Oppenheimer, Robert

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© Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Robert Oppenheimer, who was known by his Dutch nickname, Opje, to his students and friends, was a brilliant theoretical physicist and inspired teacher who became famous for his 1943-45 remarkably effective leadership of the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb, and for the witch-hunt that led to a denial of his security clearance some nine years later. In the years before WW2, he established the major school of American theoretical physics, as he taught his famous courses on quantum mechanics (the inspiration for the very different texts by David Bohm and Leonard Schiff) and electrodynamics, divided his time between Berkeley and Caltech, and counted among his students and postdocs, Julian Schwinger, Willis Lamb, Robert Serber, Melba Phillips, Leonard Schiff, Sidney Dancoff, Arnold Nordseick, David Bohm, Hartland Snyder, and George Volkoff, many of whom were so taken with him that they attempted to imitate his western attire and pork-pie hat. In the post WW2 years, his students at Berkeley, of whom I was one, would marvel that despite being clearly the "brightest" theorist of his generation he had not carried out any research that was worthy of a Nobel Prize. We were wrong; his seminal work on the existence of neutron stars and what became known as black holes would have won the prize for him, as the existence of these remarkable compact astronomical objects was established by observations in the late 60's and 70's, had he lived another decade. But his constant smoking (he would lecture with a cigarette hanging from his mouth, and light another as soon as that one was finished, never confusing the cigarette with the chalk in his hand) gave rise to the cancer from which he died, aged 63, in 1968. (Unit: 8)