Who was J. Robert Oppenheimer? What to know about atomic bomb physicist's life, career, death (2024)

The hype is building for Christopher Nolan’s "Oppenheimer," which premieres on July 21st. The film boasts an A-list cast and comes from the director responsible for "The Dark Knight," "Inception" and "Memento."

Based on the novel, "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer," the film follows the story of Julius Robert Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy) a theoretical physicist and director of the laboratory responsible for the development of the atomic bomb.

But for those unfamiliar with atomic history (or maybe those more familiar with the characters in the upcoming "Barbie" movie, instead), here’s what to know about the man on which the film is based, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb.

Who was J. Robert Oppenheimer? What to know about atomic bomb physicist's life, career, death (1)

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Where was Oppenheimer born?

Oppenheimer was born in New York, in 1904 to German immigrant and wealthy textile importer, Julius Oppenheimer and painter Ella Friedman Oppenheimer, according to the National Parks Service, which described him as a quiet child, studying mineralogy and writing poetry.

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Where did Oppenheimer go to college?

Oppenheimer was admitted to Harvard University but postponed his enrollment due to illness, according to the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History.

After enrolling in 1922, he studied physics, chemistry, Latin, Greek and eastern philosophy at Harvardbefore traveling to the University of Cambridge where he studied two terms, per the school.He then transferred to the University of Göttingen where he earned a doctorate in physics, according to the nuclear museum.

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He then returned to the United States to teach physics at the University of California at Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology. There he conducted research on black holes and neutron stars. He worked alongside experimental physicist and Noble Prize winner Ernest Lawrence, played by Josh Hartnett in the film.

Who was J. Robert Oppenheimer? What to know about atomic bomb physicist's life, career, death (2)

Oppenheimer's wife, children

He married Katherine “Kitty” Puening (played by Emily Blunt in the upcoming movie) in 1940 and had two children, Peter and Toni, according to the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History.

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What role did Oppenheimer serve in the Manhattan Project? What was Los Alamos?

Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico, a key location in the "Oppenheimer" movie, was a lab responsible for the top-secret design and production of atomic bombs. Part of the Manhattan Project, Los Alamos (or Project Y as it was known at the time) was greenlit in 1942, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. It was then that General Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project (played by Matt Damon), selected Oppenheimer to lead the project, and the pair began planning.

They selected a remote location surrounded by mountains to build a secret town where scientists and their families could live, according to the National Parks Service. There, hundreds of scientists and engineers developed the Gadget (the world’s first nuclear test device), Little Boy (the uranium-fueled atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan), and Fat Man (the plutonium-fueled atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan).

Who was J. Robert Oppenheimer? What to know about atomic bomb physicist's life, career, death (3)
Who was J. Robert Oppenheimer? What to know about atomic bomb physicist's life, career, death (4)

Robert Downey Jr.:'Oppenheimer' invites dialogue about nuclear weapons

The Oppenheimer hearing

In 1954, during the era of McCarthyism, the Atomic Energy Commission called Oppenheimer to testify on his past involvement with communist organizations, due to fears that he was a Soviet spy.

It is unclear if Oppenheimer was ever a part of the Communist Party, but he was sympathetic to communist goals, according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation's nuclear museum. He became acquainted with leftist politics through his turbulent love affair with communist and medical student Jean Tatlock (played by Florence Pugh in the film) and was fueled by anger toward the oppression his Jewish relatives were suffering in Nazi Germany. Oppenheimer’s brother, Frank Oppenheimer, joined the Communist Party in 1937.

Oppenheimer’s communist ties were scrutinized when he was selected to partake in the Manhattan Project, but he was approved with the support of General Groves, the museum notes.

Oppenheimer testified for 27 hours in 1954 to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) according to the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History. In the end, his security clearance was revoked.

Sixty years after his hearing, the U.S. Department of Energy released the full, declassified transcript of the hearing.

Who was J. Robert Oppenheimer? What to know about atomic bomb physicist's life, career, death (5)

Oppenheimer: Hydrogen bombs vs. atomic bombs

After the Soviet Union successfully tested nuclear weaponry in 1949 and U.S. turned attention to advancing its nuclear arms, Oppenheimer resisted the development of fusion weapons (like the hydrogen bomb) instead of fission weapons (like the atomic bomb) for concerns that the weapons would only be used on human populations, according to the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History.

Who was J. Robert Oppenheimer? What to know about atomic bomb physicist's life, career, death (6)

J. Robert Oppenheimer death

In 1967, Oppenheimer died in Princeton, New Jersey, of throat cancer, according to the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History.

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What to know about other 'Oppenheimer' characters in real life

  • Leslie Groves Jr.: Played by Matt Damon in the film, Groves was appointed to head the Manhattan Project in 1942 and worked alongside Oppenheimer. He was reportedly known for his stubbornness, egotism, intelligence, and abrasive nature, according to the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History. He fiercely defended Oppenheimer during the AEC hearing.
  • Jean Tatlock: Played by Florence Pugh in the film, Jean Tatlock (1914-1944) was an American psychologist and Communist Party member. For several years, she maintained a relationship with Oppenheimer, who she met while studying at the Stanford University Medical School. Oppenheimer proposed to Tatlock twice, although she declined both times, according to the nuclear museum.
  • Katherine “Kitty” Oppenheimer: Played by Emily Blunt, “Kitty” Oppenheimer married J. Robert Oppenheimer in 1939. She was a trained botanist forced to put her career on hold when moving to Los Alamos with her husband. She served as an important confidant for Oppenheimer, per the museum.
  • Lewis Strauss: Played by Robert Downey Jr in the film, Lewis Strauss was appointed chairman of the AEC by President Truman. He led the push for the development of thermonuclear weapons after the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb. He was a vocal opponent of Oppenheimer, as the two disagreed starkly on nuclear weapons and Strauss viewed Oppenheimer as a threat to American security, the museum notes.
Who was J. Robert Oppenheimer? What to know about atomic bomb physicist's life, career, death (2024)

