Christopher Nolan’s latest movie ‘Oppenheimer’ has garnered much critical acclaim since its release. Known for his complex yet engaging and thought-provoking storytelling, his new film focuses on the tumultuous life of Robert J. Oppenheimer, widely remembered as the “Father of the Atomic Bomb”.

The essence of the film can be captured rightly in Nolan’s words, “Like it or not, J. Robert Oppenheimer is the most important person who ever lived. He made the world we live in, for better or for worse”. The film is based on the novel ‘American Prometheus- The triumph and Tragedy of J. Oppenheimer’ by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin and the movie is estimated to have collected $150 million on its debut day. 

Early life and Education 

Robert Julius Oppenheimer was born on the 22nd of April, 1904 to Julius Oppenheimer and Ella Friedman in New York. His father, Julius Oppenheimer was a wealthy textile importer, and his mother Ella Friedman, was a renowned painter and teacher. He hailed from a privileged and intellectual background and most of his political ideologies could be traced to the progressive education he received at the Ethical Cultural School. In 1921 he graduated from Ethical Cultural School and joined Harvard College at the age of 18. He studied mathematics and science, philosophy and Eastern religion, French and English literature at Harvard. He was admitted to a graduate standing program in Physics in his first year as an undergraduate. It is then during the course on thermodynamics by Percy Bridgman the Higgins University Professor of Physics at Harvard that Oppenheimer was introduced to experimental physics, which caught his attention. Young J. Robert OppenheimerIn 1925, Oppenheimer graduated from Harvard with a Bachelor of Arts, summa cum laude. He then joined the Cavendish laboratory at Christ College, Cambridge as a research assistant under J.J. Thompson. He considered laboratory work to be boring and was at-odds with his tutor Patrick Blackett. It is believed that Oppenheimer even confessed about leaving an apple injected with harmful chemicals at Blackett’s desk to his friend, Francis Fergusson. According to the book, Oppenheimer’s friend Jeffries Wyman believes Oppenheimer exaggerated the incident: “Whether or not this was an imaginary apple, or a real apple, whatever it was, it was an act of jealousy”. In 1926, Oppenheimer left Cambridge to join the University of Gottingen to study under Max Born. He obtained his Doctorate degree in March 1927 under the guidance of Born. In 1929, he received offers to teach both at Caltech and the University of California. He accepted both the offers and juggled his time between both the universities to teach budding physicists.  

Matters of the Heart: Love Interests, Relationships, and Marriage in Oppenheimer’s Life 

Oppenheimer was involved in a turbulent relationship with Jean Tatlock, who wrote for the Western Worker, a Communist Party newspaper.

Jean Tatlock
Jean Tatlock

Due to his relationship with Tatlock, his security clearance was revoked, his mail was monitored, phone was tapped, office was wired and even his driver and personal bodyguard was an intelligence officer. The two broke up in 1939 and in August the same year he met Katherine Puening who later went on to become his wife.

kathrine oppenheimer
Kathrine Oppenheimer

His wife has been described as an alcoholic and an extremely unhappy woman. Heiko Vissering, a distant cousin of Kitty’s who lived in Bremen, Germany, was a child when Kitty died in 1972 but has long been intrigued with his famous relative. ‘She was an unusual woman married to an unusual man during an unusual time,’ he told the Mail. They had two children – Peter and Toni. While he was still married to Katherine, he rekindled his affair with Jean Tatlock. Tatlock died of suicide on the 4th of January 1944 of depression which deeply grieved Oppenheimer. 

From Theory to Reality: Witnessing the Birth of Destruction

World War II turned a new leaf in Oppenheimer’s life. He was appointed to the Manhattan Project, which was the codename for the project designed to develop the atomic bomb. This project involved many secret laboratories being set up at many secret locations across the country. These secret locations included- the University of Chicago, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Los Alamos, New Mexico. Oppenheimer looked over the activities of the Los Alamos laboratory and because of his scientific rigor and leadership skills he is remembered as the “Father of the Atomic Bomb”. 

manhattan project
Manhattan Project 1945

On July 16th 1945, the world’s first nuclear explosion was carried out in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The site was given the codename ‘Trinity’ by Oppenheimer. The scientists and engineers who had poured their heart and soul into its development were confronted with the harsh reality of what they had created. At that moment, the words of Robert Oppenheimer, the project’s director, echoed through their minds –

Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds

Oppenheimer basked in glory after the bombing of Hiroshima when the newspapers and TV channels praised the secret mission. The crowd at Los Alamos, saw him as a prized fighter and applauded him over his victory. Oppenheimer’s regret was not that thousands of people died in the bombing but instead that they should’ve created this bomb against the Germans much earlier. It was only after the bombing at Nagasaki, three days later that Oppenheimer started to feel deep remorse and regret. He thought that the bombing at Nagasaki was not at all required and was unnecessary. There were between 129,000 and 226,000 fatalities, and most of them were civilians, and unreported numbers of dreadful injuries. Though Oppenheimer had been joyful on the test day, once the news of the casualties started to spread, he became depressed. He said, “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands,” when he saw President Harry Truman in the Oval Office. 

Post War Life and Controversies

After the war, the US government set up the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to replace the Manhattan Project. The responsibility of the AEC was to overlook all the atomic research and development in the country. As the chairman of the General Advisory Committee, Oppenheimer stood against the development of the Hydrogen bomb. Also known as the “Super bomb” it was thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer had a realization that the hydrogen bomb would threaten the life of many more innocent people and would cause widespread destruction and devastation. 

It is perfectly obvious that the whole world is going to hell. The only possible chance that it might not is that we do not attempt to prevent it from doing so.

In the environment of the Cold War, where both the United States and Germany were rallying for power, Oppenheimer’s stance was considered to be controversial. He was thought of having ties with the Communist Party and due to this reason his security clearance was revoked and he lost his position at AEC. The after events of the bombings present the ethical dilemmas that the scientists faced with their creation. As described in the book they wanted to, “return the atomic genie to the bottle.” On August 30th 1945, the Association of Los Alamos Scientists was formed by over 500 scientists who wrote a strong statement against the dangers of an arms race, the impossibility of defense against atomic weapons and the need for international arms control. Though Oppenheimer was treated harshly by the McCarthy government during the period of the Cold War, the US government later made many amends for it. He was invited to the White house dinner for the Nobel Prize winner by John F. Kennedy. He also won the Fermi Award, which is the highest honor given by AEC by president Johnson. Commenting on the sad plight of Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein commented on the eve of AEC security, 

The trouble with Oppenheimer is that he loves a woman who doesn’t love him back – the United States government.

According to several reports Oppenheimer was also offered citizenship by the then Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru when he faced humiliation over his controversial stance on atomic bombs, but he humbly rejected it.  nehru and oppenheimer

Oppenheimer’s Legacy: Shaping Modern Science and the Ensuing Policy Debates

Oppenheimer’s lasting legacy lies in being the brainchild behind the highly destructive atomic bomb. This poses a central question on the ethical dilemmas faced by scientists and the various policy and safety issues that are attached to their work and their new creations. Though, by developing the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer left his indelible mark on history but it raised a lot of debates surrounding atomic weapons, use of arms and wider scientific achievements. Even after his removal from government positions due to alleged communist ties, Oppenheimer’s intellectual contributions continued to shape scientific research and policy decisions concerning nuclear weapons. Today, Oppenheimer’s legacy remains as a reminder of the paramount importance of considering the ethical and societal implications of scientific progress.

To the outside world, he was always known as a German Jew, and he always insisted that he was neither German nor Jewish,” Ray Monk, the author of Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “But it affected his relationship with the world, that  is how he was perceived.