently, he was also nominated for the Physics Nobel Prize in 1945, 1951, and 1967. Unfortunately, he never got it. Many think that his study on how stars collapse under their own gravity was a real breakthrough deserving the prize.
He was added to an FBI list of people to be arrested
In the 1930s, Oppenheimer, like many young thinkers, supported social changes that were later labelled as communist ideas. During the McCarthy era, he donated to many left-wing causes considered progressive. He mostly helped raise funds for anti-fascist activities, like the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. However, he never officially joined the Communist Party USA.
In 1942, when he joined the Manhattan Project, he claimed to be a member of pretty much every West Coast communist organization. Later, he said he didn’t remember saying this and, if he did, it was meant as a joke. He admitted in 1954 that he had been involved with the communist movement. From 1937 to 1942, he was part of a “discussion group” in Berkeley, which some members identified as a secret communist group for faculty members.
The FBI started a file on Oppenheimer in 1941. They noted that he attended a meeting with high-ranking communists and was part of the American Civil Liberties Union, which they believed was a front for communism. The FBI even added Oppenheimer to a list of people to be arrested in case of a national emergency.
He didn’t invent the atomic bomb
Although he is named “the father of the Atomic bomb”, he didn’t really invent it or made the central scientific discoveries at its core. No, the story goes like this.
Before the U.S. entered World War II, President Roosevelt greenlit a project to develop an atomic bomb. Oppenheimer, a former student of James B. Conant who was managing the project, was put in charge of the crucial fast neutron calculations. He set up a bomb theory summer school to figure out the nuts and bolts of creating the bomb.
Fast forward to mid-1942, and the U.S. Army established the Manhattan Engineer District to take the reins of the atomic bomb project. Leslie Groves was appointed as the director and picked Oppenheimer to run the project’s secret lab. Despite some eyebrows raised over Oppenheimer’s selection (he didn’t exactly have a track record for leading big projects), Groves believed in his unique understanding of the atomic bomb creation process and his depth of knowledge.
To keep things hush-hush and cohesive, Oppenheimer and Groves agreed on a centralized lab in an off-the-grid location.
Oppenheimer suggested New Mexico as the location and he put together a team of the best physicists of the time.
The Atomic bomb research was run by the University of California
At first, the lab was meant to be a military facility, and the researchers, including Oppenheimer, were going to join the Army. However, after some pushback from the researchers, the plan changed, and the lab was run by the University of California but contracted to the War Department.
The project quickly grew from a few hundred people to over 6,000, and Oppenheimer had to learn how to manage such a large group. Despite some struggles, he was successful and became a symbol of the project’s goals.
Throughout this process, Oppenheimer also advised on the postwar policies on nuclear energy, offering his thoughts on both the scientific and political aspects of the bomb’s use.
He chose a favourite childhood place as the site for the Manhattan Project
After finishing high school, Oppenheimer was eager to enter Harvard University, but a nasty bout of colitis put a pause on his plans. To recover, his folks sent him to a ranch in New Mexico. It was here, amidst the desert sands, that Oppenheimer developed a deep connection with the place, along with a newfound passion for horseback riding.
Over the next several years, he would return to New Mexico multiple times. When the time came to establish a secret base for the Manhattan Project’s top scientists, Oppenheimer knew just the place – the Los Alamos ranch. Nestled in the desert he’d grown to love, this location embodied a personal connection and a professional mission, marking a pivotal point in his life, and indeed, in world history.
The invention of the Atomic bomb was started by the Germans
It all started with the discovery of how to split the uranium atoms, which was made by three chemists in Germany, in 1938.
The discovery of splitting the uranium atom was like finding a way to split a grain of sand and release the energy of a thousand suns.
Albert Einstein was one of the first people to realize the potential of this discovery, and he wrote to President Roosevelt to warn him that the Nazis might be working on an atomic bomb. This led to the Manhattan Project, a massive scientific and military undertaking to develop the bomb before the Germans could.
