Last month I was lucky enough to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Oppenheimer after it had transferred from Stratford to London. It was an amazing play and Michael Grady-Hall was brilliant as Oppenheimer especially as he was the understudy to the role (John Heffernan was indisposed on the day we saw the play). The only thing I was sad about was that some of the language and personal stories of the characters meant that it was not suitable to take my A level physics students to see.


The above is a photograph for Michael Grady-Hall in his normal role of Frank Oppenheimer (brother of J Robert Oppenheimer). Thanks to the RSC for letting me use images from their production throughout this blog.

J Robert Oppenheimer did not come across as a particularly nice man and his treatment of the women in his life was very poor.

Whether it was Tim Morton Smith’s (playwright) intention it seemed that Oppenheimer wasn’t initially bothered that there would be a bomb at the end of his research. He was more interested in the physics problem and solving it before the Nazis.









As a physics teacher I was aware of J Robert Oppenheimer but I knew more about the various members of his team on the Manhattan project such as Richard Feynman.



Julius Robert Oppenheimer was born on the 22nd of April 1904 in New York City. Both of his parents were wealthy Jewish immigrants.


Oppenheimer was a clever boy and could have gone down several academic paths but developed an interest in chemistry in his final year of school.

Ill health caused him to enter Harvard a year later than normal where he majored in chemistry along with history, literature, philosophy and mathematics as secondary subjects He made up for the late start by taking extra courses on his own. In his first year he was admitted to graduate standing in physics on the basis of independent study, which meant he was not required to take the basic classes and could enrol instead in advanced ones. A course on thermodynamics taught by Percy Bridgman attracted him to experimental physics. He graduated with honours in three years



Percy Williams Bridgman (21 April 1882 – 20 August 1961) was an American physicist who won the 1946 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the physics of high pressures.

In 1924 Oppenheimer took up a post at Christ’s College Cambridge hoping to work at the Cavendish laboratory but Ernest Rutherford was unimpressed with him as his clumsiness in a laboratory meant that he was a better theoretical physicist. J.J. Thomson took him on providing he completed a basic laboratory course. He did not have a particularly happy time at the Cavendish and was particularly nasty to his tutor, Patrick Blackett.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Rutherford (bottom left)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._J._Thomson (bottom centre)





Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett, Baron Blackett OM CH FRS (18 November 1897 – 13 July 1974) was an English experimental physicist known for his work on cloud chambers, cosmic rays, and paleomagnetism, winning the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1948.

Oppenheimer was a chain smoker, who often forgot to eat when he was very busy, and suffered badly from depression. He once told his brother Frank, “I need physics more than friends”.

In 1926 he left Cambridge for the University of Gottingen to study under Max Born.



Max Born (11 December 1882 – 5 January 1970) was a German physicist and mathematician who was instrumental in the development of quantum mechanics.

Oppenheimer made a lot of friends at Gottingen who later became famous physicists. These included Werner Heisenberg, Pascual Jordan, Wolfgang Pauli, Paul Dirac, Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller. But he wasn’t popular with everyone as he tended to take over seminar sessions.

Oppenheimer obtained his PhD in March 1937 but during his viva he managed to annoy James Franck, the administering professor.

He published many papers some of which made important contributions to the new field of quantum mechanics. With Born he published a famous paper on the Born–Oppenheimer approximation, which separates nuclear motion from electronic motion in the mathematical treatment of molecules, allowing nuclear motion to be neglected to simplify calculations. It remains his most cited work.

In 1927 Oppenheimer returned to the United States and spent the academic year of 1927-1928 commuting between the California Institute of Technology and Harvard as he had been offered fellowships at both.

In the autumn of 1928 Oppenheimer spent some time at the University of Leiden where he impressed people by delivering lectures in Dutch, moving on to Zurich where he worked with Wolfgang Pauli on quantum mechanics and the continuous spectrum.



