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Understanding history's greatest scientists-J.Robert Oppenheimer

Updated on August 27, 2014


J. Robert Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer went to the Ethical Culture school of New York. He was thin and highly-strung as a boy, with a quick grasp of concepts. After graduating at Harvard University, he went to England to study physics under Ernest Rutherford, at Cambridge University for two years. Later he went to Göttingen, Germany, he studied under Max Born.

Oppenheimer was said to be a "complex character, whose talent was always the centre of attention". He made influential friends wherever he went in the world. However he had a sharp tongue and believed that he should always be seen as the superior intellect.He's most famous for his work in the Manhattan Project (the two atomic bombs in WW2), his most lasting and useful science contribution is his research on neutron stars and black holes at the University of California, Berkeley.

In 1938, the world stood on the edge of the beginning of World War Two and the threshold of an atomic age. For one man this would be the age of discovery, the age of regret and the age of death. J. Robert Oppenheimer was this man and what he did in 1945 would ultimately destroy his mind. He was the administrator of the Manhattan Project, the largest scientific project in human history, but he deeply regretted his part in it.

Oppenheimer war criminal?

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How he became the worlds biggest war criminal

I have nothing but respect for Oppenheimer and his discoveries but I have to say that anyone that was a part in the Manhattan Project, no matter how important or intelligent, were war criminals.

Oppenheimer's varied professional life is sometimes said to be "a drive to the centre" or characterized as a ruthless drive to "be where it's at" and this compulsion took the man to Europe, the centre of theoretical physics at the time. At Göttingen University, Germany 1926, J. Oppenheimer, with the assistance of Max Born, produced the Born-Oppenheimer. This theory as Oppenheimer put it was explaining "why molecules are molecules". This method extended to quantum mechanics beyond single atoms to describe the energy of chemical compounds. It was an incredibly ambitious mathematical exercise as each electron, per atom, had a dizzying amounts of possibilities that had been computed. Oppenheimer's work in Germany turned out to be crucial to modern chemistry.Unfortunately his last discovery is what would create the atomic bombs that would butcher millions of Japanese.

Nuclear fission

Black Holes

Oppenheimer's nuclear fission and black holes

The discoveries Oppenheimer took to get to the atomic bombs would start in 1938 in mid December, when German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann "split the atom" in their Berlin laboratory. They achieved this by firing neutrons at uranium, but instead of that creating a heavier element by neutron absorption, or lighter elements by emotion of one more nucleons (protons or neurtons), the pair found that the lighter element barium was relieved, which had 100 fewer nucleons than the uranium nucleus. No nuclear processes could understand the loss of 100 nucleons. A perplexed Hahn sent a letter to his colleagues, Otto Frisch and Lise Meitnet in Copenhagen. Within a month the two had worked out the basics of nuclear ffission, now reconsidering why uranium can turn into barium and krypton, any missing nucleons would be converted into energy and a chain reaction would then follow. In 1939, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr took these discoveries to the U.S. government. His account along with the published Meitner-Frisch paper in the journal of nature. This set the east cost ablaze with excitement, at this time no one could see that this discovery would destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki in six years. This started conversations between Bhor and John Archibald Wheeler at the Princeton after the annual Theoretical Physics Conference, this led to the Bohr-Wheeler theory on nuclear fission.

All atoms of the same element have a nuclei with the same number of protons in them, however the number of neutrons can vary, which creates different isotopes of the same element. In this case it is uranium, there are two naturally occurring isotopes. Uranium-238 (U-238) makes up 99.3% of natural uranium. It's nuclei contain 92 protons and 146 neutrons. The remaining 0.7 per cent is made up of uranium-235 (U-235), whose nuclei contain 92 protons and 143 neutrons, this causes the atom to split and this released energy during the processes. When the news reached the west coast, Oppenheimer, now at Berkeley, was captivated. He gave a series of lectures and seminars on the brand new theory and quickly saw the potential for making a weapon of awesome power- to his mind it was a "good, honest, practical way" to use the new science. But while laboratories in the east coast universities raced to replicate the results of the early nuclear fission experiments, while Oppenheimer was concentrating on his research into stars contracting and collapsing under their own gravity and forming a devastating thing called the black hole.

