J. Robert Oppenheimer


Born: 22 April 1904
Died: 18 February 1967 (throat cancer)
Birthplace: New York, New York
Best known as: The physicist who directed the Manhattan Project
J. Robert Oppenheimer was the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, the top-secret World War II program which developed the world's first atomic bomb. Oppenheimer was an unusual personality: intensely brainy and ambitious and yet distinctly philosophical, with a facility for languages and an interest in Eastern religions and philosophy. In the 1930s he taught physics at both Caltech and the University of California at Berkeley, before being chosen to lead the Manhattan Project's team of scientists. The first atomic bomb was exploded on 16 July 1945, and less than a month later President Harry S. Truman ordered two bombs dropped on Japan, ending World War II. After the war, Oppenheimer became head of the General Advisory Committee of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. As such, in 1949 he recommended against the development of the super-powerful hydrogen bomb, pitting him against fellow physicist and H-bomb proponent Edward Teller. In 1953, during the era of intense anti-communism fomented by Senator Joseph McCarthy, Oppenheimer was accused of being a communist sympathizer, based on his support of various pro-communist and left-wing groups during the years before and during WWII. His security clearance was revoked, despite formal hearings in 1954 in which many fellow scientists testified on Oppenheimer's behalf. The incident cast a shadow over his career, although in 1963 he was nonetheless given the Enrico Fermi award for "outstanding contributions to theoretical physics" by the Atomic Energy Commission. From 1947-1966 Oppenheimer also was the director of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton, the longtime home of Albert Einstein.
Extra credit: Oppenheimer married Katherine Puening Harrison in 1940. They had two children: Peter (b. 1941) and Katherine (b. 1944)... Oppenheimer remarked that when seeing the first text explosion of the atomic bomb he was reminded of a passage from the Hindu sacred text the Bhagavad Gita: "I am become death, destroyer of worlds"... The "J." at the start of Oppenheimer's name is the source of some confusion: it is sometimes said to be short for Julius or Jerome, but Oppenheimer himself once told an interviewer that the initial stood for nothing.

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