J. Robert Oppenheimer was born on April 22, 1904 to an affluent, Jewish New York family, and he grew up in a world of moderate luxury on the Upper West Side. He attended the New York School for Ethical Culture, where he gained a lifelong love for art, literature, philosophy, and the classics. But his first love would always be science.
After graduating from Harvard University, Oppenheimer moved to Europe. He studied theoretical physics at the world-renowned University of Göttingen, center of the recent quantum physics revolution. Oppenheimer held his own among the luminaries of the European lab, and he returned home to the United States determined to create his own world-class center for theoretical physics.
In 1929, Oppenheimer took a teaching position at the University of California at Berkeley, where he soon became one of the most popular professors at the school. While he was never able to achieve international renown as a physicist, he did succeed in elevating the reputation of his department. By the time he left Berkeley, it was considered one of the best theoretical physics departments in the world.
While in California, Oppenheimer began to notice politics for the first time. He had always led an insulated life, but the advent of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe forced him to take notice of world events. He soon became acquainted with Berkeley's radical fringe, joining radical organizations and befriending several known communists. The radicalism, however, turned out to be nothing more than a passing phase–by 1941, Oppenheimer was ready to turn his attention toward more important matters: World War II and nuclear fission.
The recent discovery of nuclear fission–the splitting apart of a uranium nucleus–made scientists realize that there was huge potential energy stored at the core of each atom. If that energy could be controlled and released, man could create an enormously powerful bomb.
The United States set off on a crash program to develop such a bomb–and to do so before the Germans. Code-named the Manhattan Project, the top-secret program attracted the best physicists in the country. The core of the project was the Los Alamos laboratory, located in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico. Directed by Oppenheimer, this lab brought together the best minds in physics. They lived together and worked together in total isolation for three years, in single-minded pursuit of the atomic bomb.
In 1945, the physicists witnessed the first evidence of their success: the world's first nuclear explosion at Trinity. They were initially enthused that their device had worked–but they were also awed and somewhat horrified by the enormous power the bomb had unleashed. Only a month later, the United States used the bomb for the first time, dropping one on the Japanese city of Hiroshima and another on the city of Nagasaki. The bombs killed hundreds of thousands of people and shocked the Japanese into almost immediate surrender.
Like the majority of the country, Oppenheimer believed that nuclear weapons had been and would continue to be crucial to national defense. However, he grew increasingly anxious about what the birth of nuclear weapons spelled for the future of the world. Oppenheimer felt a responsibility to help control the new power. He participated in a number of government committees, serving as the public face of science and a vocal advocate for international control of nuclear weapons. But his popularity proved short-lived.
At the end of the decade, the Soviet Union exploded its first nuclear device. In response, the United States initiated a crash program to develop an even more powerful bomb, the hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer opposed this decision on moral grounds but was eventually overruled. And after this opposition, Oppenheimer found he had lost his voice in Washington.
Partly in retaliation for his opposition to the hydrogen bomb, and partly because of continued suspicion about his communist ties, Oppenheimer was put on trial by the government. A set of hearings would decide whether or not he could keep his security clearance. The hearings board eventually decided that Oppenheimer was not a spy. Nonetheless, in a move that meant public humiliation for the father of the atomic bomb, they voted to strip him of his security clearance.
In later years, Oppenheimer's image improved–as the government moved past the paranoia of McCarthyism, they took steps to welcome Oppenheimer back into the fold. But Oppenheimer's reputation never truly recovered– and the outraged scientific community never forgot his underserved fall from grace. Oppenheimer died on February 18, 1967, but his legacy lives on. Although he made no lasting contributions to his chosen discipline–theoretical physics, he is still considered to be one of the greatest scientific figures of the twentieth century.