J. Robert Oppenheimer Biography, wiki, age, career, spouse and cause of death

American theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer was born on April 22, 1904, and died on February 18, 1967. Known as the “father of the atomic bomb” for his work in the Manhattan Project, which aimed to create the first nuclear weapons, he served as the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II.

Oppenheimer graduated with a bachelor’s in chemistry from Harvard University in 1925. He majored in physics while attending the Universities of Cambridge and Göttingen, where he also earned his PhD in 1927.

Born Name

&

Date & Place of birth

Julius Robert Oppenheimer

April 22, 1904

New York City, U.S.
Died February 18, 1967 (aged 62)

Princeton, New Jersey, U.S.
Education
  • Harvard University (AB)
  • Christ’s College, Cambridge
  • University of Göttingen (PhD)
Known for
  • Nuclear weapons development
  • Tolman–Oppenheimer–Volkoff equation
  • Tolman–Oppenheimer–Volkoff limit
  • Oppenheimer–Phillips process
  • Born–Oppenheimer approximation
Spouse
Katherine “Kitty” Puening
(m. 1940)
Children 2
Relatives Frank Oppenheimer (brother)
Awards
  • Medal for Merit (1946)
  • Enrico Fermi Award (1963)
Scientific career
Fields Theoretical physics

He held academic positions at the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley, where he made substantial contributions to theoretical physics, particularly in nuclear and quantum physics.

He was chosen to work on the Manhattan Project during World War II, and in 1943 he was appointed director of the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, which was in charge of creating the bombs.

The project’s success was greatly influenced by Oppenheimer’s scientific know-how and project management skills. He participated in the Trinity test, which took place on July 16, 1945, and saw the successful explosion of the first atomic bomb.

He later remarked that the explosion brought to his mind words from the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” In August 1945, the atomic bombs were used on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

After the war ended, Oppenheimer became chairman of the influential General Advisory Committee of the newly created United States Atomic Energy Commission. He lobbied for international control of nuclear power, to avert nuclear proliferation and a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union.

He opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb during a 1949–1950 governmental debate on the question and subsequently took stances on defense-related issues that provoked the ire of some U.S. government and military factions.

During the Second Red Scare, those stances, together with past associations Oppenheimer had with people and organizations affiliated with the Communist Party, led to the revocation of his security clearance in a much-discussed security hearing in 1954.

Effectively stripped of his direct political influence, he continued to lecture, write, and work in physics. Nine years later, President John F. Kennedy awarded him (and Lyndon B. Johnson presented him with) the Enrico Fermi Award as a gesture of political rehabilitation. In 2022, five decades after his death, the U.S. government nullified its 1954 decision and affirmed Oppenheimer’s loyalty.

Only a few of Oppenheimer’s scientific achievements include the Born-Oppenheimer approximation for molecular wave functions, work on electron and positron theory, the Oppenheimer-Phillips process in nuclear fusion, and the first prediction of quantum tunneling.

He made important contributions to quantum mechanics, quantum field theory, and the interplay of cosmic rays, along with his students, to modern theories of neutron stars and black holes.

In addition to being regarded as a founding father of the American school of theoretical physics, which gained notoriety throughout the world in the 1930s, he also served as an advocate for and an educator of science. After World War II, he was chosen to serve as the Institute for Advanced Study’s director in Princeton, New Jersey.

Private and political life

Oppenheimer remained ignorant of current events during the 1920s. He insisted that he did not read newspapers or popular publications and that he first became aware of the 1929 Wall Street crash six months after it took place while out for a stroll with Ernest Lawrence.He once claimed that before to the 1936 presidential election, he had never cast a ballot.

But starting in 1934, he started to worry more and more about politics and world events. In 1934, he set aside three percent of his income, or roughly $100 ($2,188 in 2022), for two years to aid German physicists who were escaping Nazi Germany.

He went to a longshoremen’s demonstration with a few of his students, including Melba Phillips and Bob Serber, during the 1934 West Coast Waterfront Strike. Birge resisted Oppenheimer’s efforts to get Serber at Berkeley because she believed that “one Jew in the department was enough.”

Oppenheimer’s mother died in 1931, and he became closer to his father who, although still living in New York, became a frequent visitor in California. When his father died in 1937, leaving $392,602 to be divided between Oppenheimer and his brother Frank, Oppenheimer immediately wrote out a will that left his estate to the University of California to be used for graduate scholarships.

Like many young intellectuals in the 1930s, Oppenheimer supported social reforms that were later alleged to be communist ideas. He donated to many progressive causes that were branded as left-wing during the McCarthy era.

