How did Oppenheimer die? Exploring the reasons behind Atomic Age Titan's death - Hindustan Times
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How did Oppenheimer die? Exploring the reasons behind Atomic Age Titan's death

ByJahanvi Sharma
Dec 07, 2023 11:59 PM IST

Robert Oppenheimer, ‘father of the atomic bomb’ died in 1967, about two decades post two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. Here's how he died…

J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the ‘father of the atomic bomb,’ died in 1967, about two decades after Japan was bombed with two atomic bombs. He died at the age of 62, two years after being diagnosed with throat cancer in 1965, due to his lifelong habit of smoking and heavy drinking.

At first, Oppenheimer believed that the development of an atomic bomb was unavoidable. However, once he witnessed the so-called Trinity Test A-bomb explosion and after the bombing of Japan, his views on nuclear technology changed for the worse.
At first, Oppenheimer believed that the development of an atomic bomb was unavoidable. However, once he witnessed the so-called Trinity Test A-bomb explosion and after the bombing of Japan, his views on nuclear technology changed for the worse.

Robert was born in 1904, in New York City to wealthy parents, Julius S. and Ella Friedman Oppenheimer. His childhood was characterized by relative privilege, where he was an intelligent child who had a deep interest in science, specifically mineralogy and literature.

He studied theoretical physics at elite European and U.S. universities and it was during his employment at the University of California, Berkeley, where he met his future wife, Katherine Peuning Harrison. By 1940, the couple had two kids and later a third, Peter Oppenheimer.

Early on in the war, Oppenheimer was already at work researching a potential nuclear power, and by 1942, he was appointed director of the Manhattan Project, in Los Alamos, New Mexico, tasked with the A-bomb's development.

At first, Oppenheimer believed that the development of an atomic bomb was unavoidable. His job as a scientist was to create technology; it was up to politicians to control it.

However, once he witnessed the so-called Trinity Test A-bomb explosion and after the bombing of Japan, his views on nuclear technology changed for the worse. At the Trinity test explosion, the scientist famously quoted the Bhagavad Gita when he said, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

He expressed regret for causing a nuclear arms race between the United States and Russia, and with alleged ties to Communism, he was rejected by the political establishment.

Speaking to the American Philosophical Society in the post-war period, Oppenheimer said (via The New Atlantis), “We have made a thing, a most terrible weapon, that has altered abruptly and profoundly the nature of the world ... a thing that by all the standards of the world we grew up in is an evil thing. And by so doing ... we have raised again the question of whether science is good for man.”

The cumulative stress of his alleged personal guilt and public humiliation did nothing to curb his habits and undoubtedly contributed to his early demise. By 1944 and 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer had already been described as a heavy chain smoker who could consume 100 cigarettes per day and excessive amounts of alcohol.

He found some peace after being diagnosed with cancer, according to Freeman Dyson, who worked on the Manhattan Project, which Oppenheimer led.

Dyson stated that as he approached death, Oppenheimer "accepted his fate gracefully; he carried on with his job; he never complained; he became quite suddenly simple and no longer trying to impress anybody."

Dyson also worked for Oppenheimer at Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study. Oppenheimer was the institute's director from 1947 until his retirement in 1966, shortly before his death.

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