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Robert Oppenheimer

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Robert Oppenheimer (April 22, 1904 - February 18, 1967) was a Jewish-American physicist, director of the World War II effort to develop nuclear weapons, the Manhattan Project, at Los Alamos.

Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York in 1904. He studied at the Ethical Culture Society school, where in addition to mathematics and science, he was exposed to a variety of subjects ranging from Greek to French literature. He entered Harvard one year late due to an attack of colitis, and made up for the delay by graduating in just three years, majoring in chemistry. One of the most brilliant men of the twentieth century, he could study science and the humanities with equal ease and insight. After his graduation, Oppenheimer became very much interested in theoretical physics and studied at the University of Gottingen for his PhD, under the guidance of the well known physicist Max Born. There, his remarkable gifts for going to the heart of any problem almost instantaneously became clear to others. He had a true feel for languages and could study a new one in a period of just one or two months. During the period spent at Gottingen, Oppenheimer published many important contributions to the then newly developed quantum theory. After studying at Gottingen, Oppenheimer returned to the U.S. where he took a teaching post at the University of California, Berkeley. There, he inspired a whole generation of physicists who idolised him for his intellectual virtousity and amazingly versatile interests.


Oppenheimer with Albert Einstein

Oppenheimer did important research in astrophysics, nuclear physics and spectroscopy. When World War 2 started, Oppenheimer was persuaded to join the war effort to develop an atomic bomb, and he threw himself into the task with full vigour. He became the director of the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico, where more than anyone else, he was responsible for the development of the weapon that would change the face of humanity forever. At Los Alamos, he collected a group of the most brilliant physicists of the time, which included Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe, Richard Feynman, Edward Teller and Victor Weiskopf[?], to name a few. He succeeded superbly as Director and could keep all the details of the project in his mind, from chemistry to engineering. The joint work of the scientists at Los Alamos resulted in the first man made atomic explosion at Alomogordo on 16th July, 1945. After the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, Oppenheimer, like many others, became horrified at the thought that these weapons would be developed by his country and others, and would pose an extreme threat to humanity. He became Chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, and rallied vigorously for arms control. His opposition to the hydrogen bomb led to tensions between him and politicians,and he was accused of being a communist, especially since it was the era of strong anti communist feelings which were instigated by Senator Joseph McCarthy. This led to a much publicised trial of Oppenheimer, and despite testimonies of his loyalty from dozens of fellow scientists and colleagues, his security clearance was withdrawn. Later on he was reinstated by President Lyndon Johnson and was awarded the Enrico Fermi Award as a sign of gratitude for his services to the nation. In his last years, Oppenheimer functioned as the director of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. He died in 1967.



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