Study Guide

Robert Oppenheimer in Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon

By Steve Sheinkin

Robert Oppenheimer

Nerd Alert

Close your eyes. In your mind, summon up the most stereotypical image of a brilliant, science-inclined nerd that you can. Now start over, and this time, instead of picturing the cast of The Big Bang Theory, picture a nerd from the 1940s. Well, wait…You actually weren't that far off when you pictured the guys from that TV show. Robert Oppenheimer looked just like Sheldon would if he were even smarter, chain-smoked cigarettes, and wore nice suits instead of those comic book character T-shirts.

To be clear, Robert Oppenheimer was brilliant. Seriously, dude was a genius—at least, when it came to most things.

"He's a genius, a real genius," Groves told a reporter years later. "Why, Oppenheimer knows about everything. He can talk to you about anything you bring up. Well, not exactly, I guess there are a few things he doesn't know about. He doesn't know anything about sports. (On The Cliff.(8).35)

Even though that quote sounds like good-natured ribbing—he's so smart, but don't ask him about football—Groves was telling the truth. Oppenheimer spoke multiple languages, was an expert in several fields of study, and he was so ahead of his time that he often interrupted other professors' lectures to expound upon his own (often more advanced) theories on a subject.

Oppenheimer's tendency to know-it-all came in handy later on in life (although, as you can imagine, it didn't earn him many friends as a kid). When it came to the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer was able to know everything about every aspect of the whole ordeal:

"It was clear to all of us," remembered Hans Bethe, "that he knew everything that was important to know about the technical problems of the laboratory, and he somehow had it well organized in his head."

When he asked scientists for updates, they'd hand him fifteen- or twenty-page technical papers, dense with formulas and calculations.

"Well," he'd say, "let's look this over and we'll talk about it."

He'd flip through the pages for five minutes—then lead a discussion on the paper's key points.

"He had a remarkable ability to absorb things so rapidly," said the physicist Lee Dubridge. "I don't think there was anything around the lab of any significance that Oppie wasn't fully familiar with."  (Secret Cities.(21).5-9)

This ability to be involved with every aspect of everything that happened at Los Alamos was crucial. Even though it took its toll on Oppenheimer physically—he lost weight and his chain-smoking led to violent fits of coughing—mentally he was finally invigorated, rather than overwhelmed, as someone of a lesser intellect might have been.

In other words, dude was smart. Real smart. And if that makes him a nerd, then we want to be nerds, too.

Easy Target

Oppenheimer's ability to know something about everything came from his childhood. One of those kids who always seemed to be sick, his parents kept him indoors—a lot—so he turned to books as a way to pass the long hours spent listening to the other kids play outside. While this was fantastic for developing a superior intellect, it didn't lead to him having many friends. He didn't mind much, though, as he told his brother:

"I need physics more than friends," (Skinny Superhero.(1).35))

Perhaps because of this social isolation, Oppie developed a bad habit of being an insufferable know-it-all. Tall and skinny, with no interest in anything athletic, his awkward physique coupled with his social awkwardness resulted in Oppie getting horribly bullied. Once while at summer camp, Oppenheimer was viciously attacked by the other boys because of his refusal to participate in their sports.

This became a recurring problem for Oppenheimer. Even as an adult, after the success of the Manhattan Project, despite everything he'd contributed to help America win the whole dang war, he was still an easy target for bullies, just on a larger scale.

After the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer realized that what they just created had the potential to be a total disaster. While everyone around him celebrated their success and strove for more bombs, Oppenheimer quietly opposed them. He believed that a super bomb (what we now know as the hydrogen bomb) should never be created because it was far too dangerous a weapon for any country to possess. When the government called for one to be built anyway, and the Soviets quickly followed with their own, Oppenheimer realized that from that point on there would be no "winning" a nuclear war. Oppie said:

"We may be likened to two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life." (Epilogue.53)

Just like being the only kid at sports camp who'd rather write poetry than play football, Oppenheimer was suddenly one of the only pacifists surrounded by overeager, war-minded politicians. The problem was that he was advocating for de-escalation of the arms race when everyone else wanted to keep running.

