‘Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,’ is a famous quote by the Father of the atomic bomb – J. Robert Oppenheimer. Now the question is, exactly who is Oppenheimer and why do we have a film coming on him directed and written by Christopher Nolan and acted by Cillian Murphy? Let’s know the history and some wild stories about J. Robert Oppenheimer.
New scientific discoveries can pique people’s interest, explain the unknown, and even help to improve the world. But what if a scientist starts to regret the knowledge he’s unleashed? Was the great physicist truly sorry for inventing the nuclear bomb? The truth is as complex as the science underlying the bomb. Here’s how Oppenheimer birthed, and questioned the atomic bomb.
Julius Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York City in 1904, the son of German Jewish immigrants who made a fortune in the textile importing sector. After graduating from Harvard University with honours after only three years of study, he went on to study theoretical physics at both Cambridge University and the University of Göttingen in Germany, where he received his doctorate at the age of 23.
Oppenheimer was invited to join the top-secret Manhattan Project, which aimed to produce an atomic weapon. Oppenheimer’s supervisors were impressed by his broad knowledge, ambition, and ability to collaborate with and motivate other scientists as he attempted to figure out what would need to happen to initiate and sustain the type of neutron-chain reaction required to cause a nuclear explosion. The US Army asked Oppenheimer to lead the secret lab where the bomb would be tested in 1942.
On August 6 and 9, 1945, the United States dropped two of the bombs created by Oppenheimer on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The blasts, which wiped out both cities on a scale never witnessed before or since, are likely to have killed at least 110,000 people.
Now that you have a brief idea about who is Oppenheimer, let’s discuss some wild stories about J. Robert Oppenheimer.
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This Blog Includes:
- #1 Oppenheimer Read Bhagavad Gita Before the Testing of the Bomb
- #2 Oppenheimer Proposed the Existence of the Black Hole
- #3 President Truman Called him a Crybaby
- #4 Einstein called Oppenheimer a Fool
- #5 He was a Dedicated Humanities Student who Spoke Six Languages, Including Ancient Sanskrit
- #6 He Code-Named the First Nuclear Test for his Late Mistress
- #7 He was Mistaken for a Professional Geologist at the Age of 12 and was Invited to Give a Lecture at the New York Mineralogy Club
- #8 Oppenheimer’s Students were Obsessed with him
#1 Oppenheimer Read Bhagavad Gita Before the Testing of the Bomb
Much scholarly examination and controversy have surrounded Oppenheimer’s interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita. Some claim that his understanding of the passage was superficial, while others claim that it had a deep impact on his worldview. Whatever one’s perspective, Oppenheimer saw the Gita as a profound meditation on the nature of existence and the human situation.
Oppenheimer famously quoted a phrase from Hindu religious scripture in the aftermath of the test: “Now I am Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
In fact, Oppenheimer was seen in the 1965 NBC documentary The Decision to Drop the Bomb saying that they knew the world would not be the same, adding, “I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita… Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, now ‘I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
#2 Oppenheimer Proposed the Existence of the Black Hole
Oppenheimer was a relentless dilettante who loved to follow his intellectual curiosity wherever it led him. Oppenheimer began producing papers on theorised, yet-to-be-discovered cosmic phenomena after being introduced to astronomy by his friend Richard Tolman. Calculations of the properties of white dwarfs (the dense blazing embers of dead stars) and the theoretical mass limit of neutron stars (the tremendously dense husks of exploding stars) were included in these papers.
Oppenheimer’s most astonishing astrophysical forecast came in 1939 when he co-wrote (with his then-student Hartland Snyder) “On Continued Gravitational Contraction.” The report anticipated that “dying stars whose gravitational pull exceeded their energy production” would live far in the depths of space.
The article was overlooked at the time, but it was later found by physicists who realised Oppenheimer had predicted the emergence of black holes.
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#3 President Truman Called him a Crybaby
Oppenheimer met with President Harry S. Truman in the Oval Office just two months after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to address his fears of a future nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union. Truman dismissed Oppenheimer’s concerns, assuring him that the Soviets would never be able to develop an atomic bomb.
Oppenheimer, angered by the president’s ignorance, wrung his hands and murmured quietly, “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.”
This remark upset Truman, who abruptly halted the meeting.
