3. J. Robert Oppenheimer


hen physicists go public they face an instant dilemma. They are often chastised for not stepping out of the ivory tower, but then expected to remain apolitical when they do. Disillusionment runs deepest and most dangerous when public expectations and the conscience of a physicist collide. Few physicists challenged the public’s expectations more than J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) – or put a more human face on science and its practitioners.

Born into a wealthy Jewish family in New York City on April 22, 1904, Oppenheimer attended the Ethical Culture School in New York where he excelled in chemistry, physics, and math, and enthusiastically studied classics and eastern philosophy, as well as Greek, Latin, French, and German.

After undergraduate training at Harvard, he studied quantum theory and conducted research at Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory, and then with Max Born at the University of Goettingen. Upon his return to the United States in 1929, Oppenheimer was appointed professor of physics at both the University of California and the California Institute of Technology. In the ensuing 13 years, he “commuted” between the two universities, and many of his associates and students commuted with him.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, ca. 1930
J. Robert Oppenheimer, ca. 1930

[Courtesy Department of Physics, Physics and Astronomy Library]

Oppenheimer as Teacher


onald Glaser, one of the department’s seven Nobelists, recalls the time when he was a young graduate student attending an open lecture on quantum mechanics by Oppenheimer. Since Oppenheimer was considered one of the preeminent physicists of his age, students and faculty packed the lecture hall to the point at which the size of the crowd became a hazard. In order to reduce the attendance, Oppenheimer asked anyone who did not understand quantum mechanics to leave. Not wanting to miss the opportunity of hearing Oppenheimer in person, no one moved.

Unpersuaded, Oppenheimer immediately turned to the person in the first seat of the first row and, point blank, fired an esoteric question about advanced quantum mechanics.

Flustered and embarrassed, the young man gathered his books and papers and ran out of the lecture hall followed by virtually everyone else.

But safely hidden behind the entryway doors to the auditorium, the audience re-gathered and eagerly waited for Oppenheimer to begin his lecture.

Notes on Quantum Mechanics (Physics 221, Oppenheimer, 1939) By B. Peters Notes on Quantum Mechanics (Physics 221, Oppenheimer, 1939) By B. Peters
Notes on Quantum Mechanics (Physics 221, Oppenheimer, 1939)
By B. Peters. [title, toc-1] additional [toc-2, 3, 4]
[308x P479 no]

These are notes prepared from Oppenheimer’s lectures by Bernard Peters, one of his students. In the 1950s Peters was accused by Oppenheimer of harboring Communist sympathies and subsequently lost his position at the University of Rochester.

Oppenheimer as Friend and Brother


awrence and Oppenheimer did not merely share their work; they also grew attached as friends. It was visible in their frequent correspondence, seen in the example here: two highly confident, eminent physicists reflecting on personal insecurities and frustrations.

Nothing illustrates Oppenheimer’s human side better than his letters to his younger brother Frank, offering advice on a range of subjects from career decisions, to scientific tutorials, to girls. Note the contrast between the liberal world-views that have come to define Oppenheimer’s image and his more conservative opinions about proper relations between men and women.

"This is an entirely gratuitous little note ... to compensate for the brevity and sketchiness of our time together in New Orleans .... It was like you, Ernest, and very sweet, that you should whisper to me so comforting words about the Wednesday meeting. I was pretty much in need of them, feeling ashamed of my report, and distressed rather by Millikan's hostility and his lack of scruple."

Letter from J. Robert Oppenheimer to His Brother Frank, October 14, 1929 Letter from J. Robert Oppenheimer to His Brother Frank, October 14, 1929
Letter from J. Robert Oppenheimer to His Brother Frank,
October 14, 1929. [pg. 1, pg. 2]
[BANC MSS 98/136 c, Ctn. 4:12]

“Such counsel as I should give you about the refractory problem of the jeunes filles Newyorkaises would probably be unwelcome. I should say that you were wrong to let the creatures worry you …. I should say you should not associate with them unless it is for you a genuine pleasure; and that you should have truck only with those girls … who put you at your ease. The obligation is always on the girl for making a go of conversation….”