Has J Robert Oppenheimer won any prizes

The somewhat erratic father of the atom bomb

In this gallery: 3 pictures

He did not make the most important contributions to the development of his subject in the 20th century. But there has probably been no other physicist in the last 100 years who has been involved in so many decisive turning points in the discipline as J. Robert Oppenheimer. Above all, he headed what is probably the most momentous physics project of all time in world history: the one that led to the construction of the first atomic bomb.

This bomb was detonated on July 16, 1945, 250 kilometers south of Los Alamos in the New Mexico desert. The first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima three weeks later. The explosion was preceded by three years of research, at times up to 100,000 people were employed on the so-called Manhattan Project, and according to today's exchange rate, the secret company cost more than 20 billion euros.

"Destroyer of the Worlds"

At the moment of the explosion, all of the tension suddenly disappeared from Oppenheimer's face, recalled a contemporary witness. Oppenheimer himself said that he was interested in a passage from the Bhagavad Gita had to think - the one in which Vishnu transforms himself into a warrior and says: "Now I have become death, the destroyer of the worlds." Incidentally, the physicist had read the Indian epic in Sanskrit - one of his numerous intellectual spleens.

There is probably no living person who has learned more about J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was born in New York in 1904, than Ray Monk. The British philosopher spent twelve years working on his monumental biography of the physicist, which was published in 2012 - but some of Oppenheimer's actions are still a mystery to him, as he explains in an interview with the Standard.

Focus on physics

Monk, author of a celebrated biography of the Austro-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and a two-volume work on his colleague Bertrand Russell, chose the route through his science for his approach to Oppenheimer's enigmatic personality. "Physics has always been neglected in previous biographies," says Monk, who consulted physicist James Todd on technical matters.

And so the author takes readers with less physical needs on a fascinating journey to some of the decisive phases of physics in the 20th century. The gifted Oppenheimer, the son of German-Jewish immigrants, was there four times in such upheavals: In 1926 Oppenheimer worked in Göttingen, where he did his doctorate with Max Born, one of the leaders of the "quantum revolution" in physics. Three years later he became a participating observer in Berkeley as his friend Ernest Lawrence built the first circular particle accelerator and thus brought the dominance of particle physics to the USA.

Far beyond the subject, Oppenheimer worked on the one hand as scientific director of the Manhattan project in Los Alamos and in 1947 as central advisor to the government on questions of nuclear energy. As the researcher did, always Inside the Center standing - that is the well-chosen title of Monk's 800-page biography - has remained a mystery in many previous representations.

Oppenheimer was not an experimental, but a theoretical physicist, also dealt with Indian mysticism and French poetry and was clearly far left politically. Nevertheless, Colonel Leslie Groves entrusted the erratic Oppenheimer of all people with the scientific management of the most important physical project of the 20th century.

Monk has three good explanations for this: "Firstly, Oppenheimer was convinced of the urgency of the project and, secondly, he was able to explain Groves better what it was about physically." Third, Groves was a remarkable person whose trust ultimately turned out to be legitimate.

In the McCarthy era, Oppenheimer, who campaigned for the control of nuclear energy and against a nuclear arms race, became all the more powerful enemies: in 1954 his security authorization was withdrawn, which is why he returned to research and teaching. Oppenheimer was not rehabilitated until 1963, four years before his death.

As a researcher, Oppenheimer did not leave too much of a lasting impression: his most important article was probably one from 1939 on the concept of black holes. He never came back to it in the 27 years that followed. (Klaus Taschwer, DER STANDARD, January 29, 2014)

Ray Monk will speak about his book on January 31st as part of the newly founded "Wittgenstein Initiative" in the ballroom of the Austrian Academy of Sciences at Dr.-Ignaz-Seipel-Platz