J. Robert Oppenheimer: Father of the Atomic Bomb - Is He a Villain?

J. Robert Oppenheimer's enigmatic legacy, the brilliant creator of the nuclear boom. Uncover the shadows of history and moral quandaries that haunt his story. Hero or villain? The truth awaits.

Jul 24, 2023 - 05:06
Jul 24, 2023 - 14:08
J. Robert Oppenheimer: Father of the Atomic Bomb - Is He a Villain?

"Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." - Oppenheimer

On the 16th of July 1945, around 5:30 in the morning, an unprecedented explosion rocked the desert of America's state, New Mexico. This was no ordinary bomb blast; it marked the first-ever test of a nuclear bomb. Codenamed Trinity, this nuclear experiment was the brainchild of the renowned scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Albert Einstein, a prominent scientist and one of the pioneers of the theory of relativity, was deeply connected to the development of the atomic bomb. Alongside Leo Szilard, Einstein sent a letter to President Roosevelt, urging him to take action against Hitler's potential nuclear ambitions. This letter initiated the Manhattan Project, and Einstein's work laid the groundwork for the development of nuclear weapons.

Oppenheimer stood in awe as the bomb detonated, but the magnitude of the explosion took him by surprise. He had estimated the blast to be around 0.3 kilotons of TNT, but in reality, it was 50 times more powerful, equivalent to 15-20 kilotons of TNT. The intense heat of the blast caused a steel tower to evaporate, and the shockwave traveled over a distance of 160 km. A mushroom cloud soared 12 km into the sky.  Upon seeing all this, Oppenheimer was so shocked that he uttered a line: "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds."

What was his story? How did he develop the nuclear bomb? Was Oppenheimer a hero or a villain? And how did he feel when millions of people lost their lives because of his creation? Let's find out...

Early Life and Academic Brilliance

J. Robert Oppenheimer (Left) And His Brother Frank Oppenheimer (Right)

Julius Robert Oppenheimer, born in 1904 to a German Jewish family in New York City, displayed genius from an early age. He was studying high-level physics and chemistry at the age of only 10. And he was very knowledgeable about mineralogy - about the property of minerals. He was so knowledgeable that at the age of 12, he was invited to give a lecture at New York's Mineralogical Club. Pursuing his passion, Oppenheimer earned his Ph.D. at the age of 23 and later became a professor, specializing in theoretical physics. But there was a dark side hidden behind this genius. His friends said that Oppenheimer had self-destructive tendencies. He was a chain smoker and was suffering through depression. One day, he told his brother, "I need physics more than friends." He was focused only on his studies and remained unaware of what was happening in the world around him.


Awakening to Political Awareness & The Birth of the Manhattan Project

Oppenheimer's political awakening began in the early 1930s with the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany. Because of Hitler's tyranny, many German scientists were fleeing from Germany to America. There were many big names on this list like Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, Leo Szilard, Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, and Enrico Fermi. All these scientists were mainly German-Jewish, and because Oppenheimer himself came from a German-Jewish family, witnessing the plight of German-Jewish scientists fleeing persecution, Oppenheimer's interest in politics grew. He attended political meetings, supported labor unions, and became a vocal advocate for societal change.

When World War II began in 1939, the scientific community became aware of Hitler's potential nuclear weapon ambitions. A group of scientists, including Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard, sent a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, warning of the looming nuclear threat. Consequently, a was established, the American President formed an advisory committee to research uranium's potential for weapons. Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard were funded to study nuclear chain reactions and uranium isotope separation. Only uranium-235 could be used for bombs, but it was scarce compared to uranium-238. The project became the Manhattan Project, aimed at researching and developing nuclear weaponry. But the scientists working on this project were told not to tell Albert Einstein anything because the American government was afraid that Albert Einstein's ideology was very left-wing, and it could have been a potential security risk.

Oppenheimer was doing his independent research on nuclear fission with Edward Teller and other scientists. December 1940, apart from the Uranium-235 isotope, another radioactive element was discovered, which scientists believe could also be used to make nuclear weapons.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the focus shifted from scientific research to a military mission. The Manhattan Project officially started on August 13, 1942, with Colonel Leslie Richard Groves as its head and Oppenheimer as the leader for designing the atomic bomb. Oak Ridge, Tennessee, became the secret location for the project, where scientists aimed to create Uranium-235 from Uranium-238. The project cost $2.2 billion, and the Army Corps of Engineers played a crucial role in its development.

