Robert Oppenheimer, Father of the Atomic Bomb


Oppenheimer is likely to be recognized as the best film of 2024, having already won five Golden Globes and now nominated for thirteen Academy Awards. Its Oscar nominations announced today include best director, actor, supporting actor and supporting actress, best picture and seven others. The film explores the huge emotional price Robert Oppenheimer paid for creating the atomic bomb.

Seventy-nine years ago, on August 6 and 9, 1945, the United States detonated two atom bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing between 129,000 and 226,000 people. Physicist Robert Oppenheimer was the scientific director of the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb. He can be credited with saving the lives of millions of people because use of the bomb made it unnecessary to invade Japan to bring World War II to an end.

The Japanese had already proven that their devotion to their emperor, Hirohito, was so strong that firebombing 67 Japanese cities full of people who lived in wooden houses had already failed to get them to surrender. Kamikaze planes were flying into American battleships, Japanese defenders fought to the last man on many conquered Pacific islands, and the Russians had just entered the war against Japan as a step toward attempting to conquer all of Europe.  I took a college course with Clyde Kluckhohn, who wrote the U.S. terms for the Japanese surrender. Kluckhohn had studied the Japanese culture for many years, and he stressed that the emperor had to be left in place or the Japanese would fight to the end and cause the loss of millions of additional lives.

In 1946, Oppenheimer received a Presidential Citation and a Medal of Merit, but he spent the rest of his life with deep emotional problems and deep remorse, working for peace and the banning of atomic weapons. He never said that he regretted building the bomb or recommending its use against Japan. In the McCarthy Era hysteria of 1954, the Atomic Energy Commission took away his security clearance, even though he was never a communist or had done nothing to harm his country. In 1963, the same Atomic Energy Commission awarded him the $50,000 Fermi Prize for “his outstanding contributions to theoretical physics and his scientific and administrative leadership.”

In 1967, at age 62, he died of throat cancer that may have been caused by his exposure to radioactive materials, his chain-smoking of cigarettes and pipes, his excessive drinking of alcohol, or by HPV viruses that could have been acquired during his multiple affairs.

Early Academic Brilliance
Oppenheimer’s father was a prosperous textile importer who came from Germany to New York. His mother was a Baltimore artist who died when he was 10. Robert was always brilliant but shy, and preferred to study rather than mingle with classmates in both high school and college. He was valedictorian at his high school, the Ethical Culture School of New York. He went directly from high school to taking advanced graduate courses in physics at Harvard, where he was graduated in just three years at the top of his class, Summa Cum Laude in physics.

From Harvard he went to Cambridge University in England, where he worked in atomic physics with Lord Rutherford (who proposed the nuclear structure of the atom, discovered alpha and beta rays, and proposed the laws of radioactive decay. Note: I have used the capsule summaries (in parentheses) of each person’s contributions drawn from Science History Institute ).  Oppenheimer then went on to Georg-August-Universitat in Gottingen, Germany, to work on the quantum theory of atomic structure under Max Born (wave function determines particle point in space at a specific moment in time). He received his PhD there at age 22. He published many important papers on quantum theory, including the ground-breaking “Born-Oppenheimer approximation,” which separates nuclear motion from electronic motion in the mathematical treatment of molecules. In 1927, he returned to Harvard to study mathematical physics, and in 1928, at age 24, became assistant professor in physics at the University of California, Berkeley. He spent the next 13 years as professor there and at CalTech. He also spoke eight languages fluently and was an expert in baroque and classical music.

Head of the Atomic Bomb Project
In 1941, Nobel prize winner Arthur H. Compton (reflection of X-rays and their complete polarization to determine the number of electrons in an atom) recruited Oppenheimer into the two-billion-dollar atomic project. Oppenheimer convinced Dr. Compton and the military that the only way to do this was to bring the world’s best scientists to live and work together in one community, so he was appointed director of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico. He was incredibly efficient. He traveled all over the country and persuaded more than 4000 brilliant scientists to join the project, including Dr. Enrico Fermi and Dr. Niels Bohr, two of the greatest physicists in the world. In two years, Oppenheimer coordinated the work to make and explode the atomic bomb. He worked day and night, involving himself in nearly every experiment, seminar, and meeting. He and his fellow scientists would then often move to his apartment to continue planning and discussing late into the night. His weight dropped, his marriage became contentious, and his colleagues reported that he seemed to survive on coffee, martinis, and cigarettes alone. He drank huge amounts of martinis that he made with a small amount of vermouth, lime and honey. He often smoked instead of eating and his weight dropped to 115 pounds (he was six feet tall).

