August 15, 2023



The atomic bomb (Or is it Cambridge/woman/luggage/poison apple)Why - Leadership in a different field - Compare the nuclear moment to the AI moment (Leo Szilard might have been the best nuclear physicist, so how is it that Oppenheimer got the glory?)Early Life - Genius. Story of rocks.College - He should get a PhD just for knowing the booksPost-Grad - Total breakdown. Girl. Luggage. Apple.Gottingen - Finds footing. Find your place. Find a story for this.Netherlands & Switzerland - Gives the lecture in DutchCalifornia - Managing personalities. Story of the papers. Bumbling teacher to a good teacher.Also he’s like Da Vinci. Just relentlessly curios but bad at finishing things. And that is why he never gets a Nobel.Communism in context. Probably a party member.Manhattan Project - Race with the Nazis. Friendship with Lawrence. Initially he can’t get on because he’s too communist. Have your values straight. Have your priorities straight. Manager - Horrible at first. Has to fire himself and focus on it. The Oppenheimer effect. This is where his curiosity pays off. Remember, leadership is the thing that matters most. T-shaped leadership.Second Thoughts - Wanted to drop the bomb on Germans, not Japanese. Oppenheimer owns it. Convinces everyone to stay the course. Ego.Test - Big bomb goes boom.Aftermath - He gets his security clearance revoked.

Robert Oppenheimer was nervous. Tens of thousands of people, millions of dollars, two years of effort… all came down to this test. And it wasn’t looking good.For one thing, a last minute test of the implosion device, the mechanism for starting the world’s first nuclear bomb, hadn’t worked. And to further dampen everyone’s sinking spirits, an enormous thunderstorm was now rolling through New Mexico. Rain and lightning each presented risks.It also made living conditions miserable. The Trinity test site was little more than a camp, and Oppenheimer coughed all night as the rain beat down on his tent.To calm himself, he read a passage from from the Hindu book of scripture, the Gita “In battle, in forest, at the precipice in the mountains // On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows // In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame // The good deeds a man has done before defend himThe next morning, the skies cleared, but the wind picked up. “The weather is whimsical,” Oppenheimer commented.Alone, he drove to the site for one last inspection. And one last moment alone with his grand creation.It was an awkward looking thing, studded with wires and plugs. It was the result of countless hours of work from the greatest minds in the world. An unparalleled creation. Perhaps nothing in the history of the world had had more genius poured into it than the device now before his eyes.When he drove back to base, someone suggested a postponement. The weather was still finicky.“If we postpone,” Oppenheimer said, “I’ll never get my people up to pitch again.”Okay then, the meteorologist suggested that if they couldn’t wait, the very early morning of the next day would provide the right weather conditions. Oppenheimer, who knew the New Mexico desert like the back of his hand, agreed.No one slept that night. They all stayed up preparing.Finally, at 5:10 in the morning, a voice crackled across a loudspeaker in the control center “Zero minus twenty minutes”Physicists, engineers, and soldiers waited nervously.No one knew what to expect. No one knew if the thing would even work, and if it did go off, how big the explosion would be.As the countdown went to two minutes, Oppenheimer commented “Lord, these affairs are hard on the heart.”Five, four, three, two, one, The voice rang out over the loud speaker one final time, NOW.Robert Oppenheimer was facedown in the dirt when the blast went off, but the light was so bright that it reflected off the sand and through his eyelids.When he looked up, he saw a fireball, and then a cloud, hovering upward until it reached nearly 30,000 feet, the height of mount everest.Over 10,000 yards away, the sound of the blast would take time to reach them. For nearly a minute and a half, the men watched the mushroom cloud, and the dawn of the atomic age, in silence.IntroductionHELLO, and welcome to How to Take Over the World. This is Ben Wilson.Today we are talking about J Robert Oppenheimer, the American physicist who is popularly known as the father of the atomic bomb.And why study Oppenheimer? He’s a little different from other people we have talked about on this show. He didn’t become fabulously wealthy or gain a lot of personal power. But I think there is a lot we can learn from him.First of all, I think there is a lot to learn from him because he was a great leader in the field of science. I think when we think of leadership, we often think of military leaders, or founder, entrepreneurs, business leaders, social leaders, or even sports coaches before we think of science. But leadership is something that is important to every field, so I think it’s cool to see how great leadership plays out in the field of science.He also changed the world enormously with the atomic bomb. And so it’s the story of a technological innovator. It’s an interesting story of 20th century history. His story tells us a lot about WW2,  democracy, fascism, communism, and the world that we have inherited.And I have loved learning about this story.My main sources are the books American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin and The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. If you want to read either of them, use the link in the show notes and you will be supporting the show.Also I should note, I’m releasing this a couple weeks after the release of the movie Oppenheimer, directed by Christopher Nolan. But I did this episode without reference to the movie. I’ll be doing an end notes episode where I review the movie, discuss some of the history in it and what I liked and didn’t like and all that so watch for that next week. But for the purpose of this episode, I have just ignored the movie.And with that, let’s hop into the story, after this quick break.

