J. Robert Oppenheimer—the “father of the atomic bomb”—was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Physics three times: in 1946, in 1951, and in 1967. Colleagues, scholars, and surely Oppenheimer himself, pondered why he was never bestowed the honor.
“To understand this,” says James Kunetka, historian and author of The General and the Genius, “you have to first examine the man’s academic life before and after the war.”
Born in 1904 into a wealthy Jewish family and raised in New York, Oppenheimer was clearly gifted. He completed the third and fourth grades in just one year and later skipped a portion of his eighth grade year. Remarkable anecdotes of brilliance illustrate his life through early adulthood. As a boy, he was interested in mineralogy and, at age 12, presented his research paper to the New York Mineralogical Club, becoming an honorary member. As a young academic, he learned Dutch in six weeks in order to successfully deliver a technical lecture on a trip to the Netherlands. It was there he was first dubbed “Oppie” (“Opje” in Dutch).
“[He was] one of the sharpest people I have ever seen or heard of, intellectually,” said longtime friend Harold Cherniss in a 1979 interview. “When he became interested in anything, he very quickly picked up an enormous amount of knowledge about it.”
After graduating at the top of his high school class, Oppenheimer studied science at Harvard University, where he was admitted to graduate-level physics classes during his first year. He also took courses in literature, languages, religion and philosophy, earning his degree in just three years, but with no social clubs or athletics listed under his name in the 1926 yearbook. Certainly introverted then, but also perhaps lonely, Oppenheimer once told a friend, “It’s no fun to turn the pages of a book and say, ‘Yes, yes, of course, I know that,’” according to an October 1949 article in Life magazine.
After a stint at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, Oppenheimer went to the University of Göttingen in Germany, where he studied quantum physics and earned his doctorate in 1927. By 1929, he had accepted offers to teach at both the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley.
Oppenheimer’s early research focused on energy processes of subatomic particles, including electrons, positrons, and cosmic rays, as well as neutron stars (collapsed cores of massive stars) and black holes. He was soon recognized as a leader in theoretical physics and earned the respect of scientific greats like Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr.
Some scientists, including Nobel laureate Luis Alvarez, speculated that Oppenheimer’s work on black holes may have warranted the prize, had he lived long enough to see it to fruition. (Nobel prizes are not awarded posthumously.)
“However, many of his colleagues and critics point out that his production of significant papers was surprisingly thin,” Kunetka says. “It was said by some that he far too often coauthored papers with his students rather than initiated them. Nobel laureate and physicist Hans Bethe noted that, while Oppenheimer and others were perhaps more brilliant, he [Bethe] was more productive.”
Oppenheimer’s publication record didn’t seem to matter to General Leslie Groves, who was impressed by Oppenheimer’s intelligence and practicality. Groves also overlooked Oppenheimer’s associations with members of the Communist party and lack of large-scale managerial experience. In the fall of 1942, Groves hired Oppenheimer to lead the scientific effort to build the world’s first atomic weapons at a secret laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
“He was very close to being indispensable,” an unnamed Los Alamos scientist is quoted in a 1949 Life article. Another said, “The main decisions were made by Oppenheimer, and all proved to be correct.”
Oppenheimer’s directorship culminated on July 16, 1945, when the world’s first atomic device, known as the Gadget, was successfully detonated in the New Mexico desert.
Weeks later, the United States military released the gun-type uranium bomb Little Boy above Japan. Groves phoned Oppenheimer after the detonation. According to a transcript of the recorded call, Groves told Oppenheimer: “I think one of the wisest things I ever did was when I selected the director of Los Alamos.”
By the time Oppenheimer left Los Alamos a few weeks after the end of World War II, he was known around the world. However, even with his face on magazine covers, his celebrity did not translate into a Nobel Prize.
When Oppenehimer was first nominated in 1946 for the Nobel Prize, the Nobel committee was hesitant to award it to someone so closely tied to the atomic bombs, according to American Prometheus. Many scholars and scientists through the years have concurred, including Oppenheimer himself, who told Life magazine that creating the bombs was more inventive than scientific.
In 1947, Oppenheimer moved to Princeton, New Jersey, to lead the Institute for Advanced Study as well as serve as the chairman of the General Advisory Committee, a scientific panel that advised the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission. Much of his focus shifted from physics to policy. Oppenheimer spoke out in opposition to the development of the powerful hydrogen bomb, questioning its feasibility early on, and also deeming it an unnecessary weapon. Meanwhile, he wrote and lectured, but did not, however, resume much research.
In 1954, Oppenheimer lost his security clearance following unsubstantiated accusations against his loyalty to America. Though his supporters remained steadfast and numerous, Oppenheimer eventually retreated from his public life and work, pushing him even further from a Nobel Prize.
Oppenheimer was nominated for a Nobel Prize for a third and final time just before his death in 1967. Although he did not win, Alan Carr, senior historian at Los Alamos National Laboratory, argues that Oppenheimer’s technical contributions changed the world. “Did he achieve greatness? Yes, of course,” Carr says. “What Oppie led his wartime team of scientists to achieve was nothing short of remarkable. He will always have that incredible scientific legacy.” ★