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J. Robert Oppenheimer: Unraveling the True Story Behind the Man

After months of building anticipation, writer-director Christopher Nolan’s new movie Oppenheimer arrived in theaters Friday, kickstarting an opening weekend where it’s expected to collect around $50 million at the domestic box office.

The three-hour (and nine second) biopic centers, as its title suggests, on J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy), the theoretical physicist widely known as the “father of the atomic bomb” who infamously summed up his life’s work in a 1965 NBC News documentary by reciting a line from the sacred Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Oppenheimer’s early life

Oppenheimer’s childhood doesn’t play out on screen in the movie, but his upbringing contributed to views he espouses throughout the film. He was born in 1904 into a wealthy secular Jewish family in New York City and educated at Manhattan’s Ethical Culture School, graduating in 1921. Although his parents were first- and second-generation Americans of German-Jewish descent, Oppenheimer refrained from embracing his heritage for much of his life.

“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 that is how he was perceived.”

How did the Manhattan Project come about?

Following the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, renowned scientists including Albert Einstein (yes, that Einstein) warned U.S. officials of the grave danger should the Nazis be the first to create a then-theoretical nuclear bomb.

Enter Oppenheimer: The U.S. Army marshaled American and British physicists to figure out how nuclear energy could be distilled into unparalleled military force. The code name for the effort was the Manhattan Project, and Oppenheimer was chosen as administrator. He oversaw several covert labs, and famously constructed one in the middle-of-nowhere desert plateau of Los Alamos, New Mexico.

The battle over the bomb

In the years immediately following the war, public opinion about the use of the atomic bomb hadn’t yet solidified. The first time Oppenheimer appeared on the big screen was in August 1946, when he starred in the 18-minute documentary “Atomic Power,” which was part of Time’s “The March of Time” series. Onscreen, Oppenheimer (one of several figures who participated in the film, including Einstein, Groves and Rabi) re-enacts waiting anxiously for the detonation at Trinity with Rabi, who gives a stilted performance as he reassures his boss, “It’s going to work all right, Robert. And I’m sure we’ll never be sorry for it.”

What was the Trinity Test?

The Trinity test is the code name for the first detonation of a nuclear weapon in 1945 at a site south of Los Alamos. The nuclear weapon detonated for the Trinity Test was named “Gadget” and was a plutonium device, similar to the “Fat Man” bomb detonated over Nagasaki. There were many setbacks in preparing for the Trinity Test detonations, including concerns about the test bomb effects on the environment around the detonation site.

How similar will ‘Oppenheimer’ be to the real story?

We aren’t sure how similar Nolan will choose to make Oppenheimer, but we’re fairly confident a lot of realistic details will be added on because of Nolan’s inspiration from the biography itself. We’ll just have to see how close Oppenheimer is to the real thing, bombs and all.

The kind of person that I admire most would be one who becomes extraordinarily good at doing a lot of things but still maintains a tear-stained countenance – Oppenheimer

He returned to England in lighter spirits, feeling “much kinder and more tolerant”, as he later recalled. Early in 1926, he met the director of the Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of Göttingen in Germany, who quickly became convinced of Oppenheimer’s talents as a theoretician, inviting him to study there. According to Smith and Weiner, he later described 1926 as the year of his “coming into physics”. It would prove a turning point. He obtained his PhD and a postdoctoral fellowship in the year to follow. He also became part of a community that was driving the development of theoretical physics, meeting scientists who would become life-long friends. Many would ultimately join Oppenheimer at Los Alamos.

Returning to the US, Oppenheimer spent a few months at Harvard before moving to pursue his physics career in California. The tone of his letters from this period reflect a steadier, more generous cast of mind. He wrote to his younger brother about romance, and his ongoing interest in the arts.

At the University of California in Berkeley, he worked closely with experimentalists, interpreting their results on cosmic rays and nuclear disintegration. He later described finding himself “the only one who understood what this was all about”. The department he eventually created stemmed, he said, from the need to communicate about the theory he loved: “Explaining first to faculty, staff, and colleagues and then to anyone who would listen … what had been learned, what the unsolved problems were.” He described himself as a “difficult” teacher at first but it was through this role that Oppenheimer honed the charisma and social presence that would carry him during his time at Project Y. Quoted by Smith and Weiner, one colleague recalled how his students “emulated him as best they could. They copied his gestures, his mannerisms, his intonations. He truly influenced their lives.”

How did Oppenheimer die?

Oppenheimer died rather early in life, from throat cancer, at the age of 62. He passed on February 18, 1967, in Princeton, New Jersey. But he had been, at least, vindicated in some ways by the U.S. government following his Cold War persecution. In 1963, President Johnson awarded the physicist the highest honor of the AEC, called the Fermi Award, honoring the most formidable scientists for lifetime achievement in utilization of energy. And no one will seriously talk about nuclear bombs, or watch Oppenheimer, without at least briefly flashing to his momentous life and career.



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