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Early Life*** MUSIC CUE ***J Robert Oppenheimer’s life was shrouded in intrigue from the moment he entered the world. He was born on April 22nd, 1904 in New York City. He and his parents would always claim the J didn’t stand for anything.However, his birth certificate read Julius Robert Oppenheimer. His father’s name was Julius, and there was amongst Ashkenazi Jews at the time, a taboo against naming children after anyone living.Now I saw Ashkenazi Jews - Robert’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Germany, but they were not practicing Jews - they weren’t religious at all.They attended something called the Ethical Culture Society. And this was started by a Jewish guy named Felix Adler, and he was the son of a rabbi and probably would have been a Rabbi himself but he goes off to college and discovers rationalism and science and modern thinking.And so Adler thinks okay, this whole religion thing is small-minded. This is the way of the past, this is antiquated thinking. And so he has this desire to transcend his Jewishness and be a citizen of the world and so he starts this Ethical Culture Society thing, which is essentially just a secular synagogue and school. It even had an organ and weekly meetings that were definitely NOT worship meetings.And in the early 20th century, this is something that a lot of upper-middle class Jews will become interested in because it is a way to - at once - move beyond their Jewish identity to integrate with the rest of society, while also maintaining the connections and rhythms of life that they were used to.It allowed them the comforts of their religion without saddling them with its beliefs and the identity that went along with it.Robert attended the Ethical Culture school growing up, and it was a great environment for Robert to grow up in. It was open, curious, and intellectually stimulating.It was also very, very liberal. Graduates of the Ethical Culture School would go on to basically create the civil rights movement, and would end up creating the ACLU, the NAACP, and many of the women’s right and environmentalism groups in the United States as well.This will become important later but it was a very progressive background that Robert grew up in.He grew up with money, his father was a very successful businessman. Not like “one of the richest people in the world” money but solidly rich. I think the fortune was valued at like 10-20 million inflation adjusted dollars.Robert was tall, extremely thin, and sort of a classic nerd. Uncoordinated, unathletic, extremely intelligent, shy and socially withdrawn.He is obviously a genius from early in his childhood. He just devours information. His biggest obsessions are with literature, building with toy blocks, and studying geology - he likes collecting rocks and geodes.At one point he starts corresponding via letters with a local New York geologist about some rock formations in Central Park, and the geologist says “wow, you are clearly extremely knowledgeable about this, why don’t you come speak at our next meeting of the geology society” not realizing that he’s talking to a 13-year-old kid.And Robert’s dad hears about this and tells him he has to go. And they introduce their guest speaker J Robert Oppenheimer and they are all shocked when this 13-year-old gets up to speak. He gets bullied a little bit, but in many ways the Ethical Culture Society is a refuge from any of that - they protect him there and nurture his intellectual growth.He has a teacher who takes an interest in him, named Herbert Smith, who takes him on a summer vacation to New Mexico with a couple other boys from the school to experience the great outdoors.And Robert falls in love with New Mexico, he is enthralled by the beauty of the western American landscape.He would make regular returns to New Mexico every summer for the next few years and would eventually buy a ranch there and spend significant time there.When Robert graduates from high school, he attends Harvard.And it’s a sign of just how intelligent he is, that Harvard is easy for him.He majors in chemistry, and he takes the maximum course load and audits 2-3 other classes just for fun.At one point, he wants to start taking upper-level physics courses because he’s becoming interested in physics, but he’s a chemistry major so he’s not allowed to.So he writes to the physics department and says this is why you should let me take these graduate level physics courses, I’m not majoring in physics, but here are the books I have read on physics - you’ll see I’m well read on the topic and know my stuff and should be ready for these courses.So they read this letter in a faculty meeting and one professor, says “Obviously if Oppenheimer says he’s read these books he’s a liar. But he should get a PhD just for knowing their titles.”Well he wasn’t lying and shows himself to be a standout at physics.Now Robert knows he’s brilliant, and he has a huge ego about it. He himself admitted it.He later wrote “I developed an unpleasant ego, which I am sure must have affronted those who were unfortunate enough to come into contact with me.”You see this at Harvard, there is one story that I think illustrates it well. One of his physics professors, Percy Bridgman, is very impressed by Robert and invites him over for some tea.And as I mentioned, Robert had eclectic interests. He wasn’t just a science nerd. Bridgman knows this and shows him a photograph he took in Sicily of a temple built, he says in 400 BC.Instead of being impressed or complimenting the photograph, Oppenheimer disagrees with him. “Look at the capitals on the columns,” he says, “this could have been built no later than 450 BC.”He graduates summa cum laude in three years from