Because of this, Lewis Strauss began the cruel persecution of Oppenheimer, falsely accusing him of being a communist spy/sympathizer. Oppenheimer chose to make a stand to protect his principles rather than slink off, disgraced, into the night. Unfortunately, though, using under-handed, illegal tactics, Strauss won, and it just about destroyed poor Oppie.

With his career derailed, and his personal life under constant scrutiny, Oppenheimer was thus a victim of bullies until his death in 1967. It's a bummer.

What a Nice Guy

For all the anecdotes about Oppenheimer that paint him as a loony, science-obsessed nerd, Oppie was anything but a disinterested misanthrope. For example, as a professor he did wacky things that earned him a reputation for being slightly batty:

During one lecture, he told students to think about a formula he'd written. There were dozens scrawled all over the board, and a student cut in to ask which formula he was talking about.

"Not that one," Oppenheimer said, pointing to the blackboard, "the one underneath."

There was no formula below that one, the student pointed out.

"Not below, underneath," snapped Oppenheimer. "I have written over it."

As one of Oppenheimer's students put it: "Everyone sort of regarded him, very affectionately, as being sort of nuts." (Skinny Superhero.(1).29-33)

And his personal life had it's own fair share of embarrassing moments when his brain just got carried away, like when he abandoned a woman mid-date to take a walk and got so distracted thinking about something science-y that he went home and forgot all about her. He was admittedly out of touch with reality for much of his early adulthood, entirely consumed with his studies in theoretical physics.

But then, in late 1936, events in his country began to break through his academic bubble:

For one thing, the country's ongoing economic troubles began to hit home. "I saw what the Depression was doing to my students. Often they could get no jobs," he said. "And through them, I began to understand how deeply political and economic events could affect men's lives. I began to feel the need to participate more fully in the life of the community." Oppenheimer started going to political meetings and discussion groups. He began giving money to support causes like labor unions and striking farm workers. (Skinny Superhero.(1).36)

Once he gained awareness of what was happening around him, Oppenheimer dove right into trying to figure out ways to help. When he learned about how Hitler was harassing Jewish physicists he dedicated a portion of his salary to help them escape Nazi Germany (Skinny Superhero.(1).37). He was suddenly very aware that horrible things were going on in the world, and he was consumed with "a continuing, smoldering fury" (Skinny Superhero.(1).41) about the atrocities committed abroad by Hitler.

Thus, World War II was the major turning point for Oppie. He went from a guy who failed to notice the Great Depressionwow—to someone who desperately wanted to find a way to help. When he realized that his role was to help design an atomic bomb that could take out Hitler, he was galvanized.

From then on he was filled with a drive that other people couldn't help but notice and which became a kind of magnetic pull. Upon meeting him, Dorothy McKibbin (a.k.a. the Gatekeeper) said:

"I never met a person with a magnetism that hit you so fast and so completely," she said later. She had no idea who this man was, or what he was doing in town. She didn't care. "I knew anything he was connected with would be alive," she said. "I thought to be associated with that person, whoever he was, would be simply great!" (The Gatekeeper.(16).12)

The people who worked with him at Los Alamos were pretty much all full of praise, too:

"Each of us could walk in, sit on his desk, and tell him how we thought something could be improved," remembered Joe Hirschfelder, a chemist. "We all adored and worshipped him."

Robert Wilson expressed a theme echoed by many at Los Alamos: Oppenheimer inspired them to do things they didn't think they could. "In his presence, I became more intelligent," Wilson said, "more vocal, more intense."

"He brought out the best in all of us," agreed Hans Bethe. (Secret Cities.(21).12-14)

They say that you can judge a person based on how well he treats his inferiors. Based on all the reports on Oppie, we can safely say he definitely was some kind of skinny superhero.