UC Berkeley News
Today's news & events
News by email
For the news media
Calendar of events
Top stories
Untitled Document
Press Release

UC Berkeley Press Release

Conference, exhibits probe science and personality of J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb

– J. Robert Oppenheimer was one of last century's tragic figures, a brilliant University of California, Berkeley, physicist who corralled the brains and talent to create the atomic bomb, only later to be pilloried by communist hunters and stripped of his government security clearance.

In celebration this year of the hundredth anniversary of his birth, UC Berkeley has planned a series of exhibits and a conference to explore the man in full: Oppenheimer's science, his politics and his personality.

 Robert Oppenheimer, Glenn T. Seaborg, and Ernest O. Lawrence in early 1946
Robert Oppenheimer, Glenn T. Seaborg, and Ernest O. Lawrence (L to R) in early 1946 at the controls to the magnet of Lawrence's 184-inch cyclotron, which was at the time being reconverted from wartime use as a mass spectrometer to its original purpose as a cyclotron. (Courtesy of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)

"Historians still think that Oppenheimer was a controversial figure," said Cathryn Carson, associate professor and director of the Office for History of Science and Technology at UC Berkeley, and one of the organizers, with UC Berkeley historian David Hollinger, of the April 23 - 24 centennial conference, "Oppenheimer as Scientific Intellectual." Details on the conference and library exhibits are available online.

A highlight of the centennial will be a talk on Thursday, April 22, by Daniel J. Kevles, Stanley Woodward Professor of History at Yale University and author of various books on science and society, including "The Physicists: The History of a Scientific Community in Modern America." He will speak on "Scientists, Weapons, and the State: The Twentieth Century."

"It's not hard to find partisan history and perspective on Oppenheimer's life, but there is a real gap in the availability of reliable and reputable information," she said. "We can do a real service by giving information and context."

Two library exhibits are scheduled to open on April 22, Oppenheimer's birthday. One, in the Bancroft Library's Exhibition Gallery, will explore the first century of physics at UC Berkeley, beginning with the founding of the physics department in 1868 by the new university's first faculty hire and future UC president, John LeConte. The second exhibit, in the Bernice Layne Brown Gallery of Doe Library, will document 20th century physics in books, journals and photographs drawn from the collections of the University Libraries and the Department of Physics.

Carson and exhibit organizers David Farrell, Eric Vettel and Diane Fortner are working with recent UC Berkeley graduate Alex Wellerstein to insure that materials from the exhibits and the two-day conference will find a permanent place on the Web.

Oppenheimer's significance in the history of American physics rests on more than his role in the Manhattan Project. When he came to UC Berkeley in 1929 at the age of 25, theoretical physics in the United States was essentially non-existent.

"Theorists were largely calculators, handmaidens to the experimentalists who dominated physics departments in the United States until the 1940s," said Carson, who specializes in 20th century German physics, in particular the history of quantum mechanics.

"Oppenheimer built up the role of theoretical physics in this country, turning Berkeley into the nation's first center of theoretical physics, a place where good American students could get a grounding in theory that rivaled any in Europe," Carson said. Oppenheimer had spent two years in Göttingen, Germany, learning the new theories of quantum mechanics and relativity from Max Born and a coterie of the world's top physicists. He returned to the United States in 1927 with a freshly minted Ph.D. and took a fellowship at the California Institute of Technology, with which he maintained a connection after joining UC Berkeley's physics department in 1929.

"He really had a big impact on Berkeley and Caltech from the standpoint of theoretical physics," said theoretician Marvin Cohen, University Professor of Physics at UC Berkeley. "He was very smart, very fast, very competitive, and he brought this teaching of quantum mechanics, which has been so central to the development of physics since the 1920s. Students clustered around him to learn the details of these new theories."

When he first arrived, "Oppie," as he was called by his students, considered UC Berkeley a "desert," but he quickly built a strong theoretical physics center, working closely with experimentalist par excellence Ernest O. Lawrence, who later won a Nobel Prize for his invention of the cyclotron, or atom smasher. The recruitment of the two rising stars was due largely to Raymond Birge, who was essentially the only UC physicist up to that time to have an international reputation for his work. For a while, Birge's work centered around a precise spectroscopic measurement of Planck's constant, which plays a central role in the theory of quantum mechanics.

Oppenheimer's publications are sparse, and to laypeople he is known primarily for calculations of condensed states of matter so dense they collapse onto themselves, creating what are now known as neutron stars and black holes. Yet, he also published with Born a way to simplify quantum mechanical calculations involving molecules, a method known and used today as the Born-Oppenheimer approximation, and he made essential contributions to the quantum theory of fields.

He worked closely with students, however, so that "much of his work is indistinguishable from that of his students," Carson said. "He didn't publish a lot, but he often helped on projects without insisting on credit in the publication."

Oppenheimer's bohemian ways and flirtation with communist groups in the Bay Area set the stage for his later fall. Despite FBI concerns about his loyalty, the U.S. Army chose him to head the Manhattan Engineer District project in 1942, and he set out immediately to recruit the best physicists, chemists and mathematicians in the nation. He even proposed a site for the secret lab that was to build an atomic bomb - the top of a mesa then occupied by a private boys school called Los Alamos Ranch School, not far from Santa Fe.

The group's success in achieving a nuclear explosion on July 16, 1945, was a tribute to Oppenheimer's organizational abilities, inspiring leadership and choice of scientists. By August, the United States had dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan had surrendered, and the war was over. Los Alamos scientists began trickling home, and Oppenheimer resigned his post in October of 1945.

One of the big questions, Carson said, is why Oppenheimer decided not to stay at UC Berkeley. Despite offers of a doubled salary and the importuning of Lawrence and Birge, in 1947 he took the role of director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. Though Albert Einstein was the institute's most famous resident, he was largely inactive, and at the time the place was a bit of a backwater, said Vettel.

Oppenheimer evidently felt unwanted, remarking that UC President Robert Gordon Sproul didn't want him to return because of his "difficult temperament and poor judgement," according to one of Sproul's memos. Sproul denied this. Robert Underhill, the UC manager who oversaw the Los Alamos lab during the war and one of the few UC administrators privy to the bomb work, also made life difficult for Oppenheimer. And, said Vettel, Oppenheimer's relationship with Lawrence had become strained, as had his relations with others in the UC Berkeley physics department.

According to Carson, Birge said that his inability to keep Oppenheimer was "the greatest failure of my life."

It was only later, in 1953, that Oppenheimer was accused of consorting with Communists and, as an indication of his disloyalty, opposing the building of an even more powerful bomb, the hydrogen bomb. After hearings that dredged up episodes from his UC Berkeley years, his security clearance was canceled, and his contract as an advisor to the Atomic Energy Commission was severed. Though he died in 1967 of throat cancer - he was a constant smoker - he is still viewed internationally as a tragic victim of a witch hunt.

Despite his apparently ambivalent feelings toward UC Berkeley, Oppenheimer left a significant legacy.

"By the end of World War II, UC Berkeley was a center for theoretical and experimental physics," said Vettel.

"The fact that Oppenheimer was here attracted other people who wanted to be around him, though they were a bit afraid of him," Cohen added. "He was a star."