J. Robert Oppenheimer

Facts about Robert Oppenheimer

J. Robert Oppenheimer died at 62 years old
Born: April 22, 1904
Best known as: The physicist who directed the Manhattan Project


J. Robert Oppenheimer Biography

J. Robert Oppenheimer was the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, the top-secret World War II program which developed the world’s first atomic bomb.

Oppenheimer was an unusual personality: intensely brainy and ambitious and yet distinctly philosophical, with a facility for languages and an interest in Eastern religions and philosophy. Known as “Oppy” to friends, he taught physics at both Caltech and the University of California at Berkeley in the 1930s, before being chosen to lead the Manhattan Project’s team of scientists.

Their work was a success: The first atomic bomb was exploded on July 16, 1945, and less than a month later President Harry S. Truman ordered two bombs dropped on Japan, ending World War II.

After the war, Oppenheimer became head of the General Advisory Committee of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. As such, in 1949 he recommended against the development of the super-powerful hydrogen bomb, pitting him against fellow physicist and H-bomb proponent Edward Teller.

In 1953, during the era of intense anti-communism fomented by Senator Joseph McCarthy, Oppenheimer was accused of being a communist sympathizer, based on his support of various pro-communist and left-wing groups during the years before and during WWII. His security clearance was revoked, despite formal hearings in 1954 in which many fellow scientists testified on Oppenheimer’s behalf.

The incident cast a shadow over his career, although in 1963 he was nonetheless given the Enrico Fermi award for “outstanding contributions to theoretical physics” by the Atomic Energy Commission. From 1947-1966, Oppenheimer also was the director of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton, the longtime home of Albert Einstein.

Interest in J. Robert Oppenheimer surged in 2023, when director Christopher Nolan released his blockbuster biopic Oppenheimer. The 3-hour film starred Irish actor Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer, with Robert Downey, Jr. as his political opponent, Lewis Strauss. Both Murphy and Downey won Academy Awards as best actor and best supporting actor, respectively, and Nolan was given the Oscar as best director.

Extra credit

J. Robert Oppenheimer married Katherine Puening Harrison in 1940. They had two children: Peter (b. 1941) and Katherine (b. 1944)… J. Robert Oppenheimer remarked that when seeing the first text explosion of the atomic bomb he was reminded of a passage from the Hindu sacred text the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become death, destroyer of worlds”… The “J.” at the start of Oppenheimer’s name has been the source of some confusion: it has been said to be short for Julius or Jerome, and Oppenheimer himself once told an interviewer that the initial stood for nothing. But David C. Cassidy, in his 2005 biography J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century, reports that Julius Robert Oppenheimer is the name on Oppenheimer’s birth certificate… The 2023 film Oppenheimer was released at nearly the same time as the hit film Barbie, based on the famous Mattel doll. Their friendly duel was given the name Barbenheimer.


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