Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”.
Inventor, Teacher, Scientist, Murderer, and Hero are a number of words you can use to describe Robert Oppenheimer. Julius Robert Oppenheimer was an American theoretical physicist, professor of physics at the University of California as well as the “father of the atom bomb”. J. Robert Oppenheimer was born on April 22, 1904, in New York City, to German Jewish immigrants.
Oppenheimer’s father, Julius, emigrated to America with no money, no higher education, and virtually no knowledge of English. However, he managed to land a job at a textile company and become an executive within just a few years. Robert’s younger, less famous brother followed the path of his older sibling and also became a physicist. Oppenheimer spent the first few years of his life studying at Alcuin Preparatory School before being admitted into the Ethical Culture Society School. Oppenheimer was a versatile student; he had an interest for both English and French literature, chemistry and was especially interested in mineralogy. He also managed to complete the 3rd and 4th grades in just a short year and skipped much of 8th grade. Oppenheimer suffered a colitis attack on a family vacation and was forced to take a year off before entering college. His English teacher aided him in his recovery by taking him on a trip to New Mexico, where Oppenheimer fell in love with horseback riding and the southern US.
In 1924, The University of Cambridge informed Oppenheimer that he had been accepted into Christ’s College, a constituent college of Cambridge University. Ecstatic, Oppenheimer wrote to Ernest Rutherford asking for his consent to work at the Cavendish Laboratory. However, Oppenheimer’s overall clumsiness in the laboratory made Rutherford reject him, although he was accepted by J.J Thomson on the condition that he pass a basic laboratory course.
Oppenheimer was known to have self-destructive tendencies. He was described by his colleagues as a tall, thin chain-smoker. He wouldn’t feed himself properly during periods of intense thought and concentration.
Oppenheimer had many phases of depression during his college years and once said “I need physics more than I need friends”. In 1926, Oppenheimer went to study in one of the world’s leading universities in theoretical physics, The University of Göttingen. There, Oppenheimer was able to befriend a number of great future physicists including Werner Heisenberg, Pascual Jordan, Wolfgang Pauli, Paul Dirac, Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller.