Julius Robert Oppenheimer (April 22, 1904 – February 18, 1967) was an American theoretical physicist and professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with Enrico Fermi, he is often called the "father of the atomic bomb" for his role in the Manhattan Project, the World War II project that developed the first nuclear weapons.
Robert Oppenheimer was an enigma, a theoretical physicist who displayed the charismatic qualities of a great leader, an aesthete who cultivated ambiguities. In the decades after his death, his life became shrouded in controversy, myth and mystery.
Robert was born to high-class money and privilege at a time of great cultural and economic growth in New York and the country at large. His intellectual and social outlook, personal goals, and academic perspective, for which he was so well known in later years, were all profoundly shaped from the very start, not merely by the privileges of wealth, but more importantly by the same forces that had brought a 17-year-old to New York in 1888.
In September 1922 Oppenheimer entered Harvard College, majoring in chemistry. In high school he had been called Bob. Now he became Robert.
He sailed for England in September 1925, having been admitted to Christ's College in Cambridge. He managed to find a working space in the Cavendish basement and some supervision by the experimental physicist J. J. Thomson, who was nearby. ... As a guide to the quantum mechanics revolution that was about to happen, he must have been less than useless.
Despite appearances, Oppenheimer always had both physical and mental resilience. In this instance, despite everything, he was able to produce two serious papers on the applications of the just discovered quantum theory - his first scientific publications.
While Oppenheimer was a theorist who knew how incompetent he was in the laboratory, he nevertheless stayed close to experimentalists like Lawrence. ... As a theorist who understood what the experimentalists were doing in the laboratory, he had that rare quality of being able to synthesize a great mass of information from disparate fields of research. Some physicists have suggested that Oppenheimer possessed the knowledge and resources to publish a comprehensive "bible" of quantum physics.
Oppenheimer published twelve research papers while in Gottingen and in subsequent European locations, before he settled in California in 1929. All of these papers were marked by innovation and originality, and each demonstrated his mastery of the European style and taste in quantum mechanics.
Oppenheimer, for his part, was the "boy-wonder" of the American physics community. During the 1930s he created an outstanding school of theoretical physics at the University of California in Berkeley.
Nuclear physics was such a new field of study that many of the men and women working on the Manhattan Project had to learn it on the job. At the Los Alamos Laboratory, director J. Robert Oppenheimer asked Robert Serber to present a series of lectures to the employees there. As Serber explains, the lectures comprised "everything we knew in April 1943 on how to make an atomic bomb."
Oppenheimer's singular standing derives from his directorship of Los Alamos. He helped bring about a victorious end to the last "just war," and in the process the products of the laboratory he directed transformed the world. But this achievement was at a personal price that he never came to terms with, and I should add, at a collective price that humankind has not yet come to terms with.