Countdown to The Cold War: J. Robert Oppenheimer

Trinity Explosion
Trinity Explosion

On this date in 1904, Julius Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York. Forty years later, he became the head of the secret nuclear weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and, therefore, also became instrumental in the countdown to The Cold War.

We’ve written about Oppenheimer before, and we’ve visited Los Alamos a few times to walk in his footsteps. Here, we talk about a few areas of Oppenheimer’s work and life that we haven’t discussed much before.

Oppenheimer skipped the basic college physics classes and leaped into graduate work at Harvard University. It took him only three years to graduate summa cum laude.

Oppenheimer and Groves at Trinity Site (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
Oppenheimer and Groves at Trinity Site (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Robert is the Oppenheimer half of the Born-Oppenheimer approximation that, on the atomic level, the vibrational motion of nuclei can be separated from the rotational motion of electrons. Max Born is the other physicist in the discovery of this equation, and Born won the Nobel Prize in 1954 for his work in quantum mechanics.

Robert is also the Oppenheimer of the Oppenheimer-Phillips process that allows for a specific type of nuclear reaction to occur at lower energies than expected. Deuteron is a hydrogen isotope with one proton and one neutron. In the Oppenheimer-Phillips process, the neutron of this isotope fuses with a nucleus in a target to make a heavier target isotope with a discharged proton.

Melba Phillips, a native of Indiana, is the other half of the name of this process and was Oppenheimer’s student. Later, she refused to testify during the McCarthy-driven investigations of communists and lost her academic position. She did go back to teaching several years later, at Washington University in St. Louis and at the University of Chicago.

Oppenheimer took up with a married woman named Kitty Harrison. They married in 1940, after she got a quickie divorce in Reno, and they had two children within a few years.

Doug with Oppenheimer & Leslie Groves
Doug with Oppenheimer & Leslie Groves

It’s unclear whether he also continued or rekindled his affair with Jean Tatlock after he married Kitty, though there’s consensus that Oppenheimer and Tatlock spent the night together once. Tatlock committed suicide in January 1944. Oppenheimer’s association with her and her leftwing friends was brought up during his security hearing in front of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1954, which stripped him of his government security clearance.

Most people assume that Oppenheimer, at the moment of the first successful nuclear weapons test, Trinity, quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” He did claim, later, that he’d thought of that quote at the time of the explosion and also of another from the same text: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.” But it’s tough to find reliable evidence that he said either at the time.

Welcome to Los Alamos Today
Welcome to Los Alamos Today

To look at photos of Oppenheimer, anyone can see that he was extraordinarily thin. He stood roughly six feet tall and was often smoking. He likely never took very good care of his health. He first spent time in the New Mexico desert, in fact, not when he joined the Manhattan Project there but, rather, when he suffered a bout of colitis before college and went to New Mexico to recover. Oppenheimer’s adoration of the Southwest from that early experience influenced the Manhattan Project’s location later.

Oppenheimer was treated for throat cancer in 1965, but he never fully recovered. Undoubtedly, his smoking habit was a likely factor in the development of his cancer, and smoking plus exposure to radioactive materials couldn’t have done his health much good. He died on February 18, 1967, at the age of 62. His wife Kitty is said to have taken the ashes in an urn and dropped it into the ocean off the Virgin Islands, where they owned property and a small home.

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