The majority of his allegedly radical work consisted of hosting fundraisers for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War and other anti-fascist activity. He never openly joined the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), though he did pass money to leftist causes by way of acquaintances who were alleged to be party members.

When he joined the Manhattan Project in 1942, Oppenheimer wrote on his personal security questionnaire that he had been “a member of just about every Communist Front organization on the West Coast”. Years later he claimed that he did not remember saying this, that it was not true, and that if he had said anything along those lines, it was “a half-jocular overstatement”.

 He was a subscriber to the People’s World, a Communist Party organ, and he testified in 1954, “I was associated with the communist movement.” From 1937 to 1942, Oppenheimer was a member at Berkeley of what he called a “discussion group”, which was later identified by fellow members Haakon Chevalier and Gordon Griffiths as a “closed” (secret) unit of the Communist Party for Berkeley faculty.

The FBI opened a file on Oppenheimer in March 1941. It recorded that he attended a meeting in December 1940 at Chevalier’s home that was also attended by the Communist Party’s California state secretary, William Schneiderman, and its treasurer, Isaac Folkoff.

The FBI noted that Oppenheimer was on the Executive Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union, which it considered a communist front organization. Shortly thereafter, the FBI added Oppenheimer to its Custodial Detention Index, for arrest in case of national emergency.

Debates over Oppenheimer’s party membership or lack thereof have turned on very fine points; almost all historians agree he had strong left-wing views during this time and interacted with party members, though there is considerable dispute over whether he was officially a member of the party. At his 1954 security clearance hearings, he denied being a member of the Communist Party but identified himself as a fellow traveler, which he defined as someone who agrees with many of the goals of communism but is not willing to blindly follow orders from any Communist Party apparatus.

He informed Manhattan Project security officers in August 1943 that George Eltenton, whom he was unaware of, had approached three men at Los Alamos to get nuclear secrets on behalf of the Soviet Union.

In more in-depth interviews, Oppenheimer acknowledged that the only person to contact him was his friend Haakon Chevalier, a professor of French literature at Berkeley, who had brought up the subject informally during dinner at Oppenheimer’s house.

Oppenheimer was too vital to the Manhattan Project, according to Brigadier General Leslie R. Groves, Jr., the project’s director, for him to be fired for this strange behavior. He wrote to the Manhattan Engineer District on July 20, 1943, saying this:

In accordance with my verbal directions of July 15, it is desired that clearance be issued to Julius Robert Oppenheimer without delay irrespective of the information which you have concerning Mr Oppenheimer. He is absolutely essential to the project.

Union

Oppenheimer started dating Jean Tatlock in 1936. Jean was a Stanford University School of Medicine student and the daughter of a Berkeley literature professor. They both held similar political ideas, and she worked for the Communist Party publication Western Worker.Tatlock ended her turbulent engagement with Oppenheimer in 1939.

He met Katherine (“Kitty”) Puening, a radical Berkeley student and former Communist Party member, in August of that year. Kitty had previously been married. Only a few months were spent in her first marriage.

Joe Dallet, a Communist Party activist who was murdered in the Spanish Civil War, was her second spouse and her common-law partner. Kitty eventually made her way back to the US, where she attended the University of Pennsylvania to earn a Bachelor of Arts in botany.

There she married Richard Harrison, a physician and medical researcher, in 1938. In June 1939 Kitty and Harrison moved to Pasadena, California, where he became chief of radiology at a local hospital and she enrolled as a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles. Oppenheimer and Kitty created a minor scandal by sleeping together after one of Tolman’s parties.

In the summer of 1940, she stayed with Oppenheimer at his ranch in New Mexico. She finally asked Harrison for a divorce when she found out she was pregnant. When he refused, she obtained an instant divorce in Reno, Nevada, and took Oppenheimer as her fourth husband on November 1, 1940.

Both of their children were born in Los Alamos, New Mexico: Katherine (“Toni”) was born on December 7, 1944, and Peter was born in May 1941.Oppenheimer resumed his affair with Tatlock when he was married.Later, Tatlock’s communist affiliations caused a problem in his security clearance hearings regarding their ongoing communication.

Oppenheimer was being looked into by the FBI and the internal security division of the Manhattan Project for left-wing affiliations he was known to have had in the past throughout the entire creation of the atomic bomb. While traveling to California in June 1943 to see Tatlock, who was experiencing depression, he was trailed by Army security personnel.

