Robert Oppenheimer was an unusual genius. Unlike others of similar intellectual aptitude, who are often socially awkward, he was engaging, charismatic, and endlessly interesting. Of slight build with piercing blue eyes, he was popular with women and in his youth would maintain four or five relationships at a time. He was fluent in six languages, including Sanskrit, which he learned for fun in a few idle weeks, and was experientially familiar with different cultures worldwide, thereby making him an engaging conversationalist.
When he was teaching at the University of California at Berkeley, Oppenheimer's lectures were enormously popular. He was known for being able to make confusingly complex subjects like quantum mechanics understandable and relatable, and his students loved and even emulated him:
So greatly did his students admire him that they began to imitate their master's mannerisms. "They scribbled furiously on the blackboard, talked in soft, deep tones." They held their hands in front of their lips; they coughed slightly, and paused significantly between sentences. "Some even took up chain smoking and blue shirts!"
Robert, a confirmed smoker, had a habit of clicking open his lighter whenever anyone took out a cigarette or a pipe. Soon "his students could be recognized from afar in the campus cafeterias of Berkeley and Pasadena by their custom of darting about like marionettes on invisible strings, with tiny flames between their fingers." (Royal, page 60)
Early Potential Revealed
Born and raised in New York City before becoming a chemistry major at Harvard and later developing his interest in theoretical physics, Oppenheimer exhibited his remarkable intelligence at an early age. When he was 12, he became interested in geology and, using his family's typewriter, began corresponding with established geologists about the rock formations that he was studying in Central Park. Because he wrote like an expert in the field, these geologists were unaware that they were exchanging letters with a child, and Oppenheimer found himself invited to deliver a lecture to the New York Mineralogical Club. He accepted the invitation and the group was understandably surprised when he arrived. They applauded the speech, which he delivered standing on a box so he could reach the podium.
Because he wrote like an expert in the field, these geologists were unaware that they were exchanging letters with a child
It was a precocious introduction to the scientific community, and Oppenheimer continued to impress nearly everyone he met. After graduating from Harvard, he moved on to the University of Cambridge in England but he found the laboratory work he was doing there to be tedious and boring, and depression set in, a condition he battled off-and-on his entire life.
He realized that he was far more interested in theoretical physics than in lab work and moved on to the University of Göttingen in Germany, where in 1927 he earned his doctorate in physics and with physicist Max Born developed an impressive contribution to quantum molecular theory, proposing that the wave functions of atomic nuclei can be considered separate from those of the electrons in a molecule because of their differences in relative mass, speeding the computation of molecular wavefunctions. It was a time of considerable theoretical work in quantum physics and the Born-Oppenheimer approximation became one of the most important concepts in the relatively young science. While at Göttingen, Oppenheimer met Niels Bohr, who would himself become a towering figure in quantum theory. The two would later work together on the development of the atom bomb at Los Alamos.
Oppenheimer's Theoretical Work
While teaching at Berkeley and at the California Institute of Technology, and lecturing at universities around the world, Oppenheimer advanced his reputation. He was well-regarded by the students who went on to become respected scientists themselves, and his work in nuclear physics, quantum electrodynamics, and theoretical astronomy was highly respected in the scientific community.
Among his many publications, for example, was a paper predicting the existence of the positron, the antiparticle of the electron. His work on the problem of field electron emission would lead to the concept of quantum tunneling, which is a quantum mechanics phenomenon in which an electron or atom passess through an energy barrier that, according to classical physics, it could not possibly possess energy enough to enter.
Oppenheimer's interests were wide, and he was brilliant in everything he became interested in: spectroscopy, nuclear physics, quantum field theory, the application of general relativity to theoretical astronomy, the mathematics of quantum mechanics, cosmic rays, artificial radioactivity under bombardment by deuterons (a stable isotope of hydrogen), astrophysics, and he co-wrote a paper predicting what would become known as black holes. He made discoveries and advanced science for an impressive range of impossibly complex fields.
He started to notice politics with the rise of Adolf Hitler, and though he gravitated to and supported some of the ideas of communism in opposition to Hitler's authoritarianism, he never joined the party. He was interested in social reforms that during the McCarthy era were considered communist, though his activities were not communist but rather anti-fascist. He hosted fundraisers, for example, for the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War, and he contributed money to leftist causes through acquaintances who were later accused of being communists.
