Now I am become death….

Author:  Cold War Britain The History of Britains Cold War

Julius Robert Oppenheimer was a Theoretical Physicist and “Coordinator of Rapid Rupture”

Corbis Oppenheimer with Albert Einstein, circa the 1940s

Corbis Oppenheimer with Albert Einstein, circa the 1940s

at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).  His main role was to calculate the propagation of a fast neutron chain for an Atomic weapon. For that reason he is often referred to as the “Father” of the Atomic Bomb.

Born in New York in 1904, Oppenheimer studied at Harvard and later Christ’s College, Cambridge with a particular interest in Quantum Mechanics, theory of Electrons and Positrons and developed the Oppenheimer–Phillips process of Nuclear Fusion. In 1941 he was recruited to work on a top-secret crash program to create an Atomic Bomb, The Manhattan Project. Brigadier General Leslie Groves was chosen as Director of the project and he chose Oppenheimer to lead the secret weapons Laboratory.  In seeking a location Oppenheimer was drawn to New Mexico, where he had a Ranch, and Groves and Oppenheimer settled on a location near Santa Fe which was the site of a private boys school called the Los Alamos Ranch School. In 1942 the US Army purchased the school and the surrounding land and work began to build Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Work progressed in earnest at LANL and in 1945 they had built 3 nuclear devices. The test of the world’s first Atomic Bomb happened on 16th July 1945 when the Trinity Test took place near Alamogordo, New Mexico.  The scientists of the Manhattan Project ran a pool on what the device would do with yield ranges from zero to 45 kilotons, and bizarre options such as setting fire to the atmosphere or simply fizzling out. Trinity exploded with a yield of 20 kilotons of TNT. The world had entered the nuclear age. Immediately following the explosion test director Kenneth Bainbridge remarked to Oppenheimer “Now we are all sons of bitches!”  Oppenheimer himself later revealed that as the explosion took place he was reminded of a Hindu Phrase, “Now I am become death, destroyer of Worlds”.

The two other devices built by LANL were known as Little Boy (Uranium) and Fat Man (Plutonium) which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan (respectively) helping to end the Second World War.

Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum/EPA August 9, 1945: Nagasaki is hit by an atom bomb.

Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum/EPA August 9, 1945: Nagasaki is hit by an atom bomb.

When the US Government along with Scientist Edward Teller proposed development of a Hydrogen Bomb, Oppenheimer spoke openly against the idea of such a super weapon and instead pushed for smaller tactical uses of atomic weapons. What followed later was considered by many as a witch hunt to remove his influence from nuclear weapon development. He was accused by congress and other parties of having communist ties and was called to give answer these to these accusations at several congressional committees and found that former colleagues such as Teller and Groves had given evidence against him.

Stripped of political influence, Oppenheimer continued to lecture throughout Europe and Japan on nuclear science and along with Albert Einstein helped establish what would become the World Academy of Arts and Science in 1960. He continued to campaign about the managing the danger of knowledge where science had become politically motivated. Contrary to popular thinking, Oppenheimer never stated that he regretted taking part in the Manhattan Project.

Oppenheimer died of throat cancer in 1967 aged just 62. His legacy remains as one of the most prominent theoretical physicists the world has seen and, of course, as the father of the atomic bomb.   Two days before the Trinity Test he expressed his hopes and fears in another quotation from a Hindi Script.

“In battle, in the forest, at the precipice in the mountains, On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows, In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame, The good deeds a man has done before defend him” –  Bhagavad Gita quotes


[Editor’s note:  Cold War Britain investigates the trials and tribulations of the Cold War in Britain. In addition to education, the site explores as many Cold War sites as possible as part of Cardiff Urbex Group to take you into the heart of the Cold War machine.]

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