This quote from the Hindu text Bhagavad-Gita is now more likely to be associated with J Robert Oppenheimer than religious doctrine after Oppenheimer, the head of the now infamous Manhattan Project, spoke the words aloud following the testing of a nuclear bomb that would go on to change the world. His creations were dropped on Japan 78 years ago this month, causing mass destruction and officially ending WWII.

With all the hype surrounding Christopher Nolan’s long awaited film, Oppenheimer, starring Irish actor Cillian Murphy as the man himself, we thought we would give you an insight into J Robert Oppenheimer, the reluctant father of the atomic bomb.

So first off, who was Oppenheimer?

Julius Robert Oppenheimer (known as J Robert Oppenheimer professionally) was born on 22nd April 1904 in New York City. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Germany and though they were not practicing, were members of the local Jewish community and Oppenheimer’s heritage became a source of contention during the rise in anti-semitism across the world in the 1930s and 40s.

Despite coming to the states in their teens, Oppenheimer’s parents became quite wealthy, with the family eventually moving to Manhattan and being known for their extensive art collection, which even contained original paintings by Van Gough.

Oppenheimer had varied interests throughout his life, including left wing politics, mysticism, Hinduism, spirituality and science, particularly minerals. He was a voracious learner and was skipped forward several years in school and even astounded the New York Mineralogical Club who invited him to speak not knowing he was just 12 years old.

After finishing school early, Oppenheimer attended Harvard University where he studied chemistry and graduated at the top of his class. Following this, he moved to Cambridge in the UK to undertake graduate studies in physics, where he would work alongside JJ Thomson, winner of the Nobel Prize and the man credited with discovering the electron. It is said that Oppenheimer didn’t really like his time studying in England, he clashed with his tutors and told friends that he was deeply unhappy there. After just two years, he moved to the University of Gottingen in Germany, one of the leading centres for theoretical physics where he contributed to research on quantum theory. Just a year later, he received his doctorate and moved back to the states, where he spent his time between two academic institutes in California. He would work there for the next 13 years conducting research in nuclear physics, quantum field theory and astrophysics.

So, now you know a bit about his background, what kind of man was he?

Well,  a driven one who loved science more than people – something he told his brother early in his studies. According to those who knew him, though he had life long associations with the Communist Party, he was never actually a member and had an interest in left wing politics, despite not being up on current affairs. He claimed he never bothered to read newspapers and was blissfully unaware of world events until the emergence of the Nazis in Germany in the early 1930s. Friends and colleagues generally describe him as being tall, thin and chain smoking almost constantly. He was known to be self-destructive, often forgetting to eat for long periods of time and suffering with several bouts of depression – something he experienced during much of his time in Cambridge.

The political situation in Germany did start to alarm him, particularly after 1933. From around 1934 onwards, he began to set aside his own personal salary to support German physicists fleeing the Nazis, he also tried to get them positions at the university he was working at, but was repeatedly told that “one Jew was enough.”

His left wing leanings had him being monitored by the American government from around 1941, despite the fact that he was already working on nuclear weapons manufacture from as early as 1939.

As the film will explain, Oppenheimer got married in 1940 to Kitty Puening, a communist, the pair had two children together – one while Puening was married to her previous husband. During their marriage, Oppenheimer would rekindle a romance with his ex.

The Manhattan Project

The Manhattan Project was the name given to the secret project that created the atom bomb. As we said, Oppenheimer was involved in the manufacturing of weapons from around 1939, and the Manhattan Project aimed to harness the power of nuclear fission to create a weapon of mass destruction. It was spearheaded by the American military and secret services after fears that Germany was creating a similar weapon of their own.

The project aimed to bring the best physicists in the world together and several of the scientists Oppenheimer had worked with in Cambridge, Harvard and Germany were brought on board, including Enrico Fermi, an Italian-American who had been friends with him while in England. General Leslie Groves of the US Military personally appointed Oppenheimer to lead the project despite him have no experience of managing a project of this size and not having a Nobel Prize to his name – unlike many of the other leading physicists that were involved. The lack of experience didn’t cause too many issues however, as the team were ready to test their creation in just three years.

After being made head of the project, Oppenheimer personally selected a location in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where he had spent some time convalescing when recovering from TB. This site became the bombs’ test site and was where the design and construction took place, the US Army moved in and created a series of laboratories, where Oppenheimer was based. Those working on the Manhattan Project were spread across the US; the lab site in Los Alamos, Hanford in Washington which worked with plutonium and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which worked with uranium. The project were working to create two types of bomb, known as Little Boy, made with uranium and Fat Man, which was made with plutonium.


The first nuclear bomb test was known as the Trinity Test and took place on 16th July 1945 just three years after the Manhattan Project launched. At the time Trinity was the largest man made explosion the world had ever seen. It took place at Alamogordo in New Mexico on 16th July 1945.