Others in the scientific community were watching Hitler as well, and when nuclear fission was discovered in 1938 by German scientists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, the theoretical possibility of an atomic bomb was obvious to physicists. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Albert Einstein and other prominent scientists warned the U.S. government that Nazi Germany could devise a nuclear weapon and devastate the world. It was evident that the Allies needed to develop nuclear capabilities before Germany.
The Pursuit of Atomic Energy
In 1942, the U.S. Army accepted responsibility for organizing efforts to militarily harness nuclear energy, a program that would become known as the Manhattan Project, and Oppenheimer, largely because of his interdisciplinary expertise, was selected to set up and direct a laboratory to that end — his official title was "Coordinator of Rapid Rupture," referring to the propagation of the fast neutron chain reaction necessary for an atomic blast. He chose Los Alamos in New Mexico for the location and gathered the best physicists known. By 1945, the project had grown from a few hundred people to more than 6,000, and its budget soared from $6,000 to almost $2 billion, 90% of which was invested in the production of fissionable material.
Work began with the problem of isotope separation: for nuclear power or weapons, it's necessary to separate natural uranium into enriched uranium and depleted uranium. Four different methods were explored: electromagnetic separation, gaseous diffusion, gas centrifuges, and thermal diffusion. Studies also began on plutonium reactors, heavy water, and graphite as a neutron moderator. Oppenheimer began working on fast neutron calculations, necessary for understanding critical mass and detonation.
A dizzying quantity of new science needed to be discovered. The genius of Oppenheimer was in understanding the disparate sciences employed for the project. He had the ability to quickly grasp the primary aspects of any subject, which was necessary in combining the work of scientists from different disciplines. He also earned the respect of the people he managed by being hands-on. He did not lead from his desk but from the laboratories; he was personally involved in most of the work done. His continuing presence generated enthusiasm and the drive to succeed.
The Original Bombs
By 1945, the Manhattan Project had produced two different types of atomic bombs: an enriched uranium gun-type fission bomb called Little Boy and a plutonium implosion-type bomb called Fat Man. Both types required that critical mass be achieved, which is the minimum amount of fissile material necessary for a sustained nuclear chain reaction. For a weapon, obviously, it's necessary to delay critical mass until required, and the Manhattan Project developed two ways to initiate the reaction. A "gun-type" weapon achieves critical mass by basically shooting one subcritical mass into another. Implosion weapons, like Fat Man, depend on simultaneous detonations to squeeze subcritical masses together into one critical mass.
The Trinity test in 1945 was the first nuclear explosion in history. Nicknamed "the gadget," it used an implosion-type plutonium bomb of Fat Man design that released the explosive energy of 25 kilotons of TNT. The site was the Jornada del Muerto Desert basin in New Mexico, translating as "Dead Man's Journey." It was part of the Alamogordo Bombing Range, which was renamed the White Sands Proving Ground shortly before the test.
The Trinity bomb was placed at the top of a 100-foot tower to help approximate the results of a detonation at altitude. Since the explosion would be spherical, more damage would result from a detonation in the air than on the ground. This first-ever nuclear explosion occurred at 5:30 a.m. and its mushroom cloud reached 7.5 miles into the atmosphere. The fission reaction consumed three of its 13 pounds of plutonium while 10 pounds spread through the atmosphere. The explosion created a crater five feet deep and 88 yards wide. People felt the shock wave from 100 miles away. It worked.
Years later, in 1965, Oppenheimer remembered that day:
We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.
The 2nd Air Force provided a press release for the public, which had of course noticed the blast. The release stated that, "A remotely located ammunition magazine containing a considerable amount of high explosives and pyrotechnics exploded. There was no loss of life or injury to anyone, and the property damage outside of the explosives magazine was negligible." (Norris, 406)
Oppenheimer was relieved and gratified that the test was successful. Physicist Isidor Rabi reported, "I'll never forget his walk; I'll never forget the way he stepped out of the car. His walk was like High Noon ... This kind of strut. He had done it." (Monk, 457)
But his exuberance didn't last.
