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J. Robert Oppenheimer


A Physicist is Born

Summary A Physicist is Born

After high school, Oppenheimer enrolled in Harvard University, where he studied literature, ancient Greek, and, of course, science. Unsure about what he wanted to do with his life, Oppenheimer hesitated when it came time to choose a major. Wavering between mineralogy and chemistry, he eventually settled upon the latter, taking the advice of a friend who had pointed out that a career in chemistry carried with it the promise of summer vacations.

Then, in his junior year, Oppenheimer discovered physics. And everything changed. Studying under the famous experimentalist Percy Bridgman, Oppenheimer immediately fell in love with the field. This, he decided, was what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

Having taken ten courses per semester, Oppenheimer was able to graduate from Harvard in three years, and in 1926 he headed for England, in the hopes of pursuing a graduate degree in physics.

Most promising young physics students of this period tended to go abroad to complete their educations–the physics departments of the United States were no match for the powerhouse European laboratories. The 1920s was a particularly exciting time to practice physics, and Europe was the place to practice it.

Only a decade before, Einstein had overthrown the Newtonian conception of the universe that had reigned for centuries. His famous equation, E = mc2, was taking the world of physics–and beyond–by storm. Meanwhile, another revolutionary shift had taken place in the way scientists understood the structure of matter. A series of discoveries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century established once and for all that all matter was made up of atoms–and that those atoms were themselves made up of a number of bizarrely acting subatomic particles. The discovery that the behavior of these subatomic particles couldn't be explained using existing models led to the formation of a new system of physics for describing the behavior of particles on this tiny scale: quantum physics. It seemed that new discoveries were being made every day, and it was understood among American physics students that the best and most exciting of these discoveries were taking place in European labs.

Oppenheimer applied for a position in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, one of the best nuclear physics labs in the world. It was directed by Ernest Rutherford, a Nobel Prize winner who had only recently proved the existence of the nucleus of an atom and thus of an atom itself. Although Oppenheimer, with his degree in chemistry, was ill-prepared for a rigorous course of graduate study in experimental physics, Rutherford took a chance on the young scholar and admitted him to the lab.

Oppenheimer was assigned to work under J. J. Thompson, the renowned British physicist who, in 1897, had discovered the electron. Oppenheimer had achieved everything he could have hoped for, and he was miserable. Oppenheimer quickly realized that experimental physics was not his calling. He was frustrated by his work, and his inabilities in the lab soon drove him to the verge of mental breakdown.

In desperation, Oppenheimer went to see a psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with dementia praecox–what we now call schizophrenia. The disease was believed to be incurable and required lifelong institutionalization. Refusing to believe the psychiatrist's sentence, Oppenheimer fled Europe, hoping to find some form of solace. He found it in the form of a long vacation and a secret love affair–one of which he refused to speak in later life but which gave him such peace of mind that he was able to return to Europe and, more importantly, return to physics.

Oppenheimer left Cambridge for Germany, taking a position at the University of Göttingen,which at the time was the European center of theoretical physics. Recent discoveries in the field of quantum physics had thrown the world of theoretical physics into a period of upheaval. The revolutionary "new" physics constituted an exciting frontier of science that the world's best and brightest were eager to explore, and Göttingen lay at the center of it. Oppenheimer had the opportunity to meet, study under, and work with almost all of the leading lights of the quantum physics revolution, including Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, and Enrico Fermi.

Oppenheimer shined in his new surroundings. His colleagues all agreed that he was one of the brightest scientists in the laboratory. His easy grasp of the new physics, paired with his insatiable curiosity and his encyclopedic knowledge of literature, philosophy, and world religions, impressed everyone he met.

The Göttingen years were a triumph. Oppenheimer received his Ph.D. in physics in 1927 and by 1929 had published sixteen papers on quantum physics. By this point a prominent member of the physics community, Oppenheimer returned to the United States, intent on bringing the quantum revolution back to his own country.

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