Oppenheimer and his team watched from a control bunker as the explosion took place with Fermi taking bets that the explosion would immediately cease all life on the planet. Those present in the bunker say that following the test, Oppenheimer breathed a sigh of relief and said: “I guess it worked.” Years later, he would say that the now famous line “I am become death” came into this head. Others in the bunker say that immediately following the test, Oppenheimer was ushered onto a stage, was cheered and noted that he was regretful only that the bomb hadn’t been built in time to drop on Nazi Germany, who had surrendered, but America as still at war with Japan.

Less than a month after the Trinity test, America dropped Little Boy and Fat Man on Japan, officially ending the Second World War.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Following the detonation of the bombs, Oppenheimer and many other members of the team were upset about the use of the second bomb on Nagasaki – they didn’t see any military reason for dropping the second bomb and were devastated by the destruction the two caused.

Oppenheimer was so distraught that he travelled to hand deliver a letter to the Secretary of War in Washington expressing his upset and asking for a ban on nuclear weapons. Later in the year, he was invited to meet with President Truman during which he made his position clear, saying he felt he had blood on his hands. The meeting ended badly with Truman saying he never wanted to see him again, he did however award him a Medal for Merit for his services as director of the project.

After the War

The Manhattan Project didn’t become public knowledge until after the bombing and despite his now anti nuclear stance, Oppenheimer became a national spokesman for science, a household name and featured on the covers of Life and Time. However, he became increasingly more against the use of nuclear weapons believing instead that security from future wars could only come through organisations like the United Nations.

Though he returned to California to resume teaching, Oppenheimer couldn’t find the motivation to get back into the classroom. He would later run the Institute for Advanced Study in New Jersey, which came with accommodation and 265 acres of land. He would use this space to host intellectuals around the world to discuss various issues and to work on other pressing scientific problems. He was later appointed to the Atomic Energy Commission, where he advised on a number of nuclear related issues and lobbied for international arms control. Many of his warnings about nuclear weapons were ignored and the Soviet Union and Britain also began testing their own nuclear weapons. Oppenheimer was fiercely against the idea of America working on a thermonuclear weapon citing the lack of need for such a device and the enormous casualties that would result from detonation. He continued to travel around the world where he lectured on nuclear physics and received not only a membership to the Royal Society of Great Britain but also the Legion of Honour, the highest honour bestowed by France.

Despite his popularity, the FBI had been watching Oppenheimer since before the war and strongly suspected that he was a communist. This led with him having to testify, his brother was also suspected and had to give up science. His ties to communism and anti nuclear sentiment led to his security clearance being suspended and his political and scientific influence being destroyed. However this was restored in the early sixties when President Kennedy awarded him the Enrico Fermi Award, named for one of his fellow physicists. It was presented to him after Kennedy’s assassination along with a large tax free stipend. He used his renewed status to continue to lobby for international control of nuclear weapons and atomic energy.

He died aged 62 after suffering from throat cancer and his ashes were scattered at sea.

Learn more about Oppenheimer

You can learn more about Oppenheimer’s time in England by heading to Cambridge. He studied at the Cavendish Laboratory, which is part of the University of Cambridge’s School of Physical Sciences. A new home for the lab is currently under construction, though you can still see the previous site where Oppenheimer was a student.

What the film doesn't tell you

While Oppenheimer and the others that worked on the Manhattan Project should be remembered for their research, the discoveries that they made and the lessons they, particularly those who began campaigning against the use of nuclear weapons, learned, it is important to look at the impact that not only the atomic bombs had on the people of Japan but also those living around the test site.

At the time of the Trinity test, New Mexico had only been recognised as a US state for about 30 years and though Los Alamos was remote, there were people living in the vicinity of the test who were not notified because of the secrecy of the project. As such, there was no warning that a weapons test was taking place, no evacuation orders in place and no advice for staying safe in the lead up or immediate aftermath. 

Not only that, but the bomb detonated during the Trinity test was actually more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima and according to reports from the time, the light from the explosion was so bright it could be seen as far away as Amarillo, Texas, which was over 250 miles away. Nearby residents also talked of feeling the shock waves and noticing "warm snow" which fell over crops and cattle for days afterwards. Locals claim that children played in the "snow" amazed that such a thing could happen in July and the fall out covered all the local farmland, buildings and water reserves. 

The residents of New Mexico were left to live in massive amounts of nuclear fallout following the test, with around 10lbs worth of plutonium going into the atmosphere and falling across an area that was almost 200 miles wide. 

More recent reports found that in some areas of New Mexico, the radiation left over from the Trinity test was around 10,000 times higher than what was considered to be a safe exposure level. After the Trinity test, local doctors across New Mexico began to notice concerning trends in infant mortality rates and increased reports of cancer in adults. Radiation is particularly damaging to young people, especially if it is ingested and as locals were not warned, they continued to eat crops that had been covered in radioactive fallout.  Many local children were found to have developed leukemia later in life, which has been attributed to living downwind of the nuclear blast.

Some of those working on the Manhattan Project did warn of the potential dangers on the local environment, but it has been reported that many of those high up in the project believed the area to be utterly uninhabited and therefore, didn't check before setting up the test. Many also believed that the low winds would limit the spread of radiation. 




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