Few scientific breakthroughs in the past century were more pivotal than the discovery of nuclear weapons. What would humanity with the power to level cities in an instant?
American scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer helped create the atomic bomb with a group of scientists and was later dubbed the "father of the atomic bomb." The son of a German-born, Jewish immigrant and a Baltimore artist, Oppenheimer's was considered to be a true genius. However, much of his life falls far beyond 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.
In the 1930s during the Great Depression, Oppenheimer became involved in 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 not something good to "previously associated" with in America. In the late '30s, he began to separate himself from the party, possibly for two reasons. One was that communist Joseph Stalin had greatly damaged the ideals. Second was that Oppenheimer was most likely trying to strengthen his credentials in order to be approved for a spot working on the Atomic Bomb.
Though he attempted to sever all ties with the party, the association would follow him for the rest of his life.
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 the now famous quote he uttered 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 later learned Latin and Greek while studying at Harvard University.
When he wasn't studying astrophysics, J. Robert Oppenheimer teaching it. After earning his PhD in Germany, Oppenheimer moved back to the US and split time teaching between Caltech and the University of California Berkeley.
At these two schools Oppenheimer developed a following of hundreds of young physicists that were obsessed with him. Students would follow him from campus to campus taking his classes at both colleges, and some of the would even copy his dress and mannerisms.
In 1939, the US learned German scientists split the atom, thus providing the potential to build weapons that could turn the tide of the war. In retaliation, the US government began recruiting scientists from around the country to build their own weapon in an attempt to beat the Germans. They called the massive undertaking "The Manhattan Project."
The construction of the pieces of the atomic weapon was initially dispersed across several universities. Maj. Gen. Leslie R. Groves was so impressed by Oppenheimer he chose him to oversee the task of assembling those different pieces into one working bomb. Groves made this choice despite Oppenheimer being a well-known Communist sympathizer which, was typically an instant red flag for security clearance. 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.