The Aftermath of Nuclear Detonation
The public was more accurately notified after the two nuclear bombings of Japan at Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than a month later. More than 200,000 people were killed, the overwhelming majority of them civilians. The idea was that such a massive demonstration of military superiority would force Japan to surrender and thereby save untold numbers of lives potentially lost should the war continue. A demonstration in an unpopulated part of Japan, without annihilating hundreds of thousands of people, may have accomplished the same, but President Truman decided otherwise. Only four bombs had been made, including the Trinity test bomb, and Truman wanted to project the idea that there was no limitation to how many such bombings might occur, concluding that none could be wasted on empty real estate. A bold statement was required. It's a concept that has been hotly debated since.
Less than two weeks after the bombing of Nagasaki, Oppenheimer hand-delivered a letter to the secretary of war urging the prohibition of nuclear weapons. A couple of months later he visited President Truman to discuss the danger of an arms race with the Soviet Union and the need for international control of atomic energy. Truman dismissed Oppenheimer's worry.
The two did not agree and did not get along:
In the interview with Truman, Oppenheimer's dejection must have been visibly manifest, since Truman — shocked at the gap between Oppenheimer's reputation as a suave, brilliant, articulate high achiever and the hesitant, mumbling figure in front of him — was moved to ask what the matter was. "Mr. President," said Oppenheimer slowly, "I feel I have blood on my hands." The remark infuriated Truman and effectively put an end both to the meeting and to Oppenheimer's chances of being treated by the President as a trusted insider. "I told him," Truman said afterward, "the blood was on my hands — to let me worry about that." Six months after the meeting, Truman was still railing against the "cry-baby scientist" who had come to his office "and spent most of his time wringing his hands and telling me they had blood on them because of his discovery of atomic energy." (Monk, 494)
Truman later said, "I don't want to see that son of a bitch in this office ever again."
Oppenheimer knew that the Soviet Union would soon develop atomic energy, though he didn't know precisely when; Truman claimed to know the answer: "Never." Truman was wrong. The Soviets developed their own atomic bomb, tested it in 1949, and from that time forward, the option for politicians and dictators to destroy the world has endured. Truman accelerated the development of the hydrogen bomb to maintain military superiority. Oppenheimer opposed the program.
Oppenheimer After Los Alamos
He found himself famous after the secrecy of Los Alamos was revealed following the bombings and he was on the covers of both Life and Time magazines. He became chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission and found that he was no longer interested in teaching. Oppenheimer's opposition to the hydrogen bomb was noted, and he was accused of being a communist supporter, presumably because only communists could disapprove of global annihilation. A secretly held hearing examined his past relationships with suspected communists and his opinions regarding the hydrogen bomb. Though he was cleared of charges of disloyalty, the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission suspended his security clearance, which was humiliating both personally and professionally.
"Mr. President... I feel I have blood on my hands."
The majority opinion of the Personnel Security Board referenced Oppenheimer's "defects of character" and his youthful associations with people suspected of communist inclinations. The scientific community regarded the exercise as a witch hunt and Oppenheimer as a victim of McCarthyism, with Wernher von Braun quipping that had Oppenheimer resided in England instead of the U.S., he would have been knighted. Other countries seemed to hold him in higher regard than his own. France made him an officer of the Legion of Honor in 1957, and in 1962 he was elected in Britain as a foreign member of the Royal Society. Meanwhile, Oppenheimer no longer had a voice in U.S. governmental policy.
A video interview between Oppenheimer and the famous journalist Edward R. Murrow is notable for its omission of discussion regarding the loss of security clearance:
The easy rapport and respect each man had for the other was clear, even if the air in Oppenheimer's office wasn't. The one topic they didn't address directly was Oppenheimer's security hearing and loss of government clearance. As much as the ubiquitous smoke from Oppenheimer's pipe and Murrow's never-ending chain of Camel cigarettes, the subject was a permeative, evanescent presence in the room in which the two men conversed, even if, like the smoke, it was never openly acknowledged. (Wolverton, 20)
In 1963, his reputation was rehabilitated when the General Advisory Committee and the office of President Kennedy announced that Oppenheimer had been selected to receive the coveted Enrico Fermi Award, an award acknowledging and celebrating the lifetime achievements of scientists specializing in the development or employment of energy. The award was named for the Italian scientist who pioneered experimentation with and development of nuclear energy and who is now perhaps most widely known for the Fermi Paradox, a scientific/philosophical question regarding the lack of evidence for extraterrestrial life when universal conditions indicate that it should be everywhere. Fermi's original question is said to have been, "Where is everybody?" The award carrying his name is particularly prestigious and came with a $100,000 stipend.