Oppenheimer slept over in her residence.On January 4, 1944, Tatlock committed suicide, leaving Oppenheimer inconsolable.

In the 1930s or 1940s, several of Oppenheimer’s closest friends—including his brother Frank, Jackie, Kitty, Tatlock, his landlady Mary Ellen Washburn, and a number of his doctoral students at Berkeley—were involved in the Communist Party.

Mysticism

Oppenheimer occasionally lost focus on research due to his wide range of interests. He preferred challenging tasks, and since he found much of the scientific work to be simple, he grew interested in mysticism and the occult.

Additionally, he was interested in studying languages and studied Sanskrit at Berkeley under Arthur W. Ryder.He ultimately immersed himself in the original Sanskrit texts of Hindu scriptures including the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. Later, he listed the Gita as one of the texts that had the biggest influence on his way of thinking.

His close confidant and colleague, Nobel Prize winner Isidor Rabi, later gave his own interpretation:

Oppenheimer was overeducated in those fields, which lie outside the scientific tradition, such as his interest in religion, in the Hindu religion in particular, which resulted in a feeling of mystery of the universe that surrounded him like a fog. He saw physics clearly, looking toward what had already been done, but at the border he tended to feel there was much more of the mysterious and novel than there actually was … he turned away from the hard, crude methods of theoretical physics into a mystical realm of broad intuition.

Despite this, some observers, including Nobel Prize-winning physicist Luis Alvarez, have speculated that Oppenheimer might have been awarded a Nobel Prize for his work on gravitational collapse involving neutron stars and black holes if he had lived long enough to see his predictions confirmed by experiment.

Though it was not adopted by other scientists during his lifetime, some historians and physicists now view this as his most significant contribution.

When questioned about his most significant scientific accomplishments, Oppenheimer cited his work on electrons and positrons rather than his work on gravitational contraction, according to physicist and historian Abraham Pais.Oppenheimer was nominated three times—in 1946, 1951, and 1967—for the Nobel Prize in physics, but he never took home the award.

Atomic Energy Commission

Oppenheimer exerted significant influence on the Acheson-Lilienthal Report as a member of the committee’s Board of Consultants, which was a board Truman appointed.

The committee proposed the establishment of an international Atomic Development Authority in its report, which would be in charge of all fissionable material and the facilities used to produce it, including mines, labs, and nuclear power plants where it might be utilized to generate clean energy.

The Baruch Plan of 1946 was the outcome of Bernard Baruch’s appointment to transform this research into a proposal to the UN. Many new enforcement-related clauses were added by the Baruch Plan, including one that demanded inspection of the Soviet Union’s uranium reserves.

The Soviet Union rejected it because they believed it was an attempt to keep the United States’ nuclear monopoly. With this, Oppenheimer realized that an arms race was inevitable due to the mutual mistrust between the US and the USSR, which even Oppenheimer was beginning to harbor.

After the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) came into being in 1947 as a civilian agency in control of nuclear research and weapons issues, Oppenheimer was appointed as the chairman of its General Advisory Committee (GAC).

From this position he advised on a number of nuclear-related issues, including project funding, laboratory construction and even international policy—though the GAC’s advice was not always heeded. As chairman of the GAC, Oppenheimer lobbied vigorously for international arms control and funding for basic science, and attempted to influence policy away from a heated arms race.

The first atomic bomb test by the Soviet Union in August 1949 came earlier than Americans expected, and over the next several months there was an intense debate within the U.S. government, military, and scientific communities over whether to proceed with the development of the far more powerful, nuclear fusion-based hydrogen bomb, then known as “the Super”.

Oppenheimer had been aware of the possibility of a thermonuclear weapon since the days of the Manhattan Project and had allocated a limited amount of theoretical research work toward the possibility at the time, but nothing more than that, given the pressing need to develop a fission weapon.

 Immediately following the end of the war, Oppenheimer argued against continuing work on the Super at that time, due to both lack of need and the enormous human casualties that would result from its use.

Now in October 1949, Oppenheimer and the GAC recommended against the development of the Super. He and the other GAC members were motivated partly by ethical concerns, feeling that such a weapon could only be strategically used, resulting in millions of deaths: “Its use therefore carries much further than the atomic bomb itself the policy of exterminating civilian populations.

They also had practical qualms, as there was no workable design for a hydrogen bomb at the time. Regarding the possibility of the Soviet Union developing a thermonuclear weapon, the GAC felt that the United States could have an adequate stockpile of atomic weapons to retaliate against any thermonuclear attack.