Harvard with a degree in chemistry and significant physics coursework under his belt.His professor writes him a letter of recommendation to Cambridge, which was one of the top physics schools in the world, for graduate studies. This is what he writes “He has a perfectly prodigious power of assimilation. His weakness is on the experimental side. His type of mind is analytical rather than physical, and he is not at home in the manipulation of the laboratory. It appears to me that it is a bit of a gamble as to whether Oppeneheimer will ever make any real contributions of an important character. But if he does make good at all, I believe he will be a very unusual success.”So Oppeneheimer’s problem is that he is very good at theoretical physics. The theory, thinking about new ideas, making connections… but he’s very bad at experimental physics. He’s clumsy and just horrible in actual experiments.And Cambridge is the center of the world for experimental physics.So when Robert shows up, he, for the first time, does not feel like the smartest person in the room anymore. In fact, he’s down right incompetent. And he starts floundering.*** MUSIC CUE ***The weather is cold and dreary, he has few social connections, and none at all with women, he’s doing poorly professionally, and he enters a deep deep depression.This depression causes him to act erratically.At one point he’s on a train and he’s stuck in a compartment, a room, with a couple who are making out. And eventually the man leaves, and when he’s gone, Oppenheimer kisses the woman on the mouth, and then gets up and runs away. He gets off at the next stop, and the couple does as well, and Oppenheimer sees them go down some stairs. Overcome by regret and shame, he tries to drop his luggage on the woman’s head, only barely missing her.And this isn’t even the worst thing he does.There is a professor named Blackett who is pushing Oppenheimer while he’s in this state, and eventually Robert snaps and poisons an apple on Blackett’s desk with lab chemicals.He confesses before Blackett eats the apple, but Robert is put on academic probation and has to regularly go see a psychiatrist in London.It doesn’t help. He just gets worse.His parents come to visit, and at one point he locks his mom in her hotel room and leaves her there for hours.Even his parents recognize that his total lack of romantic success is one reason for his depression and so they bring with them a girl from the Ethical Culture Society to try to set them up and spark some sort of romance.Well eventually Robert gets in bed with her, but he can’t work up the courage to actually do anything so he starts crying, and then she starts crying, and then his mom hears them crying and starts pounding on the door saying “Robert, I can hear you’re in there. Come out now, Robert.”The culmination of this psychotic period of his life is when his good friend Ferguson tells Robert that he’s engaged, and Robert tries to strangle him with a luggage strap.This is like stuff out of a novel. Total and complete mental meltdown.So my takeaway from this part of his life is… look people often say there is a thin line between genius and madness, and that might be true, but Robert actually wasn’t mad, he was a pretty mentally healthy person for much of the rest of his life.My main takeaway is just that even the greats sometimes go through really hard times and can go into really bad places mentally. And so if you’re really going through something mentally, it’s probably not as bad as what J Robert Oppenheimer went through and it definitely doesn’t mean that you can’t go on to accomplish great things.So if you’re in that phase of your life, and you have horrible issues. I promise you, it’s not as bad as what Oppenheimer went through. You can come out on the other side of this and have a successful life, just hang on.Well two things happen to pull him out of this. One is he goes to Corsica and bikes around the island. He never fully says what happens there, but he intimates that he had some sort of revelation or transformation on this trip to Corsica.It’s also at this time that he meets Niels Bohr.He had begun to read Bohr’s work and was becoming a big fan. And he walks in one day to one of his professor’s office, and Bohr is there, talking to the professor.The professor introduces them and Bohr, who was good looking, funny, and easy to be around, asks Oppenheimer “How’s it going?” “I’m in difficulties,” Oppenheimer respondedBohr asked “Are the difficulties mathematical or physical?”Oppenheimer responded “I don’t know”Bohr replied “That’s bad”In a time of geniuses, Oppenheimer would always look to Bohr as his hero, he literally called him his god.You know, I’m not a science guy, but as you read down the list of physicists who were active during this era, even I recognize a bunch of the names: Oppenheimer, Einstein, Fermi, Von Nuemann, Richard Feynman, Max Born, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Edward Teller… and Oppenheiemr regarded Niels Bohr as greater than all of them.Bohr was a great theoretical physicist and it’s his example that convinces Robert that he doesn’t need to try to hack it doing experimental physics anymore. There’s another way. He wrote:“At that point I forgot about beryllium and films and decided to try to learn the trade of being a theoretical physicist. By that time I was fully aware that it was an unusual time - that great things were afoot.”So at this point, after a little less than a year at Cambridge, he decides to go to Gottingen, Germany.Sometimes you just have to gut out hard times and power through challenges, but other times you need to just move on and find the place where you will thrive. And for Oppenheimer, in Gottingen he finds the place where he can thrive.


