Perhaps no name is more recognizable in connection with The Manhattan Project than Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer, a genius theoretical physicist, was the director of the Los Alamos Lab, where the first atomic bomb was developed.
With a high level of intelligence and curiosity that started in childhood, Oppenheimer was a polymath. His breadth of knowledge exceeded the realm of physics and included history, the arts, language and writing — among other areas.
1. Who Was Robert Oppenheimer?
Many people are familiar with Oppenheimer’s scientific achievements, but there are several interesting things about his life you may not know.
Oppenheimer came from an affluent family and grew up in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. His parents recognized his high level of intelligence and provided opportunities to advance his learning. One of the areas he took an interest in was the study of minerals, and at only 11 years old, Oppenheimer became the youngest member of the New York Mineralogical Club. He’d present his first scientific findings to this group a year later.
Later, while a student at Cambridge, he attempted to poison his tutor with a toxic laced apple. Oppenheimer became distressed when he perceived physicist Patrick Blackett as too demanding — pressuring him to devote more time to the lab and less to theoretical physics. Blackett did not eat the apple, and the matter was not pursued.
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Oppenheimer in the McCarthy Era
Although there is no denying Oppenheimer’s service to the U.S. government, in 1954, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) held a hearing against him. Because some of his friends had communist leanings and his own outspoken opposition to the development of a hydrogen bomb, he wound up on the wrong side of the same agency he had previously advised.
His loyalty to the U.S. was questioned, and there were even suspicions that he was a spy for the Soviets. Eventually, he was declared not guilty of treason, but his security clearance was revoked, and his name was tarnished. In December 2022, the ruling was overturned, and he was completely exonerated.
2. Did Oppenheimer Win A Nobel Prize?
Although 18 Los Alamos scientists were awarded Nobel prizes, Oppenheimer was not one of them — despite being nominated three times, in 1946, 1951, and 1967. Nobody knows for sure why he was not selected for the Nobel Prize, although there are several theories. His published work may not have been considered important enough, as he never proved any noteworthy theory or made any major discovery.
Some scholars and scientists believe that the award committee did not want to select someone who helped create the atomic bomb. Lastly, Oppenheimer’s shifting scientific research interests resulted in a lack of focus and accomplishments in one area in which significant accomplishments would warrant a Nobel Prize.
3. Was Oppenheimer An Adulterer?
When Robert Oppenheimer met Kitty Harrison, she was still married to her third husband. She and Oppenheimer started an affair, and when she became pregnant, she temporarily moved to Nevada in order to obtain a quick divorce. The day after she was granted the divorce, she married Oppenheimer in 1940.
While married to Kitty, he reignited a relationship with his former girlfriend, psychiatrist and Communist party member, Jean Tatlock. His affair with her led to suspicions about his political loyalty. In 1944, She was found dead with her head submerged in her bathtub. While the official cause of death was suicide, there has been speculation that she may have been assassinated by intelligence agents connected to The Manhattan Project.
It is believed that he also had an affair with Ruth Tolman, the wife of a fellow Manhattan Project scientist. Tolman, who was 10 years older than Oppenheimer, was an accomplished psychologist.
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