Wolfgang Ernst Pauli (25 April 1900 – 15 December 1958) was an Austrian-born Swiss theoretical physicist and one of the pioneers of quantum physics.

Returning to the United States Oppenheimer accepted an associate professorship from the University of California, Berkeley but continued to work at Caltech. At Berkley he acted as advisor and collaborator to a generation of physicists who came to admire him greatly. He could be mesmerizing in private but stiff and stand-offish in public. His colleagues either saw him as an impressive genius or a pretentious poseur. His students loved him, often copying his walk and speech.

Hans Bethe said of him:

“Probably the most important ingredient he brought to his teaching was his exquisite taste. He always knew what were the important problems, as shown by his choice of subjects. He truly lived with those problems, struggling for a solution, and he communicated his concern to the group. In its heyday, there were about eight or ten graduate students in his group and about six Post-doctoral Fellows. He met this group once a day in his office, and discussed with one after another the status of the student’s research problem. He was interested in everything, and in one afternoon they might discuss quantum electrodynamics, cosmic rays, electron pair production and nuclear physics”



Hans Albrecht Bethe (July 2, 1906 – March 6, 2005) was a German and American nuclear physicist who, in addition to making important contributions to astrophysics, quantum electrodynamics and solid-state physics, won the 1967 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the theory of stellar nucleosynthesis.

Oppenheimer helped Ernest O. Lawrence and his colleagues to understand the data that was being produced from their cyclotrons at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.



Ernest Orlando Lawrence (August 8, 1901 – August 27, 1958) was a pioneering American nuclear scientist, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1939 for his invention of the cyclotron.

In 1936 Oppenheimer became a full professor at Berkley but a consequence of this was reducing his Caltech commitments down to six weeks a year.

Oppenheimer’s physics interests were many and varied and included theoretical astronomynuclear physics, spectroscopy, quantum field theory, quantum electrodynamics, spectra, photoelectric effect, X-ray absorption, cosmic ray, biophysics and astrophysics.

His work predicted the neutron, mesonpositron and neutron star. His work with his doctoral students led to the Lamb shift and calculations of artificial radioactivity under bombardment by deuterons led to the Oppenheimer-Phillips process to explain the results, a theory still in use today.

Oppenheimer’s papers were not easy to understand. His critics considered his physics good but his mathematics awful. As well as physics he developed interests in Sanskrit, religion and philosophy and read the Bhagavad Gita in the original Sanskrit.


The Bhagavad Gita (“Song of the Lord”), referred to as simply the Gita, is a 700-verse Hindu scripture in Sanskrit that is part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata.

Before 1934 Oppenheimer had no real interest on what was going on in the world but he became increasingly concerned about politics and international affairs and he began to support German physicists fleeing from Nazi Germany. He supported strikes, the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War and communism, the latter causing him problems in the 1950s.

The Manhattan Project

Tim Morton-Smith’s play mainly takes place during the time of the Manhattan Project.



Nuclear fission of heavy elements was discovered by Otto Hahn and his associates in December 1938 and explained theoretically the following January by Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch.



Otto Hahn, OBE, ForMemRS (8 March 1879 – 28 July 1968) was a German chemist and pioneer in the fields of radioactivity and radiochemistry who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1944 for the discovery of nuclear fission.



Lise Meitner (7 November 1878 – 27 October 1968) was an Austrian physicist who worked on radioactivity and nuclear physics.



Otto Robert Frisch’s wartime Los Alamos ID badge photo.

Otto Robert Frisch FRS (1 October 1904 – 22 September 1979) was an Austrian-British physicist. With his German-British collaborator Rudolf Peierls he designed the first theoretical mechanism for the detonation of an atomic bomb in 1940.

Shortly after the discovery of nuclear fission, the German nuclear energy project, also known as the Uranverein (Uranium Club), began and Werner Heisenberg became one of the principal scientists leading research and development in the project.



Werner Karl Heisenberg (5 December 1901 – 1 February 1976) was a German theoretical physicist and one of the key pioneers of quantum mechanics.

