J. Robert Oppenheimer

Marshall Cahill

Early Life

-Born April 22, 1904 into a family of 1st and 2nd generation German immigrants

-Non-religious Jewish family; participated in the Ethnical Cultural Society, which celebrated rationalism and progressive secular humanism

-Attended an Ethnic Cultural school and had a very inspiring teacher (Herbert Smith)

-Introspective and sheltered as a child, yet extremely brilliant: in third grade, he was preforming lab experiments and by fifth grade he was studying chemistry and physics.

-Precocious yet arrogant

Collegiate Years

-Enrolled at Harvard in the autumn of 1922, claiming a chemistry major

-Worked laboriously in his studies

-After graduating from Harvard with a bachelors in chemistry, Oppenheimer attended the Cavendish laboratory at Cambridge University in 1925 to study quantum mechanics under the administration of Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr

-Became very depressed due to his inability to connect with people socially

  • In the autumn of 1925, Oppenheimer had supposedly laced an apple with cyanide and gave it to the head steward
  • Attacked one of his close friends, Francis Fergusson
-Visited Göttingen, Germany during the apex of theoretical physics

-Surrounded by very influential peers: the experimental physicist James Franck, the chemist Otto Hahn, the physicist Ernst Pascual Jordan, the physicist Paul Dirac, the mathematician John von Neumann, and the physicist Eugene Uhlenbeck

Manhattan Project

-WWII interrupted Oppenheimer's progress as an aspiring physicist and physics professor

-Appointed director of the the Los Alamos research center for the Manhattan Project

-Due to his leadership in the project he is affectionately named "the father of the A-bomb"

-The success of the bomb, as well as later threats of being a communist sympathizer, would lead to his future remorse

-The project led to the declaration of the United States as a world superpower, as well as the inevitable tension between the Democratic West and the Communist East that presented itself throughout the Cold War

"It worked!" - Oppenheimer, after the Trinity bomb testing

Atomic Energy Commission & Oppenheimer's Trial

-After WWII, the U.S. government set up the Atomic Energy Commission to replace the Manhattan Project and oversee all atomic research and development

-Oppenheimer was appointed Chairman of the General Advisory Committee

-Opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb, which was claimed to be "a thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb."

-On December 23, 1953, Oppenheimer was temporarily suspended from the AEC due to rumors of him being a communist sympathizer or even a communist spy

-Despite being urged to hand in his resignation from the organization, Oppenheimer demanded a security hearing

-The hearings opened on April 12, 1954, and despite an overwhelming amount of evidence proving that Oppenheimer was innocent, Oppenheimer was denied from research documents and the AEC as a whole

Oppenheimer's Remorse

-Oppenheimer, as well as other project scientists never imagined their theoretical discoveries would be put to use in the wartime effort

-As other physicists expressing their doubt of the morality of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer did his best to curb their beliefs

-After the Trinity test explosion, despite maintaining a boastful exterior, Oppenheimer began questioning the motives of the U.S. government, leading to his famous "Now I am become Death" quote

-After the dropping of the bombs, Oppie grew very remorseful of his indirect responsibility for the death of millions of Japanese civilians

  • Upon meeting Truman, Oppenheimer expressed that he "felt blood on his hands", to which Truman responded by giving him a handkerchief and telling him to wipe it off
-During the period of the Cold War, during which the H-bomb became a "necessity", Oppenheimer denounced it, calling it a genocidal weapon, its only conceivable purpose being the destruction of civilian populations in the millions

-Oppenheimer turned to alcohol and sleeping pills in response to apparent uselessness in the fight for world peace

-Oppenheimer was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1966, and died February 15, 1967

"We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another."

Political Cartoon

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In Algis Valiunas's article "The Agony of Atomic Genius", the author provides the reader with Oppenheimer's background as a coming-of-age physicist, quickly trasitioning to the defining moments of Oppenheimer' career. From the Manhattan Project, to his time at the AEC, to the threats of communism, Valiunas elucidates the exact effect each experience had on Oppenheimer and how they resultingly added to his moral burden. By using descriptive diction such as "heroic", "agony", and "poor", the author constructs a pitiful tone that allows for the precise portrayal of Oppenheimer as a scientific hero stifled by his own naive ambitions and inevitable hubris. The author further adds to this tone by including Oppenheimer's supposed beliefs in global peace, that through the use of peaceful diplomacy a true global political state could be created in which every country was represented. This implies that Oppenheimer did have benevolent intentions throughout his research and was innocent enough to believe that his leadership and devotion in the Manhattan Project would be used to spread democracy. As a result, the readers are forced to experience a mix of admiration for Oppenheimer's political ideas as well as pity due to our knowledge of what eventually happened to him. However, in an apparently contradictory decision, the author includes a number of Oppenheimer's contemptible moments, ranging from his arrogance throughout his scientific career, to his self-destructive lack of forethought in his security hearing. Thus, on page 9 of the article, Valiunas tells of how, despite his immense fear and guilt during the Manhattan project, Oppenheimer continued to bask in his own glory as a scientist, accepting recognition and fame as the man who headed a massive quantum achievement. As a reader, it is not explictly clear as to why this was included as it seems to lessen the author's previous implication that Oppenheimer deserved sympathy. Nonetheless, the author clearly supported Oppenheimer's scientific decisions and his political/philosphical ideas of the nuclear age, as well as its benevolent potential.


If Oppenheimer were alive today, he would definetely be a leading advocate for the use of nuclear energy as a renewable resource. Furthermore, due to the end of the Cold War about 25 years, the American population would have been slightly more accepting of the rumors surrounding his communist participation. Although, there would still be opposition to his supposed beliefs; the only difference being that he wouldn't have all of his research taken away from him.

If I had Oppenheimer's skills in physics I would probably get a 5 on the AP Exam, and then devote my time and interests to pursuing a clean, safe form of nuclear energy that the world could tap into. That way, the developing countries of the world could devote more energy to industrializing and urbanizing their societies instead of spending vast sums of money on energy sources. This would allow for me to hopefully one day fullfill Oppenheimer's dream of creating a unified, international state.

American Experience

Robert Oppenheimer led the United States to the world stage as a political Superpower through his innovative research and scientific ambition. Therefore, towards the beginning of his scientific career, Oppenheimer may have seen himself having a fruitful American experience, filled with fame, recognition, and the reputation of the father of the A-bomb. However, towards his final years as a scientist, Oppenheimer probably would have described himself as having a woeful American experience. He worked laboriously in his field to design a weapon never before imagined by man, led a commission designed to moniter such a creation, just to have his life's work taken away from him as he lost everything.