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February 18: J. Robert Oppenheimer

February 18, 2011

Jules Robert Oppenheimer, who led the Manhattan Project’s invention of the atomic bomb, died on this date in 1967 in Princeton, New Jersey, at 62. Oppenheimer studied at Harvard, Cambridge and the University of Göttingen, where he networked with leading theoretical physicists of his generation, many of whom became refugees from Nazism and would be recruited by him for the Manhattan Project. In 1933, Oppenheimer learned Sanskrit and studied the Bhagavad Gita, which, according to his close friend Isidor Rabi, influenced his scientific methods and pushed him “into a mystical realm of broad intuition.” The 1930s also brought Oppenheimer into political involvement, including anti-fascist work; he wrote on his security clearance questionnaire that he had been “a member of just about every Communist Front organization on the West Coast,” which he later described as “a half-jocular overstatement.” After two decades of important research in physics and astronomy (he was three times nominated for a Nobel Prize), Oppenheimer became the scientific director of the Manhattan Project in 1942 and organized its site at Los Alamos, New Mexico. After the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he became America’s leading scientific spokesperson and lobbied hard for international control of nuclear weapons. Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, however, he was closely watched by the FBI, and in 1954 his security clearance was suspended after a government hearing, during which Oppenheimer testified about the leftwing affiliations of many of his scientific peers.

“We knew the world would not be the same.” —J. Robert Oppenheimer