Who was J. Robert Oppenheimer? A short history of the 'father of the atomic bomb'

We take a look at a few lesser-known facts about J. Rober Oppenheimer, including why he was called a fool by Einstein, and his role in predicting black holes.
Chris Young
The real J. Robert Oppenheimer (left) and Cillian Murphy in biopic 'Oppenheimer' (right).
The real J. Robert Oppenheimer (left) and Cillian Murphy in biopic 'Oppenheimer' (right).

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With Christopher Nolan's epic new movie, 'Oppenheimer', releasing this week, July 21, we take a look at the real "father of the atomic bomb."

Julius Robert Oppenheimer played a key role in the Manhattan Project, which began in 1942, leading to the development of the first nuclear bomb near the end of WWII.

Later in life, he expressed regret over his role in the development of such a powerful weapon – Nolan, in fact, recently went on record stating artificial intelligence developers today are facing their "Oppenheimer moment".

He's been called a fool by Albert Einstein and has also been cited as the first person to predict the existence of black holes. Here are a few facts about the real man behind the atomic bomb.

Who was J. Robert Oppenheimer?

J. Robert Oppenheimer was an American theoretical physicist and director of the Los Alamos Laboratory between 1943 and 1945.

After the invasion of Poland by Nazi German forces in 1939, physicists Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard, and Eugene Wigner warned the US government that the Nazis could be the first to develop a nuclear bomb, with potentially catastrophic consequences for humanity.

In August 1942, the US Army was tasked with organizing the efforts of British and US physicists in a bid to develop the nuclear bomb before the Nazis. As part of that effort, called the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer was instructed to establish and manage a laboratory.

But Oppenheimer was more than just the "father of the atomic bomb". Initially, people were surprised when Oppenheimer was chosen as a key figure in the Manhattan Project – he was known to have left-wing political views and had no record as a leader of large projects.

He was also a devoted student of the humanities and demonstrated a keen interest in philosophy and language learning.

What was his role in the Manhattan Project?

In September of 1942, Lieutenant General Leslie Richard Groves Jr. was appointed director of the Manhattan Project.

Groves went on to appoint Oppenheimer as head of the Manhattan Project's secret weapons laboratory, where his duties involved developing and detonating the first-ever nuclear bomb.

Despite the fact that Oppenheimer hadn't led any major projects and had no Nobel Prize, Groves was impressed by the breadth of his knowledge across various fields, which would be vital for such a complex project. He also saw in Oppenheimer an "overweening ambition" that he believed would give him the drive to successfully complete the project ahead of the Nazis.

Who was J. Robert Oppenheimer? A short history of the 'father of the atomic bomb'
The first detonation of a nuclear weapon for the Trinity test on July 16, 1945.

In 1943, Oppenheimer chose the plateau of Los Alamos, near Santa Fe, New Mexico, as the location for the Trinity nuclear test – the first-ever detonation of a nuclear bomb. For the project, Oppenheimer assembled a group of the top physicists of the time, calling them the "luminaries".

On July 16, they performed the first-ever detonation of a nuclear weapon called the "Gadget", for the Trinity Test. Less than a month later, the Allied forces dropped nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.

Did Oppenheimer predict black holes before anyone else?

Before the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer published several theoretical papers on cosmic objects that had yet to be discovered. These papers included calculations on the properties of white dwarfs and the theoretical mass limit of neutron stars.

One paper of his went under the radar when it was first published in 1939, but it has since been revisited as perhaps the first-ever prediction of black holes.

In a paper co-written with his then-student Hartland Snyder, titled 'On Continued Gravitational Contraction', Oppenheimer and Snyder wrote that far out in the cosmos there should exist "dying stars whose gravitational pull exceeded their energy production." 

Why did Albert Einstein call him a fool?

During the Red Scare of the US McCarthy era in the 1950s, Oppenheimer was asked to attend a tribunal to answer accusations that he was a security risk, due to donations he had made to the Communist Party prior to the Manhattan Project.

Oppenheimer met Albert Einstein at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, who counseled him against attending the tribunal. Why lend any legitimacy to this witch hunt, Einstein urged, counseling Oppenheimer not to attend and instead to flee the US as Einstein had left Germany during the rise of the Nazis.

Who was J. Robert Oppenheimer? A short history of the 'father of the atomic bomb'
Einstein and Oppenheimer, circa 1950.

When Oppenheimer told Einstein he would not heed his counsel, Einstein turned to his secretary and said, "There goes a narr [Yiddish for 'fool']." Oppenheimer was soon stripped of his security clearance by the tribunal.

How is Oppenheimer depicted in Christopher Nolan's new movie?

British film director Christopher Nolan is known for crafting realistic depictions of characters and scenarios – so much so, that the Trinity nuclear test was recreated using no CGI.

Who was J. Robert Oppenheimer? A short history of the 'father of the atomic bomb'
Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer.

The same attention to detail is afforded to the character himself, whose complexity is captured by Irish actor Cillian Murphy, who also starred in Peaky Blinders, 28 Days Later, and Sunshine. You can watch the latest trailer for the Oppenheimer movie in the video below.

According to a review by The Guardian, Murphy is "very good at capturing his sense of solitude and emotional imprisonment, giving us the Oppenheimer million-yard stare, eyeballs set in a gaunt skull, seeing and foreseeing things he cannot process."

Recalling the Trinity nuclear test and the ensuing nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Oppenheimer later famously quoted a line from the Hindu sacred scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."