Saturday, April 22, 2006

American Prometheus

J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the most fascinating--and important--figures of the twentieth century, was born on this date in 1904.

Oppenheimer is best known as the "father of the atomic bomb." When the United States Government began in 1942 to consolidate its research into the possible military uses of atomic fission, an effort code-named the Manhattan Engineering District and better known as the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer was selected by Gen. Leslie Groves to head the central laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Research and design work at Los Alamos, together with uranium enrichment efforts at Oak Ridge, Tennessee and plutonium production at Hanford, Washington, culminated in a successful test on July 16, 1945, at a location in the New Mexico desert that Oppenheimer called the Trinity site. (At the time he was asked to name the site, Oppenheimer had just read John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV, which begins, "Batter my heart, three-person'd God.")

Earlier this week, an important new biography of Oppenheimer--American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin--was awarded the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

For an excellent on-line biography of Oppenheimer, see the site created to honor the centennial of his birth by the University of California at Berkeley (where Oppenheimer taught physics before World War II). The Avalon Project at Yale Law School includes some of the documents associated with the decision of the Atomic Energy Committee to withdraw Oppenheimer's security clearance in 1954.