The great scientist directed the “Manhattan project” but then was horrified by Hiroshima: from 18 July on newsstands with the “Corriere” for a month the volume written by Abraham Pais
In the fall of 1942, General Leslie Richard Groves was given the assignment to devote himself to top secret «Project Y» to build the atomic bomb. He had managed the birth of the Pentagon in Washington, but now his biggest problem was finding scientific guidance for the plan to dispose of the most powerful weapon ever conceived. There was the fear that Hitler could carry it out first and therefore, thanks to a letter from Albert Einstein to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the US army had the task of facing the arduous challenge, first of all scientific. From Groves’ consultations the name of Robert Oppenheimer then at the University of California at Berkeley, a 38-year-old Jewish theoretical physicist with valuable experience in Europe. In the 1930s he had created «the most important school of theoretical physics that the United States had ever known» recalled the Nobel Prize winner Hans Bethe. Furthermore, he had contributed important scientific results in various fields, from cosmic rays to atomic theory, from black holes to quantum mechanics. The right man at the right time. Groves met with him in October 1942 and gave him the job. Thus began the story of the character who, governing the manufacture of the first atomic bomb, conditioned the story. And the most important book written about his life is that of Abraham Pais Oppenheimer, on newsstands from 18 July with the «Corriere». Pais was a friend and colleague of the great physicist at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, shared thoughts and dramas that marked its existence, but also the responsibilities that scientists would have since placed in front of their discoveries.
Los Alamos, was the hidden place in the heart of New Mexico chosen by Oppenheimer himself where the largest number of illustrious brains ever gathered from the United States was concentrated, some who fled from Europe. Including the Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi. In a regime of extreme secrecy they solved the problems posed by the project called the Manhattan Project, with the speed and the eagerness to arrive first. On July 16, 1945 at 5.30 in the morning in the sky of a desert location, called Trinity by Oppenheimer himself, the black fungus generated by the explosion of the first atomic bomb rose.
Oppenheimer was the only one to wear a jacket, «his face tense and dreamy, closed in on itself». Together with the other scientists, “he saw one of the most spectacular events in the history of the world,” writes Pais, adding the testimony of the scientist himself: “Someone laughed, someone cried, most were silent. Then a line from the Bhagavadgita, “I have become death, the destroyer of worlds”». Nobel laureate Isidor Isaac Rabi added: “It was a horrible, sinister sight, a frightening physical violence.”
That moment will change Oppenheimer’s thoughts, his life and his blue-eyed gaze, always reserved and abstract. A Harvard graduate who lived in a wealthy family, his culture was vast beyond science. He read Homer and Plato in the original language, among other languages he knew Sanskrit and paintings by Van Gogh and Renoir hung on the walls of his house. The meeting in 1936 with Jean Tatlock marked his future. She active in the Communist Party she introduced him to her leftist friends. She was a tall, gray-eyed brunette with a combination of beauty and intelligence that the scientist found irresistible. But the relationship was tormented. Often the victim of bouts of depression, she disappeared for days and weeks torturing Robert, telling who she had been with. Despite this, they were twice close to marriage. Her until she committed suicide.
Meanwhile Oppenheimer met Katherine (Kitty) Puening at a reception. She “When she saw him she gave him a look, then she headed towards him and she never let go of him again” and she became her fourth husband. The marriage produced two children, Peter and Toni. Unfortunately, Kitty loved alcohol, family life was hell, relations with her children were increasingly difficult and Toni committed suicide.
After the Trinity test, on August 6, 1945 the first use of the atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima and three days later Nagasaki. The double drama put Oppenheimer in crisis. He opposed the project of Edward Teller who at Los Alamos was studying an even more terrifying device, the thermonuclear hydrogen bomb, reminding him that “physicists had already known sin”.
By now he had entered the world scene, increasingly assuming a political role that he particularly cared about, with his entry into the commission for the control of nuclear energy created by President Harry Truman. Here he advocated a mutual verification of the nuclear weapons developed in the meantime also by the Soviet Union, which was rejected by all. That was enough to find grounds for an indictment by the very commission of which he had become chairman. Teller was his main enemy. In Congress, Senator Joseph McCarthy saw Communists everywhere and accused the scientist of passing information to the Soviets. The espionage trials of the physicist Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenbergs were famous in those years.
After a letter of accusations delivered to J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, the safety committee of the Atomic Energy Commission set up a real process to strip Oppenheimer of security clearance. This happened on May 17, 1954, despite the defense of illustrious witnesses such as Enrico Fermi. And the scientist lauded for defending America with the Manhattan Project was now becoming anti-American and suspicious. However, he retained the trust of his colleagues at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton, which he had led for many years. Here he had opened the doors to figures such as the poet TS Eliot and the logical-mathematician Kurt Gödel. Only John Kennedy rehabilitated Oppenheimer in 1963, shortly before he was killed in Dallas, and presented him with the Fermi prize for physics. Four years later, throat cancer killed him at just 63 years old. However, the myth of a character second only to Albert Einstein remained.
The book by Abraham Pais comes out on newsstands with the «Corriere della Sera» on Tuesday 18 July Oppenheimer. The Tragedy of a Scientist: From the Atomic Bomb to the Cold War, on sale at the price of 10.90 euros plus the cost of the newspaper. The volume, produced in collaboration with the Oscar Mondadori, is edited by Robert. P. Crease and stays on newsstands for a month. The translation from English is by Tullio Cannillo.
The author Abraham Pais (1918-2000) was himself a physicist, born in Holland in Amsterdam and then emigrated to the United States in 1947 to work at the Institute for Advanced Study of Princeton University, where he personally met Robert Oppenheimer (1904 -1967) and many other scientists of immense prestige. Pais from the seventies onwards devoted himself to the history of physics. He published a biography of Albert Einstein,
Subtle is the Lord… (translation by Tullio Cannillo, Bollati Boringhieri, 1986), one by Niels Bohr, The quiet Dane (translation by Daniel Canarutto, Bollati Boringhieri, 1993), and the books
Einstein lived here
(translation by Maurizio Bruno and David Mezzacapa, Bollati Boringhieri, 1995) e Portraits of brilliant scientists (translation by Stefano Ravaioli, Bollati Boringhieri, 2007). Oppenheimer’s biography however remained unfinished due to the death of Pais. Robert edited the publication and completed the text. P. Crease. The volume opens with a preface by Ida Nicolaisen, Pais’ wife.
It should also be noted that the film will be released in Italian cinemas on August 23rd Oppenheimerdirected by British director Christopher Nolan, with Irish actor Cillian Murphy in the part of the great scientist.
July 17, 2023 (change July 17, 2023 | 21:53)
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