Robert Oppenheimer, Physicist, Manhattan Project Director


Robert Oppenheimer, Physicist, Manhattan Project Director

Oppenheimer Residence: One Eagle Hill
Office: Third Floor, LeConte Hall, UC Berkeley

Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant American physicist, taught at the University of California, Berkeley from 1929–1943. With his striking looks, bohemian attitudes, leftist politics, and eclectic tastes (he learned Sanskrit and quoted from the Bhagavad-Gita, a book he cited as having shaped his philosophy of life), “Oppie” was a favorite among students. In 1940 Oppenheimer married Katherine (Kitty) Puening Harrison, a radical UC Berkeley student.

With the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, the University quickly became a hub for atomic weapons development. By the outbreak of World War 11, Oppenheimer, his students, and several notable physicists probed atomic theory on the top floor of Le Conte Hall. Shamefully, anti-semitism emerged even there. When Oppenheimer recommended a top student, Bob Serber, to be hired, the appointment was blocked by department Chairman Raymond T. Birge, who wrote a colleague saying “one Jew in the department was enough.”

Oppenheimer’s collaboration and friendship with Ernest Lawrence, the Nobel Prize-winning inventor of the cyclotron and pioneer in uranium fission, led to his selection as head of the secret Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

After the war, Oppenheimer became a symbol and spokesman for the new science, but his politics, and his reservations about atomic weapons use, hurt him. During the McCarthy era it was revealed that the FBI had bugged his home and office during his Berkeley years. Though he denied ever being a member of the Communist Party, he lost his security clearance in 1953 and was banned from governmental halls of power. Oppenheimer, a chronic chain smoker, died of throat cancer in Princeton, New Jersey in 1967.

Contributed by Robert Kehlmann, 2012

  • First nuclear test (1945), National Nuclear Security Administration.

  • Oppenheimer Residence, 1 Eagle Hill,

  • Le Conte Hall,

  • Le Conte Hall, left veranda is outside Oppenheimer's office,

  • Oppenheimer's office 3rd floor of Le Conte Hall, photographed at a later unknown date,

  • Oppenheimer with Seaborg and Lawrence (1946), photo Oppenheimer A Life, April 2004,

  • Bust of Oppenheimer in Le Conte Hall,

Photo credit abbreviations:
BAHA: Berkeley Architectural Heritage Assn.
BHS: Berkeley Historical Society