His success as a theoretical physicist really becomes apparent as soon as he arrives in Gottingen. Max Born is the director of the institute of theoretical physics at Gottingen, and Oppenheimer quickly becomes his favorite student.So much so that other students begin to become jealous of him.He also succeeds socially for the first time. He’s one of the few students with money at Gottingen so he’s able to distinguish himself that way, with his clothes and his car.And so he’s romantically successful for the first time in Gottingen. That’s not a euphemism. Although maybe it is. If I had to guess, I would guess that Gottingen is the place where he is first romantically successful in both senses of that phrase.After a year in Gottingen, he goes on to study in the Netherlands and Switzerland. One of my favorite stories is that Oppeneheimer was very gifted at learning languages. And so when he shows up in the Netherlands to the university of Leiden, he quickly starts learning Dutch and everyone is amazed when he give his first lecture in Dutch after only a few weeks. I do have to point out that he already spoke German, which is a very closely related language, but still, a very remarkable accomplishment. So this is a real time of flourishing for him. He’s publishing papers, he’s collaborating with some of the greatest physicists in the world, and he’s making a name for himself.Now, even though he’s doing well, not everyone is happy with Oppeneheimer. One of the people he reminds me most of is Da Vinci. H doesn’t like to be pigeon-holed and he doesn’t like to stay focused on one thing for a long period of time. He’s very intellectually curious, and he loves to move from problem to problem, often without fully solving any of them. So he was a very good collaborator, good at bringing ideas together, great at finding and pointing out new areas to explore, but not great at the type of in-depth research that wins you a nobel prize, and in fact, he never did win a nobel prize. And he’s widely considered the greatest physicist of his era never to have won a Nobel prize.In a fit of frustration with Oppenheimer, Max Born wrote of him that he was “Doubtless very gifted, but completely without mental discipline. He's outwardly very modest, but inwardly very arrogant.”After finishing his studies in Europe, he then goes to California where he takes teaching jobs at CalTech and Cal Berkeley.He had the option of going to any number of very prestigious schools to teach, but he loved California, he loved the weather and the sense of openness. He loved it for the same reasons he loved New Mexico, Robert Oppenheimer was a person who felt at home in the American west.He founds the theoretical physics department at Cal Berkeley. There was already a very prestigious experimental physics department, run by Ernest Lawrence, but this was their first foray into theoretical physics.At first, Oppenheimer is a horrible teacher. He just follows his own thoughts and mumbles his way through lectures, often going over material that was way over the understanding of his students.But he eventually becomes a good teacher, even a great teacher. He starts attracting some of the best and most promising students to Berkeley.One physicist, Bethe, explained how he became a teacher, writing“Probably the most important ingredient he brought to his teaching was his exquisite taste. He always knew what were the important problems as shown by his choice of subjects. He truly lived with those problems, struggling for a solution, and he communicated his concern to his group. He was interested in everything, and in one afternoon, he and his students might discuss quantum electrodynamics, cosmic rays, electron pair production, and nuclear physics.”And so Oppenheimer has made it. He’s a good teacher, he’s living out west in California. He’s starting to become known as a womanizer. He’s very successful romantically. But it was at this moment that he would sow the seeds of his own destruction. And we’ll hear all about it, after this break.

