J. Robert Oppenheimer, renowned for his leadership in developing the atomic bomb, led a fascinating life beyond the laboratory. Here are eight captivating stories from his biography, “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.
Oppenheimer’s intellectual curiosity extended beyond physics, and in 1939, he co-wrote a paper predicting the existence of black holes. Though initially overlooked, physicists later recognized his foresight.
Despite his brilliance, Oppenheimer’s emotional immaturity and political naivety led to conflicts. In a disagreement with Albert Einstein during the McCarthy Red Scare, Einstein called him a “fool.” Oppenheimer’s decision to stay and fight against security clearance revocation marked a losing battle.
During his doctoral studies at Cambridge, Oppenheimer faced intense jealousy and depression. Allegedly, he considered poisoning his professor, Patrick Blackett, but there’s no concrete evidence of this incident.
After the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer expressed concerns about future nuclear wars to President Truman. Truman dismissed him, leading to a heated exchange, with Truman later branding Oppenheimer a “crybaby scientist.”
Oppenheimer’s captivating lectures and rhetorical skill earned him a devoted following among students known as the “nim nim boys,” imitating his style. He was also a multilingual scholar, proficient in six languages, including ancient Sanskrit.
At age 12, Oppenheimer, mistaken for a professional geologist, delivered a lecture at the New York Mineralogy Club. His early fascination with crystals and scientific curiosity set the stage for his remarkable career.
Code-naming the first atomic bomb test “Trinity” in honor of his deceased mistress, Jean Tatlock, revealed the personal complexities in Oppenheimer’s life. Tatlock, a communist sympathizer, introduced him to John Donne’s poetry.
Oppenheimer’s affair with Tatlock was exposed during a 1954 security hearing, contributing to the revocation of his security clearance and marking him as a prominent victim of McCarthyism. His life outside the lab reflects the intricate interplay between intellect, emotion, and societal challenges.