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Robert Oppenheimer

Robert Oppenheimer was born into a wealthy Jewish family in New York in 1904. After graduating from the University of Harvard in 1925 he spent some time in England, working at the Cavendish Laboratory, which was then directed by Ernest Rutherford. He was invited by Max Born to the University of Gottingen, where he obtained a PhD in 1927. Oppenheimer, then 23 years old, went back to the United States to found some of the first great schools of theoretical physics of that nation at Berkeley and at Caltech, Pasadena. Initially he centred his attention on the particle physics, including electrons, positrons and cosmic rays.

During the 1930s, like many young left wing intellectuals of the time, he supported the Communist party however, disappointed with the treatment that scientists were receiving from the Soviet government, he eventually moved on from his communist leanings. In 1939, Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard warned him about the terrible possibility of Germany developing a nuclear bomb during the Second World War. Oppenheimer started to investigate the processes to obtain radioactive Uranium-235 from natural mineral Uranium.

In 1942, Oppenheimer was chosen to direct the then secret laboratory at Los Alamos, where some of the most famous scientists of the world were working. This was part of the famous Manhattan Project dedicated to the creation of the American atomic bomb. In 28 months – from April 1943, when Los Alamos was opened, to August 1945 – two bombs were created, each by a different project. The idea was to use them to force the Japanese government to surrender.

Two years later he was elected president of the Atomic Energy Commission, a position he held until 1952 when he was deselected because of his old communist connections. Robert Oppenheimer died of cancer at the age of 62 in 1967, and his last years were dedicated to reflection about the problems concerning the relationship between science and society.

Two bombs, how many deaths?

Robert Oppenheimer

Robert Oppenheimer

In 1953, Oppenheimer sardonically defined the superpowers as “Two scorpions in a bottle, each one capable of destroying the other, but only at the cost of its own life. How many scorpions are in the bottle today, i.e. how many countries have nuclear bombs? Need help?