Today Universal releases the highly anticipated biopic “Oppenheimer,” directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer, the film delves into the life of the father of the atom bomb. Watch the trailer here.
Nolan’s film is based on the captivating biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. If you’re interested, you can read a review of the book here. While the film doesn’t focus on Oppenheimer’s early career, it’s worth revisiting “The Absent-Minded Professor” (1961) to explore his brilliant and eccentric academic beginnings. Cinema has the power to transport us to the heroic battles of the 1940s and the intellectual pursuits of scientific discovery.
Oppenheimer’s life raises important questions about the use of power that still resonate today. His scientific advancements deserve a closer examination.
Early Life and Career
J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) was born in New York to secular Jewish parents. Despite facing health challenges, he graduated from Harvard University in just three years, majoring in chemistry and studying physics as well.
After studying in Cambridge and Göttingen, Oppenheimer obtained his doctorate at the age of 23. He joined the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology. Before starting his teaching career, Oppenheimer battled tuberculosis and spent time recovering in New Mexico with his brother.
Oppenheimer’s research spanned various fields, including particle physics, quantum mechanics, and astronomy. He even delved into ancient Sanskrit and studied Hindu scripture. His academic career was not without controversy, as he faced scrutiny due to his personal relationships and political affiliations.
The scientific drama began in Berlin with groundbreaking laboratory experiments. Researchers discovered nuclear fission, the splitting of atomic nuclei, which led to the development of atomic bombs. This discovery was shared with Lise Meitner, who had fled Nazi Germany. Together, they published their findings in Nature in 1939.
With the possibility of German atomic bomb development, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves worked together to establish a remote laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Oppenheimer’s role as the laboratory director was crucial in recruiting top scientists and overseeing the development of atomic bombs. However, the project was not without its controversies, as it was infiltrated by Soviet spies.
The Manhattan Project faced significant challenges in producing fissile isotopes for nuclear chain reactions. Techniques for isotope separation and enrichment were explored, and facilities were established across the country. Uranium enrichment and plutonium synthesis accounted for the majority of the project’s cost.
Fission Bomb Design
Designing an atomic bomb was a monumental challenge for Oppenheimer’s team. They had to understand and harness the fission process based on limited experimental data. Oppenheimer’s ability to comprehend and collaborate with specialists was instrumental in overcoming obstacles.
The design involved compressing a subcritical quantity of plutonium using shock waves, leading to a self-sustaining chain reaction. The bomb’s components resembled a matryoshka doll, with overlapping shock waves driving the compression.
Testing the ‘Trinity’
The first atomic bomb test, codenamed ”Trinity,” took place in a remote location in New Mexico. The success of the test left Oppenheimer elated but also contemplative. He famously quoted a verse from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Post-War Activity and Controversy
After World War II, Oppenheimer continued his work in academia and became the director of the Institute for Advanced Physics at Princeton. However, his security clearance was revoked due to concerns about his associations and political affiliations.
The atomic age also brought about the rise of new technological adversaries, such as China’s missile program. The suspicions and controversies surrounding Oppenheimer’s colleagues and family members affected many decisions during this period.
Twilight and Legacy
In his later years, Oppenheimer focused on nuclear energy regulation and the intersection of science and society. He passed away from cancer, leaving behind a complex legacy. His son Peter resides in New Mexico, while his daughter Toni tragically passed away.
The atomic age has forever changed humanity’s perception of nuclear energy. While it holds great promise, its destructive potential looms over us. Christopher Nolan’s film reminds us of Oppenheimer’s extraordinary life and the profound impact of controlling the atomic nucleus.
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