An idea that will change history

The idea of nuclear weaponry was thought up of as early as 1913, H.G.Wells wrote of "tapping the internal energy of atoms" to make "atomic bombs". In the novel The World Set Free, the innovation was set to happen in 1933. In 1933 itself, Ernest Rutherford touched the large amount of energy released during nuclear fission in a speech printed in the London Times. However, Ernest dismissed the idea of handling this energy as "moonshine", since progress was so inefficient that it required much more energy than it released. It took a Hungarian living in Britain named Leó Szilárd to see how it could be done, and realise the horrific, murderous consequences for a world heading to war. Offering on Ernest's lecture Leó saw "secondary neutrons" emerging from the first wave of nuclear fission event could themselves create more fission events, which would result in a chain reaction of nuclear fission. Leó later recalled, "there was little doubt in my mind that the world was headed for grief".

Experiments in Germany and the U.S. showed that a chain reaction of nuclear fission was indeed possible. This prompted Leó and another Hungarian scientist called Edward Teller would approach Albert Einstein with a letter telling him of their discoveries. Einstein passed the letter on to U.S. president Roosevelt on 11th October, 1939 and just ten days later the Advisory Committee on uranium was set up so the U.S. could investigate the possibility of building an atomic bomb. This was the first known time any government wanted to build radioactive weaponry.

Atomic Bomb

Big science, big death

The Manhattan Project was the biggest scientific project ever! It was on the grandest scale imaginable. A multiarmed organisation that spread over several large sites in the U.S. and Canada and countless other small sites over the world. It had over 130,000 people working under the cause of the atomic bombs and it needed $2bn ($26bn or £16bn in the current economy) in funding- all this in complete secrecy.

In early 1941, the decision was taken that there would be five different methods to build the atomic bomb, they were: electromagnetic separation, gaseous diffusion and thermal diffusion to separate isotopes of U-235 and U -238; plus two lines of research into nuclear reactor technology. On the 2nd December 1942, The very first controlled nuclear fission chain reaction was carried out at the University of Chicago. Enrico Fermi's Chicago Pile-1 was the prototype for reactors that would enrich uranium and create the newly discovered plutonium-an unstable element that is heavier than uranium. Plutonium can cause a rapid can reaction of nuclear fission, this made an even deadlier bomb!

Magic Mountain

Oppenheimer was selected to head the Manhattan Project's research into secret weaponry. Oppenheimer approved a discussed boarding school at Los Alamos Ranch in New Mexico as the site for research facilities for the projects final phases. This was the construction of the atomic bombs. At "site Y" you would see the highest concentration of Nobel laureate ever gathered in one place in human history. Since much of the important science had already been done, the New Mexico scientists thought of there work as "engineering problems". However it has to be Oppenheimer's brilliant coordination of the 3,000 New Mexico scientists are what made the construction of the atomic bombs possible.

Atomic Cloud

16th July 1945-9th August 1945

The trinity test in 16th July was an atomic bomb ("Little Boyk") dropped over the Japanese city Hiroshima but Japan did not surrender so on the 9th August 1945 the plutonium atomic bomb, "Fat Man" was dropped over the southern Japanese city Nagasaki, in the last bombing 40,000 people died instantly and many more in the following weeks, that is why Japan surrendered.

Relisation of death

Atomic weaponary

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Relisation of atomics

After the two successful bombings in Japan, the second world war came to an end. Although Germany had already surrendered by the time Hiroshima bomb was dropped the Los Alamos scientists felt that a segmentation was needed so they felt that bomb "Little Boy" was completely a necessary evil, however after "Little Boy" was dropped Oppenheimer was left jubilant and he felt like he was under shadows. When the plutonium "Fat Man" bomb was hard to justify and one year later Oppenheimer publicly announced that he believed that "Fat Man" was dropped on a defeated enemy. In October 1945, he met with president Harry S. Truman and told him "I feel that I have blood on my hands" he also writes "Now I become Death, the destroyer of worlds". Truman was furious at Oppenheimer and Congressional hearings stripped him of any security clearance in 1954, this lost him any influence over public policy. By then Oppenheimer had, unfortunately, overseen the event of the military-industrial complex and ushered a new era of big science. Over his creation of a new scientific terror, he became a symbol for the moral consequences of their actions that all people and especially sscientists must now consider.

The End, of the world?

"We have made a thing, a most terrible weapon, that has altered abruptly and profoundly the nature of the world. And by so doing we have raised again the question of whether science is good for man." J. Robert Oppenheimer
"We have made a thing, a most terrible weapon, that has altered abruptly and profoundly the nature of the world. And by so doing we have raised again the question of whether science is good for man." J. Robert Oppenheimer


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