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As Oppenheimer’s teaching and academic career is reaching an all-time high, he starts to become politically aware for the first time. There are a few reasons for this.The first is the Great Depression. To many people at the time, the economic system of the United States and of the west in general seemed broken. The 1930s were the all-time peak for actual overt communism in the United States. And it’s largely for this reason.Another reason is that Hitler comes to power in 1933. And for Oppenheimer, the rise of Nazism is not just a news story. He had studied in Germany only a few years before. Physics was a very Jewish field, the majority of top physicists were Jewish, and Oppenheimer had studied in Germany, so many of his friends were Jewish physicists living in Germany. And one of the first moves of the Nazi regime is to expel Jewish academics from German universities.So Oppenheimer’s personal friends are being expelled. And also if you remember, both of his parents are German Jewish immigrants, so he’s got aunts and uncles in Germany who are suffering persecutions.Another thing that pushes him toward radical leftwing politics is the Spanish Civil War, which starts in 1936, which was a civil war between a right-wing military junta and a Soviet-backed communist insurgency. In America, it was often portrayed as brave patriotic Republicans against a fascist overthrow - especially in leftwing circles - although that wasn’t actually the case.But American leftists were very moved by this conflict and they really mobilized support for the Spanish communists. Thousands of people volunteered to go fight with them, including Ernest Hemmingway.Add to all of this, Oppenheimer’s natural inclinations toward leftism because he had been educated at the Ethical Culture Society and he was an American Jew at a time when the Jewish cultural default was to be strongly leftist. Especially among Jewish American academics, which is what he was.So Oppenheimer becomes a communist. He starts dating a communist girl named Jean Tatlock, he attends labor meetings and communist reading groups. He speaks at communist rallies and meetings. It’s very obvious that he is intellectually a communist.But the question arises, was he actually a communist party member?And there is evidence on both sides.On the one hand, he never had a communist party card and he was never on their official roles. So, no.But on the other hand, he did regularly attend this group. It was essentially a reading and discussion group. And the FBI through a wiretap was able to discover that this was, according to the communist party, a secret cell. A secret chapter of the communist party. Secret because these people were prominent. People like Oppenheimer who wanted to be able to continue to influence society and maintain their positions.Add to that the fact that Oppeneheimer paid party dues to the communist party. His later claim would be that he was donating to the Spanish Civil War, and that he was told that the most efficient way to get donations to the communists in Spain was through the American Communist Party.The only problem is he made these contributions until 1942, and the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939. When pressed on this, he said that he was making contributions to various other causes through the communist party after the Spanish Civil War ended.But it is a little weird that for all of these various causes he wanted to donate the exact same amount every month. It looks much more like party dues than it does like ad hoc contributions.Oppenheimer would claim that he was merely a fellow traveler. Someone who believed in communism, but chose to remain independent of the communist party and was not subject to party discipline.And I think this well may be the case. Robert always had this acute need to feel important. And he never liked to be a cog in the machine. It seems unlikely that the communist party would be the one exception where he says, I accept all of this unthinkingly, I’m just a loyal foot soldier.So there is a scenario in which the leader of this secret cell never pushes that this is an official communist party meeting. He just emphasizes that it’s an intellectual discussion group for like-minded people.And at the same time, he is representing to the communist party that it is an official group, because then he gets the credit for bringing a group of impressive people like Oppeneheimer into the party.But at the end of the day, all of these people paid dues. I think that’s the sticking point, and the thing that convinces me at the end of the day that Oppenheimer was a secret communist party member during the late 1930s and early 1940s.His brother Frank at this time did officially join the communist party, and Robert gave him a hard time about it. But in this context, it seems less about him Robert having qualms with the communist party, and more about him having qualms with Frank being indiscreet and closing off future career opportunities.As one colleague later put it, he said he didn’t know if Oppie was ever an actual party member, but it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. He was so involved in radical progressive causes, in unions and civil rights groups and things like that, that whether he was an official member of the communist party or not, everyone knew where he stood.Oppenheimer’s politics were important to him. He found a lot of meaning in them. But they would soon become an issue for him.Because in 1941, the president of the United States, FDR, authorized