It seems a particularly appropriate award for Oppenheimer, the man who led the effort to harness and deploy thermonuclear energy. Kennedy was assassinated before the presentation, but his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, presented the award in December of 1963. Jackie Kennedy made it a point to attend so she could tell Oppenheimer how much her husband felt that he deserved and had more than earned the award.
Unfortunately, Oppenheimer would not live much longer. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1965 and died in his sleep in February 1967 at age 62.
Oppenheimer and Smoking
Oppenheimer was a lifelong chain smoker, continuously lighting his next cigarette from the ember of the last, his high-stress working conditions motivating him to smoke as many as 75-150 Chesterfields a day (accounts differ) while eating almost nothing and carrying only 115 pounds on his six-foot frame. He also smoked pipes. He loved tobacco. However, his pipe smoking was overshadowed by his cigarette smoking until midlife, when he began gravitating more substantially toward the briar.
His first smoking experience was in his young adulthood while on a camping trip. "Oppenheimer often camped out on the trail. Caught one night without food, he was persuaded to share a friend's pipe as a way to quieten the pangs of hunger" (Michelmore, 14). It worked so well that he seemingly never stopped smoking. And he evidently didn't resume eating.
There's at least one photo of him smoking what appears to be a Dunhill with the white spot on the stem. He tended to smoke traditional straight pipes. We know little about the specific pipes he smoked, but we do know the tobacco he preferred: Walnut.
Now, however, as Oppenheimer stuffed his ever-present pipe full of his favored Walnut tobacco and swiveled around in his chair to regard the brilliantly green and immaculately kept grounds of the Institute campus through the windows that lined his office, he was more alone and isolated than ever before. Eleven years ago his quiet academic life of research and teaching had taken an abrupt and wholly unpredictable turn: he had been thrust into leadership of the most important, most secret, and most life-and-death scientific gamble in history: the Los Alamos laboratory of the Manhattan Project that built the world's first atomic bomb. (Wolverton, 4)
Walnut tobacco by the John Middleton company is no longer made, and it was not named for its flavor. It didn't taste like walnuts. It was a blend of Burley, Cavendish, Kentucky, Latakia, Maryland, Oriental, and Virginia in a coarse-cut presentation and was named for one of the oldest streets in Philadelphia.
Caught one night without food, he was persuaded to share a friend's pipe as a way to quieten the pangs of hunger
The tobacco is mentioned again in Peter Michelmore's biography, The Swift Years: The Robert Oppenheimer Story (1969), from the time of Oppenheimer's hearing regarding his security clearance:
Assembled in a small upstairs room in the commission's temporary office building were the three-man board, Robb and his assistant Arthur Rollander, the Garrison team, and Oppenheimer, The defendant, provided with a leather couch behind the witness chair, faced his judges, and the lawyers were at either side of the room. Robb had the window, which was kept slightly open, mercifully tugging away the lawyer's heavy cigar smoke and the aromatic fumes of Walnut tobacco from Oppie's pipe. (212)
Oppenheimer's affection for pipe smoking was noted by Victor Cohn of the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune:
Cohn makes it a point to mention Oppenheimer's continual pipe smoking, exactly as had been in evidence during the Murrow television show. In the 1950s, of course, smoking was as ubiquitous as hats on men and tailfins on automobiles, but the mention of Oppenheimer's pipe, or on occasion his cigarettes, was as inevitable in any description of Oppenheimer during this period as was a remark regarding his "thin" or "birdlike" features. (Wolverton, 98)
Oppenheimer was such a dedicated pipe smoker that many descriptions of him, if not most, include something about his pipe smoking, and when Christopher Nolan began work on a feature film about Oppenheimer's career, pipe smoking was necessarily an important consideration.
The New Oppenheimer Film
Nolan both wrote and directed the popular film that came out in 2023. It stars Cillian Murphy in the title role, an experienced actor best known for his role as Tommy Shelby in the BBC series, Peaky Blinders.
Murphy understood the importance of Oppenheimer's pipe as he approached the role, and of particularly interesting note, he visited the Peterson store in Dublin during the preliminary stages to help him get it right.
"Yes, he was here," says Gianluigi Fiori, the Peterson associate who worked with Murphy during his visit. "Everyone who heard about it later was upset because I didn't get any photos. It wasn't appropriate. Our clients deserve efficient service, not harassment."