 In that connection, Oppenheimer and the others were concerned about the opportunity costs that would be incurred if nuclear reactors were diverted from materials needed for atom bomb production to the materials such as tritium needed for a thermonuclear weapon.

Oppenheimer believed that the struggle against the Super would win when the majority of the AEC supported the GAC’s recommendation, but advocates for the weapon heavily pushed the White House.Truman, who was already inclined to move on with the weapon’s development, formally decided to do so on January 31, 1950.Oppenheimer and other GAC project opponents, in particular James Conant, were discouraged and thought about leaving the committee.Despite having a well-known position on the hydrogen bomb, they continued to work.

The Teller-Ulam design for a hydrogen bomb was conceived in 1951 by mathematician Stanislaw Ulam and inventor Edward Teller.Oppenheimer formally agreed to the development of the weapon because the new design appeared to be technically possible, but he continued to hunt for ways to cast doubt on its testing, deployment, or usage.He later remembered:

The program we had in 1949 was a tortured thing that you could well argue did not make a great deal of technical sense. It was therefore possible to argue also that you did not want it even if you could have it. The program in 1951 was technically so sweet that you could not argue about that. The issues became purely the military, the political and the humane problem of what you were going to do about it once you had it.

Oppenheimer, Conant, and Lee DuBridge, another member who had opposed the H-bomb decision, left the GAC when their terms expired in August 1952. Truman had declined to reappoint them, as he wanted new voices on the committee who were more in support of H-bomb development. In addition, various opponents of Oppenheimer had communicated to Truman their desire that Oppenheimer leave the committee.

Final years and death

Oppenheimer moved to the island of Saint John in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1954, where he spent a significant portion of the year. He bought a 2-acre (0.81 hectare) plot of property on Gibney Beach in 1957, and he constructed a basic house there.With his daughter Toni and wife Kitty, he spent a lot of time sailing.

Oppenheimer gave a lecture titled “Prospects in the Arts and Sciences” for the Columbia University Bicentennial radio program Man’s Right to Knowledge, his first public appearance after having his security clearance revoked. In this lecture, he discussed his philosophy and his ideas on the function of science in the contemporary world.

He had been selected for the final episode of the lecture series two years prior to the security hearing, though the university remained adamant that he stay on even after the controversy.

Henry Schmitz, the president of the University of Washington, abruptly rescinded Oppenheimer’s offer to give a series of lectures there in February 1955. The students were outraged by Schmitz’s decision; 1,200 of them signed a petition denouncing it, and Schmitz was burned in effigy.

The state of Washington outlawed the Communist Party and demanded that all public servants take a loyalty oath while they protested by marching.In response to an appeal from Oppenheimer’s Berkeley colleague Edwin Albrecht Uehling, Schmitz’s decision was overturned by the university senate by a vote of 56 to 40.

Several University of Washington faculty members joined Oppenheimer for coffee during his layover when he made a brief stop in Seattle to change flights on his way to Oregon, but Oppenheimer never gave a lecture there.

Oppenheimer was increasingly concerned about the potential danger that scientific inventions could pose to humanity. He joined with Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Joseph Rotblat and other eminent scientists and academics to establish what would eventually, in 1960, become the World Academy of Art and Science.

Significantly, after his public humiliation, he did not sign the major open protests against nuclear weapons of the 1950s, including the Russell–Einstein Manifesto of 1955, nor, though invited, did he attend the first Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs in 1957.

In his speeches and public writings, Oppenheimer continually stressed the difficulty of managing the power of knowledge in a world in which the freedom of science to exchange ideas was more and more hobbled by political concerns. Oppenheimer delivered the Reith Lectures on the BBC in 1953, which were subsequently published as Science and the Common Understanding.

 In 1955, Oppenheimer published The Open Mind, a collection of eight lectures that he had given since 1946 on the subject of nuclear weapons and popular culture. Oppenheimer rejected the idea of nuclear gunboat diplomacy. “The purposes of this country in the field of foreign policy”, he wrote, “cannot in any real or enduring way be achieved by coercion”.

In 1957 the philosophy and psychology departments at Harvard invited Oppenheimer to deliver the William James Lectures. An influential group of Harvard alumni led by Edwin Ginn that included Archibald Roosevelt protested against the decision. Some 1,200 people packed Sanders Theatre to hear Oppenheimer’s six lectures, titled “The Hope of Order”.

Oppenheimer delivered the Whidden Lectures at McMaster University in 1962, and these were published in 1964 as The Flying Trapeze: Three Crises for Physicists.

