Thursday, August 06, 2015
J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atom bomb
As we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima today (followed by the bombing of Nagasaki three days later) which ended World War II, which killed 100 million people, we must remember and pay tribute to Julius Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who headed the team that created the bombs. Nominated thrice for the Nobel Prize in Physics, the committee declined to recognize his work, likely due to his work in developing The Bomb.
They should have awarded him the peace prize. His work prevented (or at least postponed) World War III.
His story begins with his father, a Jewish immigrant from Germany who landed in New York City with no money, no education and no knowledge of the English language. A textile company hired him. Within a decade he was an executive. By the time his eldest son, Julius, was eight, they lived in a swank apartment in Manhattan. The Oppenheimers began an art collection featuring Picasso and three Van Goghs. Capitalism rocks. This uneducated immigrant was able to send his sons to Harvard. Both became physicists. The world is better for that.
At Harvard, which J. Robert Oppenheimer completed in three years, Professor Percy Williams Bridgman stirred Oppenheimer's interest in experimental physics. Bridgman later won the Nobel in 1946. Upon Oppenheimer's graduation, Sir Joseph John "J. J." Thomson (Nobel 1906) took him as a researcher at Cambridge, England. He had to take a basic laboratory class from Baron Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett (Nobel 1948).
In 1926, he left Cambridge for the University of Göttingen to study under Max Born (Nobel 1954). As a 22-year-old doctoral student in Germany, he was in a class with Werner Heisenberg (Nobel 1932), Wolfgang Pauli (Nobel 1945), Paul Dirac (Nobel 1933), and Enrico Fermi (Nobel 1938). He dominated discussions so much that they petitioned Professor Born to get him to shut up. He did.
James Franck (Nobel 1925) administered Oppenheimer's oral exam and later said, "I'm glad that's over. He was on the point of questioning me."
Franck had just won his Nobel. Oppenheimer was a month shy of his 23rd birthday. He gave lectures at the University of Leiden, the Netherlands, before returning to America to begin his career teaching at UC-Berkeley, splitting his time at Cal Tech. His students over the years included Willis Lamb (Nobel 1955).
Hitler's rise to power led to a great exodus of scientists, including Einstein (Nobel 1921) who wrote FDR on August 2, 1939, urging the president to develop an atomic bomb before Germany did. This was 30 days before Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland, triggering World War II. The president tasked engineer Lyman James Briggs, head of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, to explore this. The bombing of Pearl Harbor hastened the task. The head of the Army, Colonel George Marshall, assigned project to Colonel Leslie Groves, who had just built the Pentagon, The men would soon receive the general's stars they deserved but did not receive in a peacetime army. Groves hired Oppenheimer to recruit and oversee the scientists.
The Pentagon project was big. The Manhattan Project was 15 times as big as the Pentagon project. Not only did the nation need a great builder, it needed a great scientist.
"Oppenheimer had two major disadvantages — he had had almost no administrative experience of any kind, and he was not a Nobel Prize winner," wrote Groves in his memoir.
But there just was no one better equipped to lead a team of scientists. Oppenheimer had developed a charismatic personality which impressed his colleagues. Personality traits considered aggravating when he was 22 were, at 38, inspiring to physicists. Hans Bethe (Nobel 1967) wrote, "J. Robert Oppenheimer did more than any other man to make American theoretical physics great. His taste and his knowledge guided and stimulated young American physicists for two generations ... he communicated to his students. ‘What we don't understand we explain to each other,' he once said in describing the activities of the physics group at the Institute for Advanced Study. There was always a burning question which had to be discussed from all aspects, a solution to be found, to be rejected, and another solution attempted. Wherever he was, there was always life and excitement, and the expectation of excitement in physics for generations to come."
There was a third problem with Oppenheimer: Communism. He associated with communists at UC-Berkeley. This attracted considerable concern before he received clearance, but Groves wrote in his memoir, "I have never felt that it was a mistake to have selected and cleared Oppenheimer for his wartime post. He accomplished his assigned mission and he did it well."
The refining of uranium took place near hydroelectric dams in the Tennessee Valley and in Washington state. Fermi built the first nuclear reactor under the bleachers at the abandoned football field at the University of Chicago. But Groves and Oppenheimer knew that the bulk of the work had to be done by a team of physicists meeting in secret. The scientist and the general decided on a site in the desert which would minimize distractions and be easier to keep secure.
The two made a good team, because Groves was a pain.
"First, General Groves is the biggest S.O.B. I have ever worked for. He is most demanding. He is most critical. He is always a driver, never a praiser. He is abrasive and sarcastic. He disregards all normal organizational channels. He is extremely intelligent. He has the guts to make difficult, timely decisions. He is the most egotistical man I know. He knows he is right and so sticks by his decision. He abounds with energy and expects everyone to work as hard or even harder than he does. Although he gave me great responsibility and adequate authority to carry out his mission-type orders, he constantly meddled with my subordinates," his top aide, General Kenneth D. Nichols, recalled.
"However, to compensate for that he had a small staff, which meant that we were not subject to the usual staff-type heckling. He ruthlessly protected the overall project from other government agency interference, which made my task easier. He seldom accepted other agency cooperation and then only on his own terms. During the war and since I have had the opportunity to meet many of our most outstanding leaders in the Army, Navy and Air Force as well as many of our outstanding scientific, engineering and industrial leaders. And in summary, if I had to do my part of the atomic bomb project over again and had the privilege of picking my boss I would pick General Groves."
Groves wanted the scientists to be commissioned officers, but Oppenheimer pointed out that this made recruitment impossible and talked him out of that. After that, Groves left the science to the scientists. But the general was no dummy. When they tested the bomb, he was the only one who faced away from the blast.
The blast was a religious epiphany for Oppenheimer. Like many Jewish physicists of his era, he had turned away from the faith of his fathers, many becoming atheists. He turned to Eastern religions. Upon seeing the blast, he recalled, he thought of a Hindu verse, "If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one."
And on the 20th anniversary of the Trinity test blast, he said, "We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another."
The decision to use atomic weapons on Japan was oppressive. The military included Oppenheimer on a panel of scientists that helped decide in May 1945 whether to go through with actually using The Bomb.
"I believe there was very little deliberation. The actual military plans at the time were clearly much more terrible in every way and for everyone concerned than the use of the bomb. Nevertheless, my own feeling is that if the bombs were to be used there could have been more effective warning and much less wanton killing," Oppenheimer said in 1962.
The Bomb did not destroy the world. The atomic bombs ended the war with Japan and thus, ended World War II. Of more importance, The Bomb made a Cold War between communists and the free world, which lasted until 1991 when freedom conquered communism. Had we not used The Bomb, would its destructive power been as appreciated?
The Golden Age of Physics began with Einstein's Theory of Relativity and ended with The Bomb. While certainly there have been advances over the last 70 years, the pace is much slower, as was Oppenheimer's death. A heavy smoker he succumbed to throat cancer on February 18, 1967. He left a better world, one that could be nuclear powered, for as with most military advances, there was a more constructive civilian use of The Bomb.
My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.