“He hasn’t got half as much blood on his hands as I do, dammit,” Truman said. “You don’t go around whining about it.” Truman later informed Dean Acheson, his secretary of state, “I don’t want to see that son-of-a-bitch in this office ever again.”
Truman frequently brought up the Oppenheimer-Acheson meeting, writing in 1946 that Oppenheimer was a “cry-baby scientist” who came to “my office some five or six months ago and spent most of his time wringing his hands and telling me they had blood on them because of the discovery of atomic energy.”
#4 Einstein called Oppenheimer a Fool
Oppenheimer’s brilliant mind and enormous knowledge could not always overcome his emotional immaturity and political ignorance.
One such occasion was his argument with Albert Einstein during the McCarthy Red Scare. When Einstein ran into him at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, he told him about the mounting efforts to withdraw his security clearance.
Einstein advised his colleague that he could avoid a rigorous investigation and trial by the Atomic Energy Commission by just walking away.
Oppenheimer, on the other hand, said that he would do more good from within the Washington establishment than from beyond and that he had opted to stay and fight. Oppenheimer would lose the war, and the defeat would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Einstein entered his office and, nodding to Oppenheimer, said to his secretary, “There goes a narr [Yiddish for ‘fool’].”
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#5 He was a Dedicated Humanities Student who Spoke Six Languages, Including Ancient Sanskrit
Oppenheimer thrived on intellectual challenges and cherished any chance to show off his remarkable ability to absorb information. He was fluent in six languages: Latin, French, Greek, German, Dutch (which he mastered in six weeks for a lecture in the Netherlands), and Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language.
Oppenheimer also read widely beyond his field. He told friends that he read all three volumes of Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital” cover to cover on a three-day train ride to New York, that he devoured Marcel Proust’s “A La Recherche du Temps Perdu” (“In Search of Lost Time”) to cure his depression while on vacation in Corsica, and that he had learned Sanskrit so he could read the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita.
#6 He Code-Named the First Nuclear Test for his Late Mistress
Oppenheimer initially met Jean Tatlock in 1936, and the two began a passionate romance that lasted until Tatlock’s death in 1944, during his marriage to Katherine Puening. When Tatlock and Oppenheimer met, Tatlock was an active member of the Communist Party, and he convinced Oppenheimer to donate to the party in order to alleviate his concerns about the poverty he was experiencing during the Great Depression.
Oppenheimer’s reputation as a communist sympathiser quickly drew the attention of the FBI, who began following and wiretapping him.
Tatlock was discovered dead in her flat in 1944 following an apparent drug overdose. She had suffered from severe depression for much of her life and left an unsigned note, therefore her death was declared a suicide. Nonetheless, conspiracy theories exist, including some claimed by her brother, about spy agencies’ suspected involvement in her death.
Tatlock introduced Oppenheimer to John Donne’s poems, which she adored. When naming the first atomic bomb test “Trinity,” he was inspired by John Donne’s poem “Batter my heart, three-person’d God…”
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#7 He was Mistaken for a Professional Geologist at the Age of 12 and was Invited to Give a Lecture at the New York Mineralogy Club
Oppenheimer had an obsession with crystals since he was a child because of their structure and reactions to polarised light. He developed a passion for minerals and began an extensive and comprehensive correspondence with local geologists using his home typewriter.
One geologist, unaware that he was writing to a 12-year-old, invited Oppenheimer to speak at the New York Mineralogy Club. Oppenheimer asked his father to explain to the club that his son was only 12 years old, but his father was amused by the situation and urged him to go.
The stunned geologists burst out laughing when it was revealed that the youngster was their mystery correspondent, but they quickly equipped him with a wooden box so he could reach the lectern. Oppenheimer gave his speech, which was greeted with applause.
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#8 Oppenheimer’s Students were Obsessed with him
Oppenheimer was a natural linguistic physicist. He didn’t just use math to understand the world; he also looked for suitable phrases to express it. His rhetorical grace and intelligence on subjects other than physics made him an engaging speaker.
Oppenheimer had such a talent for generating beautiful phrases — often on the fly — that he enthralled the students to whom he taught. Some of these students became so enthralled with Oppenheimer that they began dressing and acting like him, donning his grey suit and ungainly black shoes, chain-smoking his favourite Chesterfield cigarettes, and imitating his odd mannerisms.
The students were dubbed “nim nim boys” because they meticulously replicated Oppenheimer’s peculiar “nim nim” humming.
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