research into the development of a nuclear bomb. This was two months before Pearl Harbor, but FDR was already looking for ways to get America involved in the war and was beginning preparations.One of the early scientists on the project was Oppenheimer’s partner at Berkeley, Ernest Lawrence.Lawrence was a Republican Christian who grew up in a small town in South Dakota, and he ran the experimental physics department at Berkeley. He was one of the top experimental physicists in the United States and in the world.And he and Oppenheimer had a sort of odd-couple friendship. Lawrence was always trying to get Oppenheimer to cut out his radical leftward politics, especially once the bomb project was kicking off, because he wanted Robert involved.He disagreed with Oppeneheimer politically, but he thought he was essential to developing the atomic bomb in time for use in the war.The early committees on atomic research are skeptical of Oppenheimer’s politics, but Lawrence vouches for him and people keep talking to him anyway, because he is a great physicist with a great mind. And so ultimately the government decides to bring him into the project and give him a security clearance. Both because Lawrence vouches for him and they think he will be valuable, and also because he’s a security risk and they decide they’ll be able to keep better tabs on him if he’s inside than if he’s on the outside where they can’t monitor him.Oppenheimer quickly proves himself to be a very valuable voice in these nuclear meetings. With his ranging knowledge, he’s good at tying together disparate ideas. And that makes him a natural leader.Now having said that, Oppenheimer was not a universally beloved choice as the head physicist to lead the project. Some objected that he hadn’t led anything before. Others pointed to the fact that he didn’t have a Nobel prize.Oppenheimer had done a lot of very important research and published a lot of important papers, but he had never done the kind of in-depth research that earns you a Nobel. It was part of his habit of flitting from topic to topic.So the US government worried if he would carry enough gravitas in order to lead a bunch of scientists who had won nobel prizes.The man who would be deciding on the lead physicist was an army officer named Colonel Leslie Groves.Colonel Groves was six feet tall and 250 pounds. One colleague described him this way.“He is most demanding. He is most critical. He is always a driver, never a praiser. He is abrasive and sarcastic. He disregards all normal organization channels. He is extremely intelligent. He has the guts to make timely, difficult decisions. He is the most egotistical man I know. I hated his guts, and so did everybody else. But we had our form of understanding.”And that seems to be how everyone felt about Groves. Almost no one liked him, but just about everyone respected him.Oppenheimer said about him “Oh yes, Groves is a bastard, but he's a straightforward one.”He was chosen for his experience, for his intelligence - Groves had studied engineering at MIT - and for his ability to get things done.Groves was absolutely crucial to the Manhattan Project, and the relationship between him and Oppenheimer was one of those magical unions that spurred both to greater things.It was the combination of Oppenheimer’s sheer brilliance, and Groves’s unmatched ability to get things done.The day after he was put in charge of the Manhattan project, Groves purchased 1,200 pounds of Uranium. That was who he was. Hard charging. Abrasive, but he got things done.Well - Groves meets Oppenehimer and he is charmed.“He's a genius,” Groves later told a reporter “A real genius. Oppenheimer knows about everything. He can talk to you about anything you bring up. Well, not exactly. I guess there are a few things he doesn't know about, he doesn't know anything about sports.”So this wide-ranging knowledge charms Groves. He also saw that Oppenheimer had strong interpersonal skills and communication skills.Some have also suggested that he liked that Oppenheimer had security concerns. His communist past made him easier to control, as Groves could always hold it over his head that he could revoke his security clearance.And lastly, one reason to choose Oppenheimer: He was one of the top physicists whose research wasn’t necessary on the project. In other words his colleague Lawrence was considered, but Lawrence couldn’t spare the time to lead because he couldn’t spare the research time. His actual research was going to be crucial to building the bomb. The same could be said for many leading physicists, but not for Oppenheimer.So Oppenehimer was made the head of the secret weapons lab for the Manhattan project.And despite all those nice things I just said about him, at first, Oppenheimer was a complete and total disaster as a leader. We’ll hear why after this break…