Deprived of political power, Oppenheimer continued to lecture, write and work on physics. He toured Europe and Japan, giving talks about the history of science, the role of science in society, and the nature of the universe. In September 1957, France made him an Officer of the Legion of Honor, and on May 3, 1962, he was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society in Britain.

 At the urging of many of Oppenheimer’s political friends who had ascended to power, President John F. Kennedy awarded Oppenheimer the Enrico Fermi Award in 1963 as a gesture of political rehabilitation.

Teller, the winner of the previous year’s award, had also recommended Oppenheimer receive it, in the hope that it would heal the rift between them. A little over a week after Kennedy’s assassination, his successor, President Lyndon Johnson, presented Oppenheimer with the award, “for contributions to theoretical physics as a teacher and originator of ideas, and for leadership of the Los Alamos Laboratory and the atomic energy program during critical years”. Oppenheimer told Johnson: “I think it is just possible, Mr. President, that it has taken some charity and some courage for you to make this award today.”

The rehabilitation implied by the award was partly symbolic, as Oppenheimer still lacked a security clearance and could have no effect on official policy, but the award came with a $50,000 tax-free stipend, and its award outraged many prominent Republicans in Congress.

The late President Kennedy’s widow Jacqueline, still living in the White House, made it a point to meet with Oppenheimer to tell him how much her husband had wanted him to have the medal.

While still a senator in 1959, Kennedy had been instrumental in voting to narrowly deny Oppenheimer’s enemy Lewis Strauss a coveted government position as Secretary of Commerce, effectively ending Strauss’s political career. This was partly due to lobbying by the scientific community on behalf of Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer was a chain smoker who was diagnosed with throat cancer in late 1965. After inconclusive surgery, he underwent unsuccessful radiation treatment and chemotherapy late in 1966. He fell into a coma on February 15, 1967, and died at his home in Princeton, New Jersey, on February 18, aged 62.

A memorial service was held a week later at Alexander Hall on the campus of Princeton University. The service was attended by 600 of his scientific, political and military associates that included Bethe, Groves, Kennan, Lilienthal, Rabi, Smyth and Wigner.

His brother Frank and the rest of his family were also there, as was the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., the novelist John O’Hara, and George Balanchine, the director of the New York City Ballet. Bethe, Kennan and Smyth gave brief eulogies.

Oppenheimer’s body was cremated and his ashes placed in an urn. His wife took the ashes to St. John and dropped the urn into the sea, within sight of the beach house.

Kitty passed away in October 1972 at the age of 62 following an intestinal infection that was made worse by a pulmonary embolism. Then, Peter Oppenheimer received ownership of the family’s ranch in New Mexico, and Katherine “Toni” Oppenheimer Silber received ownership of the beachfront property.

After the FBI brought up the previous convictions against her father, Toni was denied security clearance for her chosen career as a translator for the United Nations. She committed suicide in January 1977 at the age of 32, three months after her second marriage ended.

Her ex-husband discovered her hanging from a beam at the family beach house. She bequeathed the land to “the people of St. John for a public park and recreation area”.

The old house was destroyed by a hurricane because it was constructed too close to the coast. The Virgin Islands government still looks after a community center there.

Legacy

When Oppenheimer lost his position of political influence in 1954, he came to represent the immorality of scientists who thought they could control how their knowledge was used as well as the moral quandaries that science in the nuclear age brought.

The hearings revealed a sharp rift in the nuclear weapons community as well as political and personal animosities.One faction viewed the Soviet Union to be a mortal adversary and claimed the only way to deal with this threat was to have the most potent arsenal of weapons that could deliver the most overwhelming retaliation.

The opposing group, which called for a more adaptable response to the Soviets that included tactical nuclear weapons, strengthened conventional forces, and arms control agreements, believed that developing the H-bomb would not actually improve the Western security position and that using the weapon against large civilian populations would be an act of genocide. Oppenheimer was the focus of the first of these factions because it had the greater political clout.

Rather than consistently oppose the “Red-baiting” of the late 1940s and early 1950s, Oppenheimer testified against some of his former colleagues and students, both before and during his hearing. In one incident, his damning testimony against former student Bernard Peters was selectively leaked to the press.

Historians have interpreted this as an attempt by Oppenheimer to please his colleagues in the government and perhaps to divert attention from his own previous left-wing ties and those of his brother. In the end, it became a liability when it became clear that if Oppenheimer had really doubted Peters’ loyalty, his recommending him for the Manhattan Project was reckless, or at least contradictory.

