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The Pow Wow

The School News Site of Bonner Springs High School

The Pow Wow

Jaylon Thompson’s article on Yahoo Sports
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J. Robert Oppenheimer: An Editorial of the Man Behind the Movie

You’ve probably heard of the movie, but have you heard of the man himself? Maggie Heath is here to shed some light on the father of the atomic bomb.
J.+Robert+Oppenheimer+%28left%29+Cillian+Murphy+as+Oppenheimer+%28right%29%0ACredited+Atomic+Archive+and+Universal+Pictures%2C+respectively
J. Robert Oppenheimer (left) Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer (right) Credited Atomic Archive and Universal Pictures, respectively

Today marks the day that President Truman signed approval for the construction of Los Alamos 82 years ago, and I wanted to pull out all the stops since this is my one chance to write an article on the man who inspires me more than anyone else.  I personally think that Oppenheimer is the best movie I have ever seen (twice now), and I’m here to put the spotlight on the man behind the cinematographic masterpiece Christopher Nolan created.  This is the story behind Oppenheimer.  The man who helped bring quantum physics to America, led the Manhattan Project, created the Atomic Bomb, and lived in constant conflict.

 

(Spoilers ahead, if you haven’t watched the movie and don’t want the history that follows the plot, don’t keep reading!)

 

First of all, let me give you some context.  Julius Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York in 1904, to an artist and a textile importer who were both very successful.  After skipping half of 8th grade and studying French, English, and mineralogy, he became fascinated by chemistry his senior year.  After graduating high school, he was delayed for a year in continuing his studies due to an attack of colitis, recovering at his family ranch in New Mexico. 

He began studying at Harvard in 1922, majoring in chemistry and joining an accelerated program almost immediately.  He took 6 courses at a time to make up for the time loss, being granted graduate standing on a basis of independent study which allowed him to take much more advanced courses in physics.  After taking a course on thermodynamics, he pursued experimental physics after graduating 3 years later.  He then went on to study at Christ’s College, in Cambridge in 1924.  Oppenheimer was very unhappy during this time, stating that the lab work was such a “terrible bore” and that he felt he was “So bad at it that it is impossible to feel as though I am learning anything.”.  During this time he also developed an antagonistic relationship between him and his professor, Patrick Blackett.  This toiled on for quite some time, escalating to the point that Oppenheimer once confessed to leaving an apple injected with poison on his desk. No one was hurt, and no charges were pressed.

Soon after he left for the University of Gottingen in Germany, studying under Max Born and co-writing a paper on the Born-Oppenheimer approximation.  Oppenheimer wrote about a dozen papers whilst in Europe, making friends in his classes and participating so enthusiastically that his peers signed a petition to shut him up.  He had a tendency to overtake discussions with a vigor that often left everyone disrupted.  The paper was left on Born’s desk for a time and was effective without a single word.

 

Oppenheimer went on to give lectures at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, giving lectures in Dutch despite beginning to learn it only a few months prior.  He was lovingly nicknamed “Opje” by his peers, later becoming “Oppie” when he came back to America.

After Oppenheimer returned to Berkeley to teach what he’d learned in Germany and England, he was taken onto the Manhattan Project by General Leslie Groves despite his security background and warnings from the government.  He led a project in the middle of nowhere (Los Alamos) that successfully created the first atomic weaponry the world had ever seen in only 28 months. During this time he worked frantically, completely immersed in his directive day and night. As Victor Weisskopf put it,  “Oppenheimer directed these studies, theoretical and experimental, in the real sense of the words. Here his uncanny speed in grasping the main points of any subject was a decisive factor; he could acquaint himself with the essential details of every part of the work.”

After everything he accomplished and gave this country, he faded to quiet irrelevance as he stepped down from the program because of the intense moral conflict he was left with for the rest of his life.  He went back to teach at Berkeley briefly before expressing that his heart was no longer in teaching, moving on to lead the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton New Jersey at the request of Lewis Strauss.

He became an activist against nuclear weaponry, and spent his remaining days influencing the scientific community heavily, despite all the controversy and his security clearance being denied.  He met with Einstein several times, went up against Lewis Strauss (A MAJOR influencer of science and research at the time, and the man who was instrumental in Robert’s downfall. Oppenheimer had disgraced him at a GAC conference and Strauss never forgave him for it), and spoke his mind about what he believed.  His security clearance was revoked during the Red Scare, effectively ending his career in atomic engineering.  The security council claimed that this was due to his former Communist ties, and due to his recklessness and unpredictable behavior, going two to one.

He died of throat cancer at age 62 in 1967, due to his chain-smoking tendencies.  He was cremated, and his wife, Kitty, spread the ashes into the ocean near their St. John beach house.  His funeral was attended by over 600 friends, scholars, and military figures who came to pay their respects.

 

Oppenheimer was such a controversial figure, even to himself.  This is a man who was built on paradoxical characteristics that ran to the core of his being.  A genius and a fool, a blinded visionary, a triumphant tragedy of a man.  In a way, he represented the balance between genius and madness, a man who found what he loved and let it consume his entire life, to the extent that even his own health took second priority.  I have never seen someone who thinks so much like me judging by his actions, an intellectual who ultimately ended up prioritizing his work over everything else and only realized what he’d created once it was all over.  He wasn’t the best scientist out there, but he was the man for the job as General Leslie Groves put it.  He was someone who had a passion for science and literature, linguistics and history. Someone who only received major recognition for his previous work on black holes post-mortem.  Complicated, misunderstood, distant because of his mind, and the creator of a new world.

His legacy remains one of tragedy, a warning to mankind that knowledge is a power that you might not get to control once it becomes known.  The 2023 movie adaptation of his life is a masterful work of cinematography that managed to crack the code of an intellectual mind and run with it.  Shot in 57 days, it manages to fit 50 years into 3 hours in a beautiful portrayal of history.

I highly recommend watching it at some point if you’ve enjoyed this article.  I barely scratched the surface and there is so much more you can learn from this story than what I can articulate here.  It’s not an action movie, and it’s a lot of talking, but it’s the most accurate representation of the weight of genius I’ve ever seen.

“Oppenheimer was overeducated in those fields which lie outside the scientific tradition, such as his interest in religion, in the Hindu religion in particular, which resulted in a feeling for the mystery of the universe that surrounded him almost like a fog. He saw physics clearly, looking toward what had already been done, but at the border he tended to feel there was much more of the mysterious and novel than there actually was.” -Isidor Rabi

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About the Contributor
Maggie Heath
Maggie is a sophomore at BSHS. This is her first year with the POW WOW, and she hopes to enjoy many more throughout her high school career. While she might not be involved in any after-school activities, she is an artist, Irish dancer, and aerialist in her spare time (among other things that spark her interest). She lives with her parents, her dog, and her cat. She aspires to become a theoretical physicist, nuclear engineer, or biochemical engineer.

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