Apr 222019

Today is the birthday (1904) of Julius Robert Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist who tends to be remembered as the wartime head of the Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos Laboratory that developed the first nuclear weapons. The first atomic bomb was successfully detonated on July 16th, 1945, in the Trinity test in New Mexico. Oppenheimer later remarked that it brought to mind words from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” After the war ended, Oppenheimer became chairman of the influential General Advisory Committee of the newly created United States Atomic Energy Commission. He used that position to lobby for international control of nuclear power to avert nuclear proliferation and a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. After provoking the ire of many politicians with his outspoken opinions during the Second Red Scare, he suffered the revocation of his security clearance in a much-publicized hearing in 1954, and was effectively stripped of his direct political influence. He continued to lecture, write and work in physics. Nine years later, President John F. Kennedy awarded (and Lyndon B. Johnson presented) him with the Enrico Fermi Award as a gesture of political rehabilitation.

Oppenheimer’s achievements in physics have tended to be overshadowed by his work at Los Alamos, which had little to do with theoretical physics. Oppenheimer described it as more of an engineering project than a scientific one. There were a few theoretical issues to resolve, but the great bulk of the work had to do with turning theory into practice, which was not his specialty. Nor was organization, apparently. Before taking the job at Los Alamos one of his colleagues described him as a man who couldn’t organize a hamburger stand. Yet he turned out to be a master of efficiency at the job. He routinely attended meetings in the various sectors of the project and was consistently deeply involved, affable and encouraging – much to everyone’s surprise.

He did have the reputation for being something of a show-off in terms of his breadth of knowledge outside of physics. He had, for example, taught himself Sanskrit in order to be able to read Hindu sacred texts. In a new paper I am writing, I quoted him:

If we ask, for instance, whether the position of the electron remains the same, we must say ‘no;’ if we ask whether the electron’s position changes with time, we must say ‘no;’ if we ask whether the electron is at rest, we must say ‘no;’ if we ask whether it is in motion, we must say ‘no.’ The Buddha has given such answers when interrogated as to the conditions of man’s self after his death; but they are not familiar answers for the tradition of seventeenth and eighteenth-century science.

You might be able to glean from this remark (or maybe not) that his colleagues would occasionally tire of his frequently self confessed erudition. In fact, more than one of the scientists at Los Alamos who had been trained in Europe remarked that he was no more sophisticated than a competent European schoolboy, but he thought a great deal of himself and was good at self promotion.

Before being involved in the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer’s theoretical work was well he regarded. He was responsible for the Born–Oppenheimer approximation for molecular wave functions, work on the theory of electrons and positrons, the Oppenheimer–Phillips process in nuclear fusion, and the first prediction of quantum tunneling. With his students he also made important contributions to the modern theory of neutron stars and black holes, as well as to quantum mechanics, quantum field theory, and the interactions of cosmic rays. As a teacher and promoter of science, he is remembered as a founding father of the American school of theoretical physics that gained world prominence in the 1930s. After World War II, he became director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

It is generally agreed that Oppenheimer brought a level of focus and intensity to discussions in Los Alamos that were essential for the completion of the project under enormous time pressure. These discussions would often go on well into the night, and Oppenheimer was famous for the martinis he made for the meetings as the night wore on. So, I’ll give you his recipe, even though it is not my custom to depart from food too often.

Start with 4 ounces of gin and add a dash of dry vermouth. Stir the mix with ice until chilled. Strain into a martini glass whose rim has been dipped in equal parts lime and honey. Repeat as needed.