Of course all this early research into nuclear fission coincided with the start of the Second World War and it is believed that during a visit Heisenberg made to Niels Bohr in German-occupied Copenhagen (15 to 22 September 1941) they discussed Heisenberg’s intentions concerning developing nuclear weapons for the Nazi regime.




Niels Henrik David Bohr (7 October 1885 – 18 November 1962) was a Danish physicist who made foundational contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum theory, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922.


In Britain, Otto Frisch (who had managed to get out of Nazi Germany) and Rudolf Peierls at the University of Birmingham had made a breakthrough investigating the critical mass of uranium-235 in June 1939. Their calculations indicated that it was within an order of magnitude of 10 kilograms, which was small enough to be carried by a bomber of the day. Their March 1940 Frisch–Peierls memorandum initiated the British atomic bomb project and its Maud Committee, which unanimously recommended pursuing the development of an atomic bomb. One of its members, the Australian physicist Mark Oliphant, flew to the United States in late August 1941 and discovered that data provided by the Maud Committee had not reached key American physicists. Oliphant then set out to find out why the committee’s findings were apparently being ignored. He met with the Uranium Committee, and visited Berkeley, California, where he spoke persuasively to Ernest O. Lawrence. Lawrence was sufficiently impressed to commence his own research into uranium. He in turn spoke to James B. Conant, Arthur Compton and George Pegram. Oliphant’s mission was therefore a success; key American physicists were now aware of the potential power of an atomic bomb. Unfortunately the United Kingdom did not have the manpower or resources of the United States and despite its early and promising start the US became the centre for research.

Also in 1939, a group of Hungarian scientists that included émigré physicist Leó Szilárd attempted to alert Washington of ongoing Nazi atomic bomb research. The group’s warnings were discounted. Einstein and Szilárd, along with other refugees such as Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner, “regarded it as their responsibility to alert Americans to the possibility that German scientists might win the race to build an atomic bomb, and to warn that Hitler would be more than willing to resort to such a weapon.


Leó Szilárd (February 11, 1898 – May 30, 1964) was a Hungarian-American physicist and inventor.




Albert Einstein (14 March 1879 – 18 April 1955) was a German-born theoretical physicist.



Edward Teller (January 15, 1908 – September 9, 2003) was a Hungarian-born American theoretical physicist who, although he claimed he did not care for the title, is known colloquially as “the father of the hydrogen bomb”



Eugene Paul “E. P.” Wigner (November 17, 1902 – January 1, 1995), was a Hungarian American theoretical physicist and mathematician.

To make certain the U.S. was aware of the danger, in July 1939, a few months before the beginning of World War II in Europe, Szilárd and Wigner visited Einstein to explain the possibility of atomic bombs, which Einstein, a pacifist, said he had never considered. He was asked to lend his support by writing a letter, with Szilárd, to President Roosevelt, recommending the U.S. pay attention and engage in its own nuclear weapons research.

The letter is believed to be “arguably the key stimulus for the U.S. adoption of serious investigations into nuclear weapons on the eve of the U.S. entry into World War II”.



Franklin Delano Roosevelt (January 30, 1882 – April 12, 1945), commonly known by his initials FDR, was an American statesman and political leader who served as the 32nd President of the United States.

President Roosevelt could not take the risk of allowing Hitler to possess atomic bombs first. As a result of Einstein’s letter and his meetings with Roosevelt, the U.S. entered the “race” to develop the bomb, drawing on its “immense material, financial, and scientific resources” to initiate the Manhattan Project. It became the only country to successfully develop an atomic bomb during World War II.

So on October 9, 1941, shortly before the United States entered World War II, President Roosevelt approved a crash program to develop an atomic bomb.