The visit was long before most people even knew the film was being planned. "It isn't unusual to see Cillian Murphy on the streets of Dublin, or sitting next to you in a pub in the city center," says Gianluigi. Murphy is, after all, Irish.
"One late afternoon he entered the shop on Nassau Street. I smiled immediately to put him at ease and reassure him that I would not make a fuss or ask for autographs. He said that he was looking for a pipe because he wanted to quit smoking cigarettes. I explained that it would be an excellent idea if he could, especially since you don't inhale the smoke from a pipe."
Gianluigi asked Murphy if he had a particular shape or type of pipe in mind. "He showed me a black-and-white photograph of Robert Oppenheimer smoking a straight pipe. This was strange; I was sure it was not a coincidence, but I had no clue about the movie; it was three years ago."
When Murphy brought out the photo, Gianluigi was sure that the story about wanting to quit cigarettes was misdirection. "He didn't want to quit smoking cigarettes. He didn't want to start smoking a pipe. And then it was funny when he asked me, 'In your opinion, what is the best way to pack and light that pipe?'" Murphy asked Gianluigi for a demonstration. "He asked me to show him how to fill the bowl and what gestures to use. While I was showing him how to fill and light the pipe (I was using my own 03 Spigot to demonstrate) he asked if he could film me with his cell phone."
Gianluigi believes that Murphy wanted to be sure how to correctly portray a pipe smoker. "He filmed me; just my hands. I think it's something he couldn't adequately understand by watching YouTube videos. It's a great resource, but at the same time, if you want to see the basic way to do something, it's the worst place, because everyone spends many words and much time with too many deviations and digressions. So for a 20-second demonstration, you have to spend at least 20 minutes to understand what the clip is talking about. I suspect he tried looking at tutorials on YouTube and then he chose an easy way: Find a pipe smoker to show him in person how to pack a bowl of tobacco and light it. I think this is the reason he asked to film me."
Gianluigi recommended a Peterson Aran 87. He thought the 150 might be a slightly better approximation of the pipe in the Oppenheimer photo, but there were no 150s in stock at the moment without a nickel band, and Murphy didn't want a nickel band on the pipe, so the 87 was best. "He just wanted a plain, straight pipe." It was about a 20-minute interchange. After Murphy paid for his pipe and was leaving the shop, Gianluigi whispered to him, "My mother always taught me not to trust actors." Murphy smiled, shook Gianluigi's hand, and left.
So when viewing Christopher Nolan's production of Oppenheimer, watch for that Aran 87 and know that Murphy's pipe-smoking mannerisms in the film originated in the Peterson shop on Nassau Street in Dublin, and that Gianluigi Fiori was instrumental in helping Murphy's characterization attain believability. We've all seen films in which clumsy, inexperienced actors try unsuccessfully to depict pipe smokers. Murphy is to be commended for the precision he chose to address with his Oppenheimer portrayal.
Robert Oppenheimer was a true pipe smoker and a true genius, uniquely qualified to coordinate the efforts of the Manhattan Project because he inherently understood or could quickly master intricately complicated and disparate concepts from the multitude of sciences necessary for the completion of the atomic bomb. He grappled with guilt and doubt for the rest of his life and pursued what avenues he could to mitigate potential damage and avert future catastrophe. His life was one of astonishing success as well as depression and disappointment, and like every good pipe smoker, he prevailed over what came his way assisted by the comfort and satisfaction of a smoldering pipe.
- The story of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1969) by Denise Royal
- "J. Robert Oppenheimer" (2023) by Biography.com Editors and Colin McEvoy
- Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, the Manhattan Project's Indispensable Man (2002),1st ed., by Robert S. Norris
- Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center (2013) by Ray Monk
- "Why President Harry Truman Didn't Like J. Robert Oppenheimer" (2023) by Colin McEvoy, Biography
- "U.S. Voids 1954 Revoking of J. Robert Oppenheimer's Security Clearance" (Dec. 2022) by Gloria Oladipo, The Guardian
- The swift years: the Robert Oppenheimer story (1969) by Peter Michelmore First published in 1969
- J. Robert Oppenheimer: Shatterer of Worlds (1980) by Peter Goodchild
- A life in twilight: The Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2008) by Mark Wolverton