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Oppenheimer's Legacy

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Essay title: Oppenheimer's Legacy

Oppenheimer's Legacy

J(ulius) Robert Oppenheimer (b. April 22, 1904, New York City--d. Feb. 18, 1967, Princeton, N.J., U.S.), U.S. theoretical physicist and science administrator, noted as director of the Los Alamos laboratory during development of the atomic bomb (1943-45) and as director of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton (1947-66).

Accusations as to his loyalty and reliability as a security risk led to a government hearing that resulted in the loss of his security clearance and of his position as adviser to the highest echelons of the U.S. government. The case became a cause cйlиbre in the world of science because of its implications concerning political and moral issues relating to the role of scientists in government.

Oppenheimer was the son of a German immigrant who had made his fortune by importing textiles in New York City. During his undergraduate studies at Harvard University, Oppenheimer excelled in Latin, Greek, physics, and chemistry, published poetry, and studied Oriental philosophy. After graduating in 1925, he sailed for England to do research at the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, which, under the leadership of Lord Rutherford, had an international reputation for its pioneering studies on atomic structure. At the Cavendish, Oppenheimer had the opportunity to collaborate with the British scientific community in its efforts to advance the cause of atomic research. Max Born invited him to Gцttingen University, where he met other prominent physicists, such as Niels Bohr and Paul Dirac, and where, in 1927, he received his doctorate.

After short visits at science centres in Leiden and Zьrich, he returned to the United States to teach physics at the University of California at Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology.

In the 1920s the new quantum and relativity theories were engaging the attentions of science. That mass was equivalent to energy and that matter could be both wavelike and corpuscular carried implications seen only dimly at that time. Oppenheimer's early research was devoted in particular to energy processes of subatomic particles, including electrons, positrons, and cosmic rays. Since quantum theory had been proposed only a few years before, the university post provided him an excellent opportunity to devote his entire career to the exploration and development of its full significance. In addition, he trained a whole generation of U.S. physicists, who were greatly affected by his qualities of leadership and intellectual independence.

The rise of Hitlerism in Germany stirred his first interest in politics. In 1936 he sided with the republic during the Civil War in Spain, where he became acquainted with Communist students. Although his father's death in 1937 left Oppenheimer a fortune that allowed him to subsidize anti-Fascist organizations, the tragic suffering inflicted by Stalin on Russian scientists led him to withdraw his associations with the Communist Party--in fact, he had never joined the party--and at the same time reinforced in him a liberal democratic philosophy. After the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany in 1939, the physicists Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard warned the U.S. government of the danger threatening all of humanity if the Nazis should be the first to make a nuclear bomb. Oppenheimer then began to seek a process for the separation of uranium-235 from natural uranium and to determine the critical mass of uranium required to make such a bomb.

In August 1942 the U.S. Army was given the responsibility of

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