During the development of the atomic bomb, America worked on two types of bombs: Little Boy and Fat Man. Little Boy was based on Uranium-235 and used a gun-type design, where sub-critical masses of Uranium-235 were rapidly combined to reach the critical mass, resulting in a fission chain reaction and explosion. On the other hand, Fat Man utilized Plutonium-239, but it couldn't be designed as a gun-type bomb due to the risk of a premature reaction. Instead, scientists used the implosion method, where a sub-critical mass of plutonium was placed inside a hollow sphere. Explosives were used to create an implosion, increasing pressure and density, allowing the plutonium to reach the critical mass and causing a powerful explosion. The implosion method was a significant breakthrough in the design of plutonium bombs.

Oppenheimer believed that it was necessary to test it out before actually putting it in the bomb. General Groves said that they can't test such things because they had produced only a small amount of plutonium. But Oppenheimer was adamant that the test was necessary. So General Groves had to finally agree. And then, the Trinity Test was conducted.

First Nuclear Test

Appointed as the leader of Project Y, Oppenheimer played a pivotal role in selecting a remote location for the project, which eventually led to the Trinity Test. In the desert of New Mexico, a test nuclear bomb was dropped. This test bomb was called Gadget. It contained 13 pounds of plutonium. Scientists hung Gadget 100 ft in the air using a steel tower. And on 16th July 1945, at 5.30 am, this bomb was detonated. The successful detonation of the Gadget bomb marked the realization of a human-made nuclear chain reaction, confirming the feasibility of an atomic bomb. As I told you, this bomb was much more powerful than Oppenheimer expected. The steel tower completely evaporated. After the bomb blast, a mildly radioactive green-colored glass was formed, which was named Trinitite.

Shortly after the Trinity test, the atomic bombs, Little Boy and Fat Man, were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. Albert Einstein expressed sadness upon hearing the news, and he famously remarked, "Mankind invented the atomic bomb, but no mouse would ever construct a mousetrap."

Initially, Oppenheimer was content with the bomb's use against Japan and even expressed the hope that it could have been employed against Nazi Germany. However, witnessing the devastating impact of the bomb on Nagasaki left him shocked and remorseful. He went to Washington to deliver a letter expressing his desire to ban nuclear weapons, as he was concerned about the future consequences of this technology in the hands of various countries.

 In the meantime, in April 1945, American President Roosevelt passed away in April 1945, and Harry Truman became the new President. Two months after the Nagasaki bombing, Oppenheimer met with President Truman and candidly admitted, "I have blood on my hands." Truman was furious upon hearing this and yelled at Oppenheimer, instructing his secretary to remove him from the office and never allow him back.

Despite the confrontation with Truman, Oppenheimer continued to work with the US Atomic Energy Commission to advocate for nuclear disarmament and establish control over nuclear weapons, seeking to prevent future nuclear attacks. 


The Hydrogen Bomb and Oppenheimer's Downfall

Frist Hydrogen Bomb

Following the war, the United States continued its nuclear development with the hydrogen bomb, a far more powerful and devastating weapon than the atomic bomb. In 1949, when President Truman approached the commission with the idea of making a hydrogen bomb, Oppenheimer strongly opposed it. But Edward Teller, known as the Father of the Hydrogen Bomb, played a significant role in its creation. However, Oppenheimer opposed its development, citing its potential to escalate the arms race and pose a grave threat to humanity. But this opposition was of no use because America developed a hydrogen bomb later and also conducted tests in 1952.

Due to his left-wing associations and opposition to the hydrogen bomb, Oppenheimer faced political scrutiny, and his security clearance was revoked. His academic career remained intact, but he no longer held the same influential positions he once had. Even though he was nominated for the Nobel Prize thrice, he could not win even once. In 1965, due to throat cancer, Oppenheimer died at the age of 62, which was not surprising as he was a terrible chain smoker throughout his life.


Global Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

The creation of the atomic bomb paved the way for the nuclear age. Today, nine countries possess nuclear weapons: India, Pakistan, China, the USA, France, the UK, Israel, Russia, and North Korea. The possession of such destructive capabilities has sparked international concerns over nuclear proliferation, disarmament, and the prevention of nuclear warfare.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, faced a lifetime of dilemmas and ethical challenges. His brilliance in scientific research and leadership in the Manhattan Project shaped the course of history, forever changing the world. The legacy of the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb continues to shape global politics and ethical debates over the use of nuclear weapons. Oppenheimer's story serves as a reminder of the immense responsibility scientists carry in shaping the fate of humanity and the need for vigilance in addressing the consequences of their discoveries. Albert Einstein's role in the development of nuclear weapons further underscores the complex ethical considerations surrounding scientific advancements. The world today continues to grapple with the implications of nuclear technology and the delicate balance between progress and preservation.

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Sakib I am Sajedul Islam Sakib from Bangladesh. Currently I am a student at software engineer but also I like reading and learning new things, especially about Blogging and Education.