Oppenheimer Julius Robert
Celebrated physicist, fallen then rehabilitated, Robert Oppenheimer is the father of the atomic bomb. This is the story of the man who changed the face of war, and then of the world.
American physicist born in New York and died in Princeton, Julius Robert Oppenheimer entered Harvard University in 1925. After graduating in 1928, he studied mathematics and theoretical physics at the University of Göttingen, where he obtained his doctorate under the supervision of Max Born. This is the great period of the development of the new quantum theory with W. Heisenberg, P. Jordan, W. Pauli; Oppenheimer joined Pauli in Zurich to study the problems of the structure of matter (1928-1929). After the formulation of the antiparticle theory by P. A. M. Dirac, and just before the discovery of the positive electron (antiparticle of the positive electron) by Carl David Anderson (1932), Oppenheimer demonstrated that particles and antiparticles must have the same mass.
The birth of the atomic bomb
It is in the facilities of the laboratory of Los Alamos, in New Mexico, that Robert Oppenheimer is working on the development, with other renowned scientists, such as Enrico Fermi or Arthur Compton, on the development of the first American atomic bomb.
Impelled from the start of the conflict, the project, of which Oppenheimer was appointed scientific director, was supported by President Roosevelt and was to counter the nuclear programs of the Soviets and the Germans. It resulted in the making of the first atomic bomb, dropped on Hiroshima on July 16, 1945.
The regrets of Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb
“Hiroshima was far more costly in lives and inhuman suffering than what we wanted to stop the war. But it’s easier to say, after the fact…” These are the words that Robert Oppenheimer uttered in the mid-1960s, in an interview with the BBC, which could sum up the creator’s ambivalence towards his creation.
Robert Oppenheimer was born in 1904 in New York into a wealthy Jewish family. At age 11, he was elected the youngest member of the Mineralogical Society of New York.
After passing through Harvard, he worked on subjects as diverse as cosmic rays, black holes and neutron stars.
In 1939, Albert Einstein alerted the American president to the risk that the Nazis would build an atomic weapon, which prompted the American government to develop its own bomb. This is the top secret “Manhattan” project, which Oppenheimer is responsible for coordinating.
He and his teams work on the fission of uranium and plutonium from a laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico. On July 16, 1945, the first “Trinity” nuclear bomb exploded in the Alamogordo desert, creating a cloud 13 km (8 miles) high.
The Szilard Petition
More than 70 Manhattan Project scientists, including Leó Szilárd, petition President Truman to request that the bomb not be dropped on a target in Japan, but serve only as a warning.
Oppenheimer ignores this petition and insists that the bomb be dropped on a Japanese city.
A month later, on August 6, 1945, the “Little Boy” bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, then on August 9 “Fat man” fell on Nagasaki. In all, between 103,000 and 220,000 victims. Oppenheimer, justifies the use of these bombs to “abbreviate” the conflict with Japan and thus “spare” the lives of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers.
Human and material damage well beyond estimates
Yet he himself is terrified by the scale of the destruction caused by his invention. A few months after the end of the war, Oppenheimer resigned from his position. When the USSR developed its own atomic bombs from 1949, he pleaded for international control of nuclear energy and a limitation of armaments.
In the 1950s, in the midst of McCarthyism, the scientist was accused of communist sympathies. His security clearance was revoked. In reality, it is because Oppenheimer opposes the development of the H-bomb, a thermonuclear bomb, even more destructive than the Hiroshima bomb.
Finally rehabilitated by Kennedy in 1963, Oppenheimer, who was a heavy smoker, died at age 62 of throat cancer.
The physicist will never publicly regret his invention, but his conscience remains very marked by it.
After the war
Appalled by the countless victims of the nuclear explosion, Robert Oppenheimer pleads in favor of international control of atomic energy. He also spoke out against the development of a hydrogen bomb.
These positions earned him the disavowal of the American authorities, anxious to overtake the USSR in the arms race.
In addition, Oppenheimer continues his work, in particular within the framework of a research institute of the university of Princeton, of which he takes the head. He also continues to teach physics.
Despite the richness of his scientific contribution, recognized by his peers, Oppenheimer, nominated three times for the Nobel Prize, never managed to win the prestigious award.
In the early 1960s, during an interview in France, Oppenheimer answered a journalist’s question as follows:
“We often quote a word from Einstein who says “if I had to start over, I would become a plumber… And you?
-I am very happy that the conditions of human life are such, that it is never necessary to answer such questions.