Popular depictions of Oppenheimer view his security struggles as a confrontation between right-wing militarists (symbolized by Teller) and left-wing intellectuals (symbolized by Oppenheimer) over the moral question of weapons of mass destruction. The Oppenheimer story has often been viewed by biographers and historians as a modern tragedy.

National security advisor and academic McGeorge Bundy, who had worked with Oppenheimer on the State Department Panel of Consultants, has written: “Quite aside from Oppenheimer’s extraordinary rise and fall in prestige and power, his character has fully tragic dimensions in its combination of charm and arrogance, intelligence and blindness, awareness and insensitivity, and perhaps above all daring and fatalism. All these, in different ways, were turned against him in the hearings.”

The question of the scientists’ responsibility toward humanity inspired Bertolt Brecht’s drama Galileo (1955), left its imprint on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Die Physiker, and is the basis of the opera Doctor Atomic by John Adams (2005), which was commissioned to portray Oppenheimer as a modern-day Faust. Heinar Kipphardt’s play In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, after appearing on West German television, had its theatrical release in Berlin and Munich in October 1964. Oppenheimer’s objections resulted in an exchange of correspondence with Kipphardt, in which the playwright offered to make corrections but defended the play. It premiered in New York in June 1968, with Joseph Wiseman in the Oppenheimer role. New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes called it an “angry play and a partisan play” that sided with Oppenheimer but portrayed the scientist as a “tragic fool and genius”. Oppenheimer had difficulty with this portrayal. After reading a transcript of Kipphardt’s play soon after it began to be performed, Oppenheimer threatened to sue the playwright, decrying “improvisations which were contrary to history and to the nature of the people involved”.

Later Oppenheimer told an interviewer:

The whole damn thing [his security hearing] was a farce, and these people are trying to make a tragedy out of it. … I had never said that I had regretted participating in a responsible way in the making of the bomb. I said that perhaps he [Kipphardt] had forgotten Guernica, Coventry, Hamburg, Dresden, Dachau, Warsaw, and Tokyo; but I had not, and that if he found it so difficult to understand, he should write a play about something else.

Oppenheimer is the subject of numerous biographies, including American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2005) by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography for 2006. The 1980 BBC TV serial Oppenheimer, starring Sam Waterston, won three BAFTA Television Awards.

The Day After Trinity, a 1980 documentary about Oppenheimer and the building of the atomic bomb, was nominated for an Academy Award and received a Peabody Award. Oppenheimer’s life is also explored in Tom Morton-Smith’s 2015 play Oppenheimer, and in the 1989 film Fat Man and Little Boy, where he was portrayed by Dwight Schultz.

Also in 1989, David Strathairn portrayed Oppenheimer in the made-for-TV movie Day One.[274] In the 2023 American film Oppenheimer, directed by Christopher Nolan and based on American Prometheus, Oppenheimer is portrayed by actor Cillian Murphy.

A centennial conference and exhibit were held in 2004 at Berkeley, with the proceedings of the conference published in 2005 as Reappraising Oppenheimer: Centennial Studies and Reflections. His papers are in the Library of Congress.

As a scientist, Oppenheimer is remembered by his students and colleagues as being a brilliant researcher and engaging teacher who was the founder of modern theoretical physics in the United States.

Because his scientific attentions often changed rapidly, he never worked long enough on any one topic and carried it to fruition to merit the Nobel Prize, although his investigations contributing to the theory of black holes may have warranted the prize had he lived long enough to see them brought into fruition by later astrophysicists. An asteroid, 67085 Oppenheimer, was named in his honor, as was the lunar crater Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer was a technocratic pioneer in a change in the connections between science and the military as well as the creation of “Big Science” as a military and public policy advisor.

Scientists engaged in military research to a previously unheard-of extent during World War II. They volunteered in large numbers for both organizational and technological support to the Allied effort due to the threat fascism represented to Western civilisation, leading to the development of such potent tools as radar, the proximity fuse, and operations research.

Oppenheimer represented the movement away from the idea that scientists had their “head in the clouds” and that knowledge on such previously esoteric topics as the composition of the atomic nucleus had no “real-world” applications. Oppenheimer was a cultured, intellectual, theoretical physicist who later became a disciplined military organizer.

Two days before the Trinity test, Oppenheimer expressed his hopes and fears in a quotation from Bhartṛhari’s Śatakatraya:

In battle, in the forest, at the precipice in the mountains,
On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows,
In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame,
The good deeds a man has done before defend him.

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