In May 1942 Oppenheimer was invited to take over work on fast neutron calculations, the key to calculations of critical mass and weapon detonation. He was given the title “Coordinator of Rapid Rupture”, specifically referring to the propagation of a fast neutron chain reaction in an atomic bomb. He and Robert Serber of the University of Illinois examined the problems of neutron diffusion—how neutrons moved in a nuclear chain reaction—and hydrodynamics—how the explosion produced by a chain reaction might behave.

The picture below shows Jamie Wilkes as Bob Serber in the RSC production of Oppenheimer.




Robert Serber (March 14, 1909 – June 1, 1997) was an American physicist who participated in the Manhattan Project.

In July 1942 with theoretical physicists Hans Bethe, John Van Vleck, Edward Teller, Emil Konopinski, Robert Serber, Stan Frankel, and Eldred C. Nelson, the latter three former students of Oppenheimer, and experimental physicists Felix Bloch, Emilio Segrè, John Manley, and Edwin McMillan tentatively confirmed that a fission bomb was theoretically possible.


Tom McCall as Hans Bethe (above left) and Ben Allen as Edward Teller (above right) in Oppenheimer



John Hasbrouck Van Vleck (March 13, 1899 – October 27, 1980) was an American physicist and mathematician, co-awarded the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physics, for his contributions to the understanding of the behaviour of electrons in magnetic solids.





Felix Bloch (October 23, 1905 – September 10, 1983) was a Swiss physicist, working mainly in the U.S.



Emilio Gino Segrè (1 February 1905 – 22 April 1989) was an Italian physicist and Nobel laureate who discovered the elements technetium and astatine, and the antiproton, a sub-atomic antiparticle, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1959.



Edwin Mattison McMillan (September 18, 1907 – September 7, 1991) was an American physicist and Nobel laureate credited with being the first ever to produce a transuranium element.

There were still many unknown factors. The properties of pure uranium-235 were relatively unknown, as were those of plutonium, an element that had only been discovered in February 1941 by Glenn Seaborg and his team. The group thought about creating plutonium in nuclear reactors where uranium-238 atoms absorbed neutrons that had been emitted from fissioning uranium-235 atoms. At this point no reactor had been built, and only tiny quantities of plutonium were available from cyclotrons.

In June 1942, the US Army established the Manhattan Engineer District to handle its part in the atom bomb project, beginning the process of transferring responsibility from the Office of Scientific Research and Development to the military.

It was decided by Oppenheimer and the military that for security the research needed to be carried out at a secret, centralised laboratory. Los Alamos Laboratory was built on the site of an old boy’s school near Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Initially Los Alamos was supposed to be a military laboratory, and Oppenheimer and other researchers were to be commissioned into the Army. The plan to commission fell through when the scientists balked at the idea.

A compromise was devised whereby the laboratory was operated by the University of California under contract to the War Department. It soon turned out that Oppenheimer had hugely underestimated the magnitude of the project; Los Alamos grew from a few hundred people in 1943 to over 6,000 in 1945.

In 1943, despite the fact that only two milligrams of plutonium had been created, the group started to think about how the fission weapon could be deployed. After much work Oppenheimer favoured an implosion type weapon. Using chemical explosive lenses, a sub-critical sphere of fissile material could be squeezed into a smaller and denser form. The metal needed to travel only very short distances, so the critical mass would be assembled in much less time. In August 1944 he implemented a sweeping reorganization of the Los Alamos laboratory to focus on implosion and his design, later known as little boy, only required uranium 235.


The war with Germany ended in May 1945 and it was found that the Nazis were nowhere near developing a nuclear bomb. Their initial programme ended due to the German invasion of Poland; when many notable physicists were drafted into the Wehrmacht, and a second attempt failed because it was assessed that nuclear fission would not contribute significantly to ending the war (also they lost a lot of their physicists because of the race laws).

There was still the war with Japan. In May 1945 an Interim Committee was created to advise and report on wartime and postwar policies regarding the use of nuclear energy. The joint work of the scientists at Los Alamos resulted in the first artificial nuclear explosion near Alamogordo on July 16, 1945, on a site that Oppenheimer codenamed “Trinity” in mid-1944. He later recalled that, while witnessing the explosion, he thought of a verse from the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita:

“I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”.