FAQs

Who was J. Robert Oppenheimer? What to know about atomic bomb physicist's life, career, death? ›

Robert Oppenheimer (born April 22, 1904, New York, New York, U.S.—died February 18, 1967, Princeton, New Jersey) was an American theoretical physicist and science administrator, noted as director of the Los Alamos Laboratory (1943–45) during development of the atomic bomb and as director of the Institute for Advanced ...

Who was J. Robert Oppenheimer and why was he important? ›

Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) was an American theoretical physicist. During the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer was director of the Los Alamos Laboratory and responsible for the research and design of an atomic bomb. He is often known as the “father of the atomic bomb.”

What did J. Robert Oppenheimer think of the atomic bomb? ›

He came to regard the bomb itself as "an evil thing," and believed that subsequent "super" Hydrogen bombs were little more than engines of genocide.

Why did Oppenheimer say I am become death? ›

That's the philosophy, really: that there's only one consciousness, and that the whole of creation is a wonderful play,” Thompson told Wired UK in 2017. “I am become Death,” then, is not necessarily a quote about destruction—it's about a mortal man letting go and putting his faith in the divine.

How did Robert Oppenheimer contribute to the atomic theory? ›

Between the lines: One of Oppenheimer's most important contributions to theoretical physics is still used today: the Born-Oppenheimer approximation. The approximation helps give scientists a framework for attempting to solve the quantum many-body problem of predicting how three or more particles will interact.

How important is Oppenheimer? ›

Oppenheimer had many achievements in theoretical physics but is remembered as the so-called father of the atomic bomb. Under his directorship, scientists at Los Alamos Laboratory, where the bomb was designed and built, forever changed how people view the world, adding a new sense of precariousness.

Why is Oppenheimer a hero? ›

Many Americans, who rejoiced at the conclusion of the war and viewed the bomb as a necessary evil to preserve peace, hailed Oppenheimer as a hero for his part in developing the atomic bomb.

Why was Oppenheimer so skinny? ›

The star told The New York Times that he wanted to bring a physical performance to the role, saying: "I love acting with my body, and Oppenheimer had a very distinct physicality and silhouette, which I wanted to get right." He pointed out that the scientist had a slim frame due to his diet, which meant losing weight.

What was Oppenheimer's IQ? ›

Oppenheimer's IQ of 135 places him in the 99th percentile of intelligence, while Einstein's estimated IQ is 160, in the genius category. The IQ test oversimplifies intelligence, missing out on factors like creativity and emotional intelligence pivotal for Oppenheimer and Einstein.

What were Oppenheimer's last words? ›

Oppenheimer" Last Words, "I believe we did"

What WTF is Oppenheimer about? ›

It follows the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American theoretical physicist who helped develop the first nuclear weapons during World War II. Based on the 2005 biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J.

Did Truman call Oppenheimer a crybaby? ›

Truman did call Oppenheimer a 'crybaby scientist' but not directly or during the depicted event. Events in Oppenheimer film differed slightly from historical reality, adding drama to the scene. Nolan clarified Truman's remark as a response to Oppenheimer expressing guilt post-atomic bombings.

Why did we bomb Japan twice? ›

Instead, the atomic bomb served as a tool to bring the war in the Pacific to a close sooner. Another reason why the United States dropped the atomic bombs—and, specifically, the second one on Nagasaki—has to do with the Soviet Union.

Was Oppenheimer good at math? ›

He did not have great understanding of the mathematics of calculating shock waves or of engineering explosive lenses. And of course, he did not decide how the bomb would be used. I suspect that Oppenheimer is such a compelling character because he's so enigmatic, so complicated.

What did Einstein say to Oppenheimer in real life? ›

Einstein did, in fact, tell Oppenheimer to give up his security clearance and walk away from government work. That scene in the movie is based on true events.

What happened to Oppenheimer's children? ›

Soon after his father died, Peter permanently moved to northern New Mexico to live at a residence his father had purchased years earlier, the Perro Caliente ranch, according to the AHF. According to the AHF, Peter still lives in New Mexico working as a carpenter and has three children: Dorothy, Charles and Ella.

Why was Oppenheimer so successful? ›

Moviegoers worldwide responded to the film's scale of spectacle and the depth of its reckoning with the same, enacted by a uniformly strong ensemble cast gathering A-listers around the father of the atomic bomb.

What was Frank Oppenheimer famous for? ›

In 1941, Frank began working on uranium isotope separation, and, in 1945, he joined the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. This top-secret effort to produce an atomic bomb was directed by Frank's brother, J. Robert Oppenheimer.

What is the Oppenheimer family known for? ›

The elder Oppenheimer took control of De Beers in 1929, building it into the world's biggest diamond business -- a distinction it still holds today -- and linking it to Anglo through cross-shareholdings between the companies. Harry, who is Ernest's son and Nicky's father, took over as chairman in 1957.

Who is the most important man who ever lived Oppenheimer? ›

Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer changed the course of history by helping to develop the world's first nuclear bomb.

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