Thursday, August 9, 2018

Splitting the Atom

When asked to name a theoretical physicist, the first name to come to many young Americans would be “Sheldon Cooper,” the fictional lead character on the long-running hit show, “Big Bang Theory.” Those in the know, however, would likely mention the name J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the “Father of the Atomic Bomb.” (It is interesting to note that Oppenheimer himself, was awarded a fellowship at Caltech in September 1927, the school employing the fictional Sheldon Cooper).

Julius Robert Oppenheimer was born on April 22, 1904, to Julius and Ella Oppenheimer. His father, a Jewish German immigrant, came to the United States penniless and uneducated, only to become a wealthy textile executive; his mother grew up in Baltimore. J. Robert attended prep schools in Manhattan and matriculated to Harvard College where he graduated Summa Cum Laude. He moved from Cambridge, MA to Cambridge University, England where he studied theoretical physics, and eventually received his doctorate at the University of Gottingen, Germany. In 1929, Oppenheimer returned to the United States as an associate professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

In October, 1941, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt approved “The Manhattan Project,” a secret program to develop an atomic bomb. In June of 1942, Oppenheimer was named head of the secret laboratory. In order to facilitate greater security and camaraderie, Oppenheimer moved the lab to Los Alamos, NM. There, Oppenheimer’s team succeeded in creating the world’s first atom bombs, which were used by the U.S. to end its war with Japan. The Americans dropped “Little Boy” over Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945, and “Fat Man”, was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9th 1945, resulting in Japan’s unconditional surrender.

After World War II, Oppenheimer assumed the directorship of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, NJ. Oppenheimer advocated for the international monitoring of atomic energy and cautioned about the escalating arms race. He joined other such notable scientists as Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russel, to decry the negative uses of scientific discovery. He also faced scrutiny in the early days of the Cold War over his past association with communist organs, leading to his virtual excommunication from the world of academic science.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, survived by a wife and two children, died in Princeton, NJ, on February 18, 1967.

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