With tickets for Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer on sale today, we take a look at the true story of the physicist behind the biopic.
J. Robert Oppenheimer was born on 22 April 1904 to Ella, a painter, and Julius (that’s what the J stands for, though he would always go by Robert), a wealthy textile importer. After studying chemistry at Harvard University and earning postgraduate physics degrees at Cambridge and Göttingen, he began a distinguished academic career before being recruited as director of the Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II – the project which would build the world’s first nuclear bomb.
As two of the most famous physicists of the 20th century, Robert’s life had some crossover with Albert Einstein’s – especially because the two worked in similar fields.
Oppenheimer first met Einstein on the latter’s world tour in 1932, and over the years, the physicists did seem to become friends as well as colleagues. Though Einstein’s political leanings and German nationality prevented him from joining the Manhattan Project, he had written to President Roosevelt in 1939 to persuade the US to begin researching atomic weaponry – a decision the lifelong pacifist came to regret.
Following the first successful nuclear test, Oppenheimer claimed to have said, “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds,” a phrase which has now sunk into the public consciousness. But Oppenheimer’s most famous quote might not have come from Oppenheimer at all. As is always the case with famous last words and quotes like this, it’s pretty difficult to establish who actually said what and when. Many of his colleagues certainly don’t remember him saying it – more likely, Oppenheimer’s first words after the successful nuclear test were something along the lines of “wow.”
Later on, he would come to claim the phrase as his own, quoting from the 700-verse Hindu scripture, The Bhagavad-Gita (Oppenheimer could read Sanskrit and had a lifelong interest in the Hindu faith). But the phrase is hardly the only soundbite attributed to the notorious poetry fan-turned-physicist.
A few months after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Oppenheimer had a meeting with then-President Harry S. Truman. “I feel we have blood on our hands,” the physicist said, beginning to regret his role in the dawn of the nuclear age. “Never mind,” Truman replied, “it’ll all come out in the wash.” Once Oppenheimer had left the room, the president apparently turned to his aides. “Don’t let that crybaby in here again,” he said. It was the start of Oppenheimer’s long and painful falling out with the US political and military establishment.
Despite spending a fair chunk of time hanging out with Stalinists of various stripes, Oppenheimer was never a member of the communist party. His red credentials did scare the pants off a lot of US military top brass, though (in fairness, his brother was blacklisted from teaching at universities in 1949 thanks to his communist credentials).
Nonetheless, communist accusations dogged Oppenheimer throughout his later years as the Red Scare built up steam after WWII. The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover had his phone bugged, and in 1954 his security clearance was revoked – despite the FBI never finding any real evidence of wrongdoing or mishandling of state secrets. As a result, Oppenheimer has been widely seen as a martyr of McCarthyism (the witch-hunt-style craze against American communists in the late forties and early fifties).
After losing his security clearance in 1954, Oppenheimer spent more and more time on the island of Saint John in the US Virgin Islands (not a bad gig if you can get it). Still a massive boffin, even without political power, he continued to tour around the world, writing and giving lectures on physics and its role in society. Despite being nominated for a Nobel prize three times, he never won one.
A chain smoker for most of his life, Oppenheimer died of throat cancer on 18 February 1967 at the age of 62. He is remembered as both the godfather of the atomic age and one of its biggest opponents, a martyr for the US communist party, and the most important figure in US military history. His legacy, then, is a little complicated.
Of course, when Nolan’s film comes out on 15 July, that might all change – we’ll just have to wait and see, eh?