J. Robert Oppenheimer
The Early Years
J. Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York on April 22, 1904. It was the perfect time and place for the future physicist to have entered the world: the turn of the century ushered in a golden age of technological advances, and the power of science seemed infinite. In the few years before and after the birth of the twentieth century, day-to-day life changed radically. Suddenly, buildings had electric power, people were connected by telephone lines and radios, cars filled the roadways, and skyscrapers rose into the sky. And New York was the center of it all.
Into this hopeful and newly electrified world, Oppenheimer was born. His father, Julius, had fled the Old World–Europe–as a teenager, hoping to escape the religious persecution of which, as a Jew, he was a prime target. While anti-Semitism (prejudice against Jews) did exist in the United States, it was not nearly so pronounced or institutionalized as it was in Europe. Julius joined a flood of émigrés searching for religious freedom in the New World. Oppenheimer's mother, Ella, was also Jewish, but her family had been in New York for generations. Julius and Ella married in 1903, and Robert, their first son, was born a year later. They had a second son, Frank, the younger brother to whom Oppenheimer would remain close all his life.
Growing up, Oppenheimer lived in a swanky apartment on New York's Upper West Side, enjoying all the benefits of a life of privilege. The family employed a cook, servants, and a chauffeur; family dinners were formal and even the children were required to wear proper attire–usually, a suit and tie.
From the start, Oppenheimer seemed destined for science. When young Robert was five years old, the Oppenheimer family went on a trip to Germany to visit their remaining relatives there. Oppenheimer's grandfather gave him a collection of minerals, and Oppenheimer was immediately entranced–he became a devoted rock collector. As soon as he got home, he began taking trips into the countryside, searching for new specimens. At the age of eleven, Oppenheimer joined the New York Mineralogical Club, and one year later, he made his scientific debut there, presenting his first scientific paper.
Hoping to give him the best education possible, Oppenheimer's parents sent him to the famous New York School for Ethical Culture, which he attended from second grade through his graduation from high school. The school was run by another European émigré, Felix Adler, who believed in teaching his students science, Ancient Greek and Roman classics, literature, and "moral law." By the time he graduated, Oppenheimer could speak five languages and had gained a lifelong passion for art, literature, and philosophy.
Oppenheimer was a good student–earning As in almost all his classes–but socially, he was not quite as successful. The young scholar was too focused on his studies and too sure of his own brilliance to make many friends. His peers thought of him as arrogant, excessively proper, and unpleasantly distant, and for the most part, they stayed away. Oppenheimer did make a couple close friends. To one of them, his high school English teacher, he once confessed, "I'm the loneliest man in the world."
Arrogant, ambitious, and alone, Oppenheimer graduated from high school and left New York to embark on a new challenge–Harvard University–to begin his scientific career. Arrogant as he was, even Oppenheimer couldn't have imagined the phenomenal success that was to greet him in his professional life.