J. Robert Oppenheimer

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For J. Robert Oppenheimer, science was a series of trials.

The father of the atomic bomb, the theoretical physicist was never to be sainted like Albert Einstein. It’s possible (likely, even) the weapon actually saved lives during World War II, abbreviating the fighting by forcing Japan to surrender, but the unholy power released brought to mind the content of the first piece of Morse code ever sent: “What hath God wrought.”

Publishing a post about Richard Feynman the other day reminded me about his mentor’s literal trial during the McCarthy era, when Oppenheimer was accused of being a Communist sympathizer willing to secret nuclear knowledge to the Soviets. The scientist had been under surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI since the 1940s, with his phones tapped and office bugged, and in the following decade his security clearance was surprisingly revoked.

Oppenheimer certainly worked with and knew members of the Communist Party (his wife was one), but that wasn’t unusual in those days. The governmental action seems to have had less to do with fears of espionage than with witch-hunt hysteria and a power struggle among politicians and competing scientists, particularly his erstwhile friend Edward Teller. Oppenheimer fought his loss of credentials to no avail in a four-week trial, emerging with a reputation permanently reduced.

Two articles about the matter from the April 13, 1954 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the first about the suspension of clearance and the second a piece in which Einstein voiced support for Oppenheimer.

Edward R. Murrow interviews an understandably shaky Oppenheimer in the year after his trial. Under his direction, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton wasn’t only home to some of the finest young physicists in the world but also served as a salon of sorts to broaden the students’ thinking. T.S. Eliot, George Kennan and Jean Piaget were among the visitors who stayed for a spell. The university considered removing Oppenheimer from his post after the Communist controversy, but he ultimately retained his position until his death by cancer in 1967.