It was felt that dropping the bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945 was necessary to make Japan surrender as the alternative was a costly invasion that could have seen the war continue until 1946 or even 1947 but Oppenheimer and many of the project staff were very upset about the bombing of Nagasaki, as they did not feel the second bomb was necessary from a military point of view.


Oppenheimer travelled to Washington on August 17 to hand-deliver a letter to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson expressing his revulsion and his wish to see nuclear weapons banned and he later told President Truman that he felt he has blood on his hands.

Postwar activities

Immediately after the war Oppenheimer became a household name with his face appearing on the covers of magazines.

He found that he no longer wanted to teach and thankfully was offered the directorship of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.


Oppenheimer brought together intellectuals at the height of their powers and from a variety of disciplines to solve the most pertinent questions of the age.

A series of conferences in New York from 1947 through 1949 saw physicists switch back from war work to theoretical issues. Under Oppenheimer’s direction, physicists tackled the greatest outstanding problem of the pre-war years: infinite, divergent, and non-sensical expressions in the quantum electrodynamics of elementary particles.

Oppenheimer felt very strongly that atomic energy should only be used for peaceful purposes. He influenced the Acheson–Lilienthal Report, which advocated creation of an international Atomic Development Authority, which would own all fissionable material and the means of its production, such as mines and laboratories, and atomic power plants where it could be used for peaceful energy production. Unfortunately the resultant plan was seen as an attempt to maintain the United States’ nuclear monopoly and was rejected by the Soviets. With this, it became clear to Oppenheimer that an arms race was unavoidable, due to the mutual suspicion of the United States and the Soviet Union, which even Oppenheimer was starting to distrust.

Oppenheimer was appointed as the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission General Advisory Committee (GAC) in 1947 and lobbied for arms control. President Truman was having none of it and announced a crash program of plutonium to tritium production after the Soviet Union tested their first atomic bomb in 1949.

The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover had been following Oppenheimer since before the war, when he showed Communist sympathies as a professor at Berkeley and had been close to members of the Communist Party. He had been under close surveillance since the early 1940s, his home and office bugged, his phone tapped and his mail opened. On June 7, 1949, he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee that he had associations with the Communist Party in the 1930s.

Oppenheimer had found himself in the middle of more than one controversy and power struggle in the years from 1949 to 1953. Edward Teller, who had been so uninterested in work on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos during the war that Oppenheimer had given him time instead to work on his own project of the hydrogen bomb, had eventually left Los Alamos in 1951 to help found, in 1952, a second laboratory at what would become the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

On December 21, 1953, Oppenheimer had his security clearance suspended pending resolution of a series of charges outlined in a letter, and considered resigning. He chose not to resign and requested a hearing instead.

Starting in 1954, Oppenheimer spent several months of the year living on the island of St. John in the Virgin Islands and in 1957 he purchased a 2-acre tract of land on Gibney Beach, where he built a Spartan home on the beach.

Increasingly concerned about the potential danger to humanity arising from scientific discoveries, Oppenheimer joined with Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Joseph Rotblat and other eminent scientists and academics to establish what would eventually become the World Academy of Art and Science in 1960.

Deprived of political power, Oppenheimer continued to lecture, write and work on physics. He toured Europe and Japan, giving talks about the history of science, the role of science in society, and the nature of the universe. On May 3, 1962, he was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society in Britain.

President John F. Kennedy awarded Oppenheimer the Enrico Fermi Award in 1963 as a gesture of political rehabilitation.

Oppenheimer was diagnosed with throat cancer in late 1965 and, after inconclusive surgery, underwent unsuccessful radiation treatment and chemotherapy late in 1966. He fell into a coma on February 15, 1967, and died at his home in Princeton, New Jersey, on February 18, aged 62.

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