The scientists on the Manhattan Project worked tirelessly to overcome the technical challenges of building an atomic bomb. They had to figure out how to enrich uranium, how to assemble the bomb, and how to detonate it. They also had to do all of this in secret, because if the Germans found out what they were doing, they might have been able to build a bomb first.
The First Ever Nuclear Weapon was Detonated on July 16, 1945
The first-ever nuclear test, known as the “Trinity” took place in the summer of 1945, on July 16, to be exact. The name was inspired by the poems of John Donne and chosen by Robert Oppenheimer.
The nuclear device, nicknamed the “Gadget,” was assembled at the test site, and hoisted atop a 100-foot firing tower. A few hours before the test, it was armed and everyone retreated to a safe distance.
The detonation occurred precisely at 5:30 a.m.
The Gadget exploded over the New Mexico desert, instantly vaporising the tower and creating a fireball that soared into the already hot desert sky. A massive blast wave and searing heat spread out across the desert, followed by a mushroom cloud – an image that would become an iconic symbol of the nuclear age.
Reactions were diverse, ranging from surprise and joy to relief. Some scientists bet whether the bomb would ignite the atmosphere or if it would work at all. But when the dust settled, it was clear that the atomic bomb was a reality.
However, the mood soon shifted to more somber reflections. The test’s director, Kenneth Bain, called the explosion a “foul and awesome display” and told Oppenheimer, “Now we are all sons of bitches.” This sentiment of regret and fear would linger in the minds of many of those who participated in the Manhattan Project.
The Manhattan Project would cost $24 billion in 2021
The Manhattan Project cost the US a whopping $2 billion at its time, which is about $24 billion in 2021, and it employed over 125,000 people. That was a major undertaking. It produced 3 bombs that we know of the gadget, which was detonated as part of the Trinity test, the Little Boy, and The Fat Man.
The Little Boy
The Little Boy was detonated over the Japanese city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Let’s see the basic principles behind it.
The core of the bomb consisted of a long cylindrical piece of uranium-235. At one end of the bomb was a conventional explosive, and at the other end was a smaller piece of uranium-235. When the bomb was detonated, the conventional explosive fired the smaller piece of uranium-235. Imagine you have two pieces of a dangerous material called uranium. One piece is like a bullet, the other piece is a target. When these two pieces combined, it achieved a critical mass, causing a chain reaction. This chain reaction led to the explosion of the bomb, releasing a huge amount of energy and causing massive destruction.
The heat, light, and explosion itself destroyed almost everything around and killed about 140,000 people, some straight away and some later from injuries and sickness caused by the explosion.
The Fat Man
The bomb dropped on Nagasaki, known as “Fat Man,” was an implosion-type fission bomb that used plutonium-239. The core of this bomb consisted of a sphere of plutonium-239 surrounded by a shell of conventional explosives. The explosives were designed in such a way that when they were set off, they would implode inwards, compressing the plutonium and bringing it to a critical mass. Just like with Little Boy, once critical mass was achieved, a nuclear chain reaction occurred, resulting in a large explosion, killing about 80,000 people.
These bombs hurt and killed so many people and they changed the world forever. In some way, they showed the world just how much destruction an atomic bomb can cause.
As for Robert Oppenheimer, he was a brilliant scientist, the brains behind the first atomic bomb. But, when he lost his political influence in 1954, he became a warning sign. His story tells us that scientists can’t always control how their discoveries are used and that they need to think about their moral responsibility.
Oppenheimer got into hot water during the Red Scare, a time when America was worried about communism.
In the science world, Oppenheimer was a superstar. He helped put American science on the global map. His mind was always racing with new ideas, and he made big strides in understanding black holes.
Oppenheimer also changed the game when it came to science and the military, bringing about the era of “big science”. This was when large, expensive projects, often with military backing, became the norm.