After the Explosion of the First Atomic Bomb
From 1945 to 1952, he headed the Atomic Energy Commission’s General Advisory Committee of top nuclear scientists on atomic bomb policy. He helped write a plan for international control of atomic energy and was consultant to Bernard M. Baruch at the United Nations and to Frederick H. Osborn, his successor, in the failed United Nations negotiations over the future of control of the atomic bomb. He even had a desk in the President’s Executive Offices, across the street from the White House.

In 1954, he was disgraced during hearings before the Atomic Energy Commission and stripped of his security clearance because of his past associations with known communists. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy invited him to a White House dinner of Nobel Prize winners, and in 1963, President Johnson presented him with the highest honor of the Atomic Energy Commission, the $50,000 Fermi Award.

Many Troubled Relationships
In 1936, at age 32, he had an affair with a medical student named Jean Tatlock. Three times, he asked her to marry him and three times she refused.  In 1943, while married to his wife, Katherine, Oppenheimer took a trip from Los Alamos to California and spent the night with Tatlock in her apartment. Outside her apartment, a government agent monitored details of their affair through the night. In January 1944, Tatlock committed suicide.

While at Caltech, Oppenheimer worked with Linus Pauling (molecular structure of amino acids, many proteins, DNA, alpha-helix and sickle cell anemia) to explain how chemicals bind together.  One day when Pauling was teaching a class at the university, Oppenheimer came to Pauling’s home and asked Pauling’s wife, Ava, to join him for romance in New Mexico. She refused and told her husband about Oppenheimer’s advances, and that was the end of the collaboration between two of the world’s greatest scientists. At the start of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer asked Pauling to head the chemistry division and he refused.

In 1939, Oppenheimer met Katherine Puening, a biologist and communist who was married to Joseph Dallet, a fellow teacher at Cal Berkeley who died fighting for the communists during the Spanish Civil War. During a break, Katherine and Oppenheimer snuck away from her husband to spend two months together in his mountain cabin in New Mexico. In 1940, shortly after learning she was pregnant with Oppenheimer’s child, Kitty divorced her husband and married Oppenheimer the next day. When his son Peter was born, Oppenheimer nicknamed him “Pronto”. In 1944, they had a second child, Toni. Soon after giving birth, Oppenheimer and his wife left the newborn with a friend, Patricia Sherr. Oppenheimer was so busy that he rarely came to visit his daughter and during one of his visits he asked Sherr, “Would you like to adopt Toni?” In 1954, the children went to live with Dr Louis and Eleanor Hempleman in Rochester, New York while Oppenheimer went through the Atomic Energy Commission hearings and lost his security clearance. His wife did not visit or call the children and spent her time drinking whiskey.

In the late 1930s, Oppenheimer was a close friend of fellow physics professor Richard Tolman and his wife, Ruth. During the war, and while still married to Katherine, Oppenheimer had a long-term affair with Ruth which was documented in their many available and very explicit love letters. Her husband was devastated as he still loved his wife.

Two of Oppenheimer’s closest friends for many years were Robert Serber and his wife, Charlotte.  Oppenheimer appointed her head of the technical library at Los Alamos, where she was the only wartime female section leader. She was falsely accused of being a communist because some members of her family were prominent socialist intellectuals. This drove her to commit suicide. Robert Serber, like Oppenheimer, was falsely accused of being a communist. He was not a communist and was accused primarily because he was married to Charlotte. After Oppenheimer died in 1967, Oppenheimer’s wife, Katherine, moved in to live with Robert Serber.

Throat Cancer
Oppenheimer was diagnosed with throat cancer at age 61 in 1965. He was treated unsuccessfully with surgery, radiation and chemotherapy and died in February 1967. I have never seen Oppenheimer’s medical record, but we know that he was a chain smoker who ate very little and used a pipe when he was not using cigarettes. He drank martinis almost every day. He also had sexual contacts with many different women. Each contact with a different person is another chance to acquire any of the several types of HPV that can cause cancers.
Prominent risk factors for throat cancer include:
• smoking and chewing tobacco
• heavy alcohol use
• Human Papilloma Viruses (HPV) that are often acquired through sexual contact
• a diet low in fruits and vegetables

A Lesson from Oppenheimer’s Life
Oppenheimer saved millions of allied lives by leading the development of the atomic bomb. Yet he suffered tremendous remorse for the people who were killed by atomic bombs or will die from them in the future.

J. Robert Oppenheimer
April 22, 1904 – February 18, 1967