Feb 24, 2010
From the March 1967 issue
Tribute to Professor Oppenheimer
Prof. J R Oppenheimer died on 18 February. He was a physicist who had achieved worldwide renown for his part in the production of the atomic bomb. He was also a theoretical physicist who made several important contributions to physics and had considerable influence on the progress of physics in his own country and abroad.
Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York on 22 April 1904 into a wealthy and highly cultured family. His early years were spent in an environment where his lively mind was given every encouragement and opportunity to develop. At the age of 5 he started a collection of rocks and was admitted to the New York Mineralogical Club when he was only 11 years old.
In 1922 he went to Harvard, initially intending to make his career in chemistry. He studied chemistry and physics and also learnt Latin, Greek and Dutch, finally graduating summa cum laude in 1925. Then began several important years in Europe, the hotbed of atomic and nuclear physics at that time. He first went to work under Rutherford at Cambridge University in the UK and from there, at the invitation of Born, to Göttingen in Germany where he received his doctorate in 1927. He returned briefly to the USA to Harvard and Caltech, later returning to Europe to the University of Leyden, Netherlands, and ETH Zurich, Switzerland. In 1929, he joined Caltech at Pasadena and the University of California at Berkeley, becoming professor in 1936, and was associated with both centres until 1947. He then became director and professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. He retired as director in 1966.
A crucial time in his life, which led to fame far beyond the field of physics itself, was the period 1943–1945 when he was chosen to be director of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, to lead the work on production of the atomic bomb. Because of his broad and deep scientific understanding of all aspects of the project he was able to weld together the abilities of a brilliant group of scientists to produce the atomic bomb in a remarkably short time.
From 1946 to 1952 he was chair of the General Advisory Committee of the US Atomic Energy Commission but his high position in forming US scientific policy came to an abrupt end following an investigation by the Atomic Energy Commission, which culminated in the removal of his security clearance. This sad affair has been discussed extensively elsewhere and will not be covered here. In 1963, he was effectively reinstated in public esteem when he was awarded the Fermi prize, the highest honour at the disposal of the Atomic Energy Commission.
After the Second World War, Oppenheimer felt deeply the need to re-open the worldwide exchange of scientific information, which had been so badly curtailed during the war. He holds a place in the history of CERN for the important part that he played in the years 1947–1949, in the discussions which led to the idea of European collaboration in high-energy physics. This was recognized at the inauguration of the proton synchrotron when Oppenheimer was one of the two non-Europeans (the other being Prof. E McMillan, director of Berkeley) in the select group of people invited to give an inaugural address (see photograph). More recently, he was a member of the Scientific Council of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste.
• From the article on p43.
New buildings change the face of CERN
These two photographs show the great changes at the CERN site from 1955 to 1967. One of the factors that has contributed most is the large number of new buildings put up during that time.
The 1966 construction budget covered commitments worth 10.9 million Swiss francs, 70% for civil engineering and 30% for technical installations. The main construction work finished during the year was the neutrino area, i.e. the tunnel and adjoining buildings (the first experiment began this month). A number of projects begun in 1966 have just been completed or will be completed in the course of 1967; for example, the six-storey building known as Laboratory 14 is being handed over to the Track Chambers and Nuclear Physics Divisions. Underground experimental halls for the ISOLDE project have also been finished this month.
• From the article on p44.
CERN owes its existence in part to several men of science who came out of the Manhattan Project with a feeling of blood on their hands, determined that things would be different for future generations of researchers. While Oppenheimer was being investigated by the Atomic Energy Commission, his close friend Isidor I Rabi and others were working through UNESCO to create a European laboratory where physicists could conduct nuclear research of a pure scientific and fundamental character, with no concern for military requirements. The rest is history – still in the making.
About the author
Compiled by Peggie Rimmer