Julius Robert Oppenheimer was born on April 22, 1904, in New York City, to Julius Oppenheimer and Ella Friedman. Julius was a “wealthy Jewish textile importer who had immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1888; Ella was a painter. Robert had a younger brother named Frank. The family moved a new apartment in Manhattan in 1912; the area was “known for luxurious mansions and town houses.”
The family had an art collection that “included works by Pablo Picasso and Edouard Vuillard, and at least three original paintings by Vincent van Gogh.”
Robert Oppenheimer was educated at Alcuin Preparatory School and then entered the Ethical Culture Society School in 1911. This school “had been founded by Felix Adler to promote a form of ethical training based on the Ethical Culture movement, whose motto was `Deed before Creed”. Julius Oppenheimer had been a member of the Society for many years and served on its board of trustees (1907-1915). Robert was interested in English and French literature, and mineralogy. He completed the third and fourth grades in one year and later skipped half of the eighth grade. He became interested in chemistry during his final year. He entered Harvard College at age 18.
Oppenheimer majored in chemistry at Harvard but was also required to study history, literature, and philosophy or mathematics. He completed six courses each term and was admitted to the undergraduate honor society Phi Beta Kappa. “In his first year he was admitted to graduate standing in physics on the basis of independent study, which meant he was not required to take the basic classes and could enroll instead in advanced ones.” He was attracted to experimental physics by a course on thermodynamics and “graduated summa cum laude in three years.” He was accepted into Christ’s College, Cambridge in 1924. He left Cambridge in 1926 to study under Max Born at the University of Gottingen, “one of the world’s leading centers for theoretical physics.” He received his Doctor of Philosophy degree in March 1927 when he was 23 years old. “After the oral exam, James Franck, the professor administering, reportedly said, `I’m glad that’s over. He was on the point of questioning me.’
"Oppenheimer published more than a dozen papers at Gottingen, including many important contributions to the new field of quantum mechanics. He and Born published a famous paper on the Born-Oppenheimer approximation, which separates nuclear motion from electronic motion in the mathematical treatment of molecules, allowing nuclear motion to be neglected to simplify calculations. It remains his most cited work.”
A “tall, thin chain smoker” Robert Oppenheimer “often neglected to eat during periods of intense thought and concentration.” He was also prone to depression and was thought by one friend to have “deep psychological troubles” by others to have “self-destructive tendencies”.
“Oppenheimer became a “theoretical physicist and professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley. He is among the persons who are often called the `father of the atomic bomb’ for their role in the Manhattan Project, the World War II project that developed the first nuclear weapons. The first atomic bomb was detonated on July 16, 1945, in the Trinity test in New Mexico; Oppenheimer remarked later that it brought to mind words from the Bhagavad Gita: `Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’
“After the war he became a chief advisor to the newly created United States Atomic Energy Commission and used that position to lobby for international control of nuclear power to avert nuclear proliferation and an arms race with the Soviet Union. After provoking the ire of many politicians with his outspoken opinions during the Second Red Scare, he had his security clearance revoked in a much-publicized hearing in 1954, and was effectively stripped of his direct political influence; he continued to lecture, write and work in physics. Nine years later President John F. Kennedy awarded (and Lyndon B. Johnson presented) him with the Enrico Fermi Award as a gesture of political rehabilitation.
“Oppenheimer’s notable achievements in physics include the Born-Oppenheimer approximation for molecular wave functions, work on the theory of electrons and positrons, the Oppenheimer-Phillips process in nuclear fusion, and the first prediction of quantum tunneling. With his students he also made important contributions to the modern theory of neutron stars and black holes, as well as to quantum mechanics, quantum field theory, and the interactions of cosmic rays. As a teacher and promoter of science, he is remembered as a founding father of the American school of theoretical physics that gained world prominence in the 1930s. After World War II, he became director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.”
Oppenheimer’s mother died in 1931, and his father died in 1937. They left $392,602 to their two sons, Robert and Frank. Robert “immediately wrote out a will leaving his estate to the University of California for graduate scholarships. He had many acquaintances that were Communists, including Jean Tatlock, a romantic interest in 1936 who wrote for a Communist Party newspaper. He broke up with Tatlock in 1939. Later that year he met Katherine (“Kitty”) Puening Harrison, a “radical Berkeley student and former Communist Party member.” She had been married three times before she became romantically involved with Oppenheimer. She divorced her husband when she became pregnant. Kitty married Oppenheimer on November 1, 1940, and their first child Peter was born in May 1941; their second child, Katherine (“Toni”) was born on December 7, 1944, in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Oppenheimer continued his affair with Jean Tatlock during his marriage to Kitty, and their relationship caused a problem in his security clearance hearings. “Many of Oppenheimer’s closest associates were active in the Communist Party in the 1930s or 1940s. They included his brother Frank, Frank’s wife Jackie, Kitty, Jean Tatlock, his landlady Mary Ellen Washburn, and several of his graduate students at Berkeley.”
Was Oppenheimer a member of the Communist Party? He apparently attended meetings of the Communist Party. He testified in 1954, “I was associated with the Communist movement.” “Debates over Oppenheimer’s Party membership or lack thereof have turned on very fine points; almost all historians agree he had strong left-wing sympathies during this time and interacted with Party members, though there is considerable dispute over whether he was officially a member of the Party. At his 1954 security clearance hearings, he denied being a member of the Communist Party, but identified himself as a fellow traveler, which he defined as someone who agrees with many of the goals of Communism, but without being willing to blindly follow orders from any Communist party apparatus.
“Throughout the development of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer was under investigation by both the FBI and the Manhattan Project’s internal security arm for his past left-wing associations. He was followed by Army security agents during a trip to California in June 1943 to visit his former girlfriend Jean Tatlock, who was suffering from depression…. Tatlock committed suicide on January 4, 1944, which left Oppenheimer deeply grieved….” In spite of his associations with Communists, Oppenheimer was considered to be “absolutely essential” to the Manhattan Project.
Oppenheimer was diagnosed with throat cancer in late 1965, underwent radiation treatment and chemotherapy in late 1966. He fell into a coma on February 15, 1967, and died at age 62 on February 18, 1967, at his home in Princeton, New Jersey. A memorial service was held at Alexander Hall at Princeton University a week later. His body was cremated, and his ashes were placed in an urn. Kitty took his ashes to St. John and dropped the urn into the sea off the coast by the beach house he purchased in 1954.
Kitty passed away in October 1972. Peter Oppenheimer inherited his family ranch in New Mexico, and Katherine “Toni” Oppenheimer Silber inherited the beach property. She committed suicide in January 1977 and left the property to “the people of St. John for a public park and recreation area.” The original house was destroyed by a hurricane, but a Community Center is maintained in the area by the Virgin Islands Government.
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