Oppenheimer, J. Robert

Oppenheimer, J. Robert

Oppenheimer, J. Robert (ŏpˈənhīˌmər), 1904–67, American physicist, b. New York City, grad. Harvard (B.A., 1925), Ph.D. Univ. of Göttingen, 1927. He taught at the Univ. of California and the California Institute of Technology from 1929 (as professor from 1936) until his appointment in 1947 as director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, N.J. His early work was concerned with the quantum theory and nuclear physics. With Max Born he contributed to the quantum theory of molecules, and later (1930) he published an important paper on the nature of antiparticles, which had been predicted but not yet detected.

As director of the atomic-energy research project at Los Alamos, N.Mex., from 1942 to 1945, Oppenheimer made important contributions to the development of atomic energy for military purposes. After the atomic bomb was used against Japan, Oppenheimer became one of the foremost proponents of civilian and international control of atomic energy; he was chairman of the general advisory committee of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission from 1946 to 1952 and consultant to the American delegate to the UN Atomic Energy Committee. He opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb in 1949 on technical, financial, and moral grounds. In 1953, Oppenheimer was suspended by the Atomic Energy Commission as an alleged security risk, in part due to criticism from Edward Teller, who was instrumental in the hydrogen bomb's development. Oppenheimer's case stirred wide controversy. Declassified in 2014, transcripts of the secret hearings tend to exonerate him of any disloyality. In Oct., 1954, he was unanimously reelected director of the Institute for Advanced Study. In addition to his contributions as a theoretical physicist and an administrator, Oppenheimer achieved a reputation as one of the outstanding teachers of his generation; he left a lasting influence both at California and at Princeton. His book Science and the Common Understanding was published in 1954.


See I. I. Rabi et al., Oppenheimer (1969); J. Major, The Oppenheimer Hearing (1971); P. M. Stern and H. P. Green, The Oppenheimer Case (1971); P. Goodchild, J. Robert Oppenheimer: Shatterer of Worlds (1985); G. Herken, Brotherhood of the Bomb (2002); J. Bernstein, Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma (2004); K. Bird and M. J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2005); D. C. Cassidy, J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century (2005); P. J. McMillan, The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2005); R. Monk, Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center (2013).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Oppenheimer, J. Robert


Born Apr. 22, 1904, in New York City; died Feb. 18, 1967, in Princeton, N.J. American physicist.

Oppenheimer studied at Harvard and Cambridge universities and the University of Göttingen. In 1928–29 he worked in Leiden and Zürich. From 1929 he was a professor at the University of California and the California Institute of Technology. From 1947 he was the director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Together with M. Born he developed the theory of the structure of diatomic molecules (1927) and determined the mechanism of pair production by gamma rays (1933). With the American physicist M. Phillips, he developed the theory of processes taking place during the mutual collisions of deuterons and nuclei (1935). Oppenheimer explained the nature of the “soft” component of cosmic radiation and proposed a theory of shower formation in cosmic rays (1936–39). During World War II (1939–45) he directed work on the production of the atom bomb; from 1943 to 1945 he was the director of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, and from 1947 to 1953, chairman of the general advisory committee of the Atomic Energy Commission. In 1954 he was removed from all positions associated with work classified as secret and was accused of “disloyalty,” mainly because he opposed the building of the hydrogen bomb and took the stand that atomic energy should be used only for peaceful purposes.


“A Memorial to Oppenheimer.” Physics Today, 1967, vol. 20, no. 10. (Includes a list of Oppenheimer’s works.)


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Oppenheimer, J. Robert

(1904–67) physicist; born in New York City. During his graduate studies in Europe (1925–29), he and Max Born of Göttingen developed their classical contribution to molecular quantum theory, the "Born-Oppenheimer method" (1926). Returning to the U.S.A., Oppenheimer taught theoretical physics concurrently at the California Institute of Technology and the University of California: Berkeley (1929–42), and investigated electron-positron pairs, cosmic ray theory, and deuteron reactions. He joined the Manhattan Project (1942) and directed the Los Alamos laboratory (1943–45), where his crucial input made him internationally known as the "father of the atomic bomb." During the postwar period, he became a government and UN adviser, proposing international regulation of nuclear power to ensure peace. As director of the Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton, N.J. (1947–66), he stimulated discussion and research in quantum and relativistic physics. He lost his security clearance in 1953 because of his alleged "disloyalty" but he was vindicated in 1963 when he was given the Atomic Energy Commission's Fermi Award.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.