There are few scientific breakthroughs in the past century more pivotal than the discovery of nuclear weapons. What could be more mind blowing and terrifying than finding out you have the power to level cities in almost an instant? One man knew that reality extremely well, because he did it.
J. Robert Oppenheimer was an American scientist who helped create the atomic bomb, along with a group of scientists dubbed the "father of the atomic bomb." The son of a German-born, Jewish immigrant and a Baltimore artist, his interests went well outside of science, and most people that met him considered him to be a true genius.
However, much of the saga of his life falls far beyond just scientific achievement. Facts about J. Robert Oppenheimer's life show he was not only a brilliant scientist, but a political activist, an educator, and a father.
Before World War II, He Supported The Communist Party
In the 1930s during the Great Depression, Oppenheimer began getting into left-wing politics after seeing the effect on his students. Specifically, he became very interested in Communism. While he never officially joined the Communist Party, his mistress was a member, and his wife, Katherine Puening, was a former member who had been previously married to a communist who died in the Spanish Civil War fighting for Spain's left-leaning government.
Unfortunately for Oppenheimer, after World War II Communism was just about the worst form of government to be "previously associated" with in America. In the late '30s, he began to separate himself from the party, possibly for two reasons. One was that everyone was starting to find out what a great guy Joseph Stalin wasn't, and Oppenheimer was most likely trying to strengthen his credentials to get a spot working on the Atomic Bomb.
Though he attempted to sever all ties with the party, the association would follow him for pretty much the rest of his life.
He Was Versed In Multiple Languages
Oppenheimer was big on learning, and was also a believer in reading books in their original translation, which he often did. He read all four volumes of Karl Marx's Das Kapital in the original German while riding on a train from San Francisco to the East Coast. On another similar train ride he read Proust in French, "which he later said was one of the great experiences of his life." When he was 30, he learned Sanskrit so he could read the Hindu scripture Bhagavad-Gita. It was this scripture that provided his famous quote after watching the first successful detonation of an atomic bomb: “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” While on a trip to the Netherlands, he spent six weeks learning enough Dutch so he could give a lecture there, and to top it all off, he learned Latin and Greek while studying at Harvard University.
He Was A Brilliant Teacher And His Students Were Obsessed With Him
When he wasn't studying astrophysics, J. Robert Oppenheimer was a teacher. After getting his PhD in Germany, Oppenheimer moved back to US and split time teaching between Caltech and Berkeley.
At these two schools Oppenheimer developed a following of hundreds of young physicists that were obsessed with him at near "fanboy" levels. Students would follow him from campus to campus taking his classes at both colleges, and some of the would even go so far as to copy his dress and mannerisms. Despite our greatest hopes, there was no evidence to substantiate the existence of a "Dead Physicists Society."
Oppenheimer Was Hand Picked To Lead The Manhattan Project
In 1939, the US learned German scientists split the atom, thus providing the potential to build weapons that could do things that, at the time, seemed impossible. So they started recruiting scientists all over the country to start building their own weapon in an attempt to beat the Germans, and they called the massive undertaking "The Manhattan Project."
There were a lot of different pieces that had to be put together to build an atomic weapon. While research was initially dispersed between a few universities, Maj. Gen. Leslie R. Groves was so impressed by Oppenheimer he chose him to oversee the task of putting all those different pieces into one working bomb. He made this choice despite Oppenheimer being a well-known Communist sympathizer which, in terms of security clearance, was usually a deal-breaker. Groves considered Oppenheimer a "real genius," and a Nobel laureate said that "No one in his age group has been as familiar with all aspects of current developments in theoretical physics."
Because of his broad range of expertise, Oppenheimer was probably the most qualified person on the planet at the time to lead a project of that magnitude. Groves more than once ignored security concerns as he thought Oppenheimer was essential to the project. It was this role that earned him the title "Father of the Atomic Bomb," and turned him into a national icon almost overnight.