13 Surprising Facts About The Inventor Of The Atomic Bomb

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. 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

  • He Supported The Communist Party Before World War II

    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.

  • He Knew Several Foreign 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 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. 

  • He Was A Brilliant Teacher And His Students Were Obsessed With Him
    Photo: Ed Westcott (U.S. Government photographer) / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    He Was A Brilliant Teacher And His Students Were Obsessed With Him

    When he wasn't studying astrophysics, Oppenheimer was 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.

  • 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 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.

  • He Named The Atomic Bomb's Test Site In Tribute To His Deceased Mistress

    Jean Tatlock and Robert Oppenheimer met in California in 1936 and had an affair that would continue even after Oppenheimer married Katherine Puening in 1940. When they met, she was an active Communist and introduced Oppenheimer to many people associated with the party. 

    In 1943 Oppenheimer, who was already under intense observation by US officials, went on an overnight visit to Tatlock's, causing a major security incident. He was interrogated, and many years later, the visit would cause Oppenheimer to have his security clearance revoked.

    In 1944, Tatlock was found dead, and her death was ruled a suicide. She had suffered from depression most of the time that Oppenheimer knew her, but nonetheless there are conspiracy theories surrounding her death.  

    Oppenheimer later used the name "Trinity"for the test site where the first nuclear weapon was detonated in 1945. Most believe that it was named in tribute to Tatlock, who loved the poet John Donne, author of the poem "Trinity".

  • Oppenheimer Is Considered A Founding Father Of American Theoretical Physics
    Photo: US Govt. Defense Threat Reduction Agency / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Oppenheimer Is Considered A Founding Father Of American Theoretical Physics

    As the "Father of the Atomic Bomb," Oppenheimer was so influential in the science community he helped father American theoretical physics. While studying for his PhD in Germany, Oppenheimer and his professor Max Born developed the Born-Oppenheimer approximation which outlined "separating nuclear motion from electronic motion in the mathematical treatment of molecules."

    When Oppenheimer returned to America, he was already known in the science community for his work in theoretical physics, and he would go on to make contributions in astrophysics, nuclear physics, spectroscopy, quantum field theory, cosmic ray showers, and work that led to a description of quantum tunneling.