Study Guide

Bomb: The Race to Build-and Steal-the Worlds Most Dangerous Weapon Part 1, Chapter 1

By Steve Sheinkin

Part 1, Chapter 1

Three-Way Race

Skinny Superhero

  • It's February of 1934 and Robert Oppenheimer is on a date with a graduate student named Melba Phillips.
  • That is, he's on a date until he walks away from her to "think about physics" and then gets so distracted that he forgets all about her, prompting a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle to write a story with the headline: "Forgetful Prof Parks Girl, Takes Self Home."
  • This apparently isn't out of character for Robert Oppenheimer—dude's always been brilliant but really socially awkward. In fact, because of his quiet, intellectual prowess, he was horribly bullied as a child.
  • As he grew older, though, Oppenheimer found himself a niche. Despite his tendency to be a total know-it-all, people grew fond of him for his awe-inspiring intellect. Luckily for Oppie, too, is the fact that he hit his stride during "a thrilling time in theoretical physics," when they were just discovering atoms and how they work.
  • After getting multiple advanced degrees, Oppenheimer built the country's best theoretical physics program at the University of California, Berkeley.
  • He was an inspiration to behold during his lectures, as he chain-smoked and lobbed theories at his students at lightning speed. One student remarked that he was generally, amiably, regarded as being a bit crazy.
  • After the Great Depression hit, Oppenheimer realized that he wanted to get his head out of the clouds a little bit and participate in his community more.
  • Then he started to pay attention to the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany starting in 1933. As a Jew who had family in Germany, Oppenheimer took great interest in the genocide-minded dictator, and he started donating a portion of his salary toward helping harassed Jewish physicists escape Nazi Germany.
  • And so, as the world teeters on the brink of World War II, Oppenheimer is in California, incensed about what Hitler is doing and wondering how a theoretical physicist could help bring him down.