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In the early days of the war, the perception was that the United States was two years behind the Germans in developing an atomic bomb. The US had taken a long time to get involved in the war, and consequently had started nuclear research later and with less urgency.A German, Otto Hahn, had been the first to discover nuclear fission in 1938, so that gave them an obvious head start.One of the leaders of the nuclear project in Germany was a brilliant physicist named Werner Heisenberg. He and Oppenheimer had known each other in Gottingen. They had been friendly, though competitive. They had even gone after the same girl at one point. Heisenberg was not a Nazi, but he considered it his patriotic duty to stay and offer his services to his home country.There was a wall of secrecy around Germany, but the impression was that Heisenberg and his colleagues had been doing top notch research on building an atomic bomb for years.So Oppenheimer is working with urgency. He’s trying to make up for lost time. But he’s doing a horrible job.It wasn’t so much that he was doing something wrong, he wasn’t doing much of anything.One physicist complained that Oppenheimer “hadn’t run so much as a lemonade stand” and now it was showing.He didn’t know the basics of putting together an organization and running it.The project operated for weeks without so much as an organization chart or a schedule. Finally, Groves marched into Oppenheimer’s office and demanded he write down an org chart.Oppenheimer reluctantly drew out four boxes: Theoretical physics, experimental physics, metallurgy, and ordnance. He also wrote out a name to head up each division. In charge of the theoretical physics division, he wrote his own name.With time, Oppenheimer slowly improved as a leader. A real turning point came when he realized that he needed to fire himself as the head of the theoretical physics department. He couldn’t be the leader of the project and an individual contributor and researcher.He would have to choose, and he chose his role in leadership.After this change, leadership was no longer a thing that got in the way of his research, but was itself the focus of his incredible mental faculties.It is unsurprising that once he decided to focus on leadership, a genius like Oppneheimer was able to master it.He ends up having something they call “The Oppenheimer Effect” - whenever he enters a room, people want to step up, want to do their best.One physicist, Edward Teller, described his leadership this way “Throughout the war years, Oppie knew in detail what was going on in every part of the laboratory. He was incredibly quick and perceptive in analyzing human as well as technical problems. Of the more than 10, 000 people who eventually came to work at Los Alamos, Oppie knew several hundred intimately, by which I mean that he knew what their relationships with one another were, and what made them tick.He knew how to organize, cajole, humor, soothe feelings, how to lead powerfully without seeming to do so. He is an exemplar of dedication, a hero who never lost his humanness. Disappointing him somehow carried with it a sense of wrongdoing. Alamo's amazing success grew out of the brilliance, enthusiasm, and charisma with which Oppenheimer led it.”He’s also very good at building consensus, and mediating conversations.One colleague, David Hawkins, wrote this “He was very persuasive. Very cogent. Elegant in language and able to listen to what other people said and incorporate it into what he would say. I had the impression that he was a good politician in the sense that if several people spoke, he could summarize what they said and as a result they would realize they agreed with each other. A great talent.”One of the first decisions he has to make is where the main secret research laboratory will be.He and Groves agreed that it should be a remote site due to security concerns. Somewhere where it would be easy to keep an eye on all of the scientists.Oppenheimer, sly devil that he was, goes on a trip to New Mexico and proposes the location of Los Alamos, as though he has never seen the place before. In reality, it was less than 50 miles from his ranch.The fact that it was very remote made Los Alamos not only good for security but also good for testing, it was surrounded by open deserts where bombs could be set off without impacting civilians.Of course, the thing that made it a good site for research also presented some difficulties. The only thing that existed previous to the research facility was a boys school. An entire town had to be built from scratch for six thousand people - complete with homes, sewers, electricity, offices, recreational facilities, schools, and medical facilities - not to mention laboratories, testing sites, chemistry labs, and all of the things that went into the actual mission.Los Alamos could be a pressure cooker, but it also created an incredible sense of camaraderie. Alcohol flowed freely. There wasn’t much to do other than work and drink. So people worked a lot, and they drank a lot.In such a pressure cooker, it was often important to massage bruised egos, mediate disputes, and offer encouragement.One of the really important things he had to do was manage security concerns. The attitude of the army was that all information should be separated and siloed. There basically shouldn’t be inter-departmental communication between the rank and file because everything should be kept strictly on a confidential need-to-know basis.Oppenheimer pushed back on this, rightly pointing out that this lack of communication made rapid research impossible. The scientists needed to be able to communicate and share findings freely if they were going to be able to finish a nuclear bomb in time for use in the war.Now, these security concerns were to keep secrets out of the hands of the Soviets, who were ostensibly allies in the second world war, but not very comfortable ones. The seeds of the cold war were laid far before WW2, and so most of these security efforts were made not to keep secrets out of the hands of the Nazis, who had no effective espionage program in the United States, but from the Soviets.And this presented a major challenge, since many of the physicists had, like Oppenheimer, been communists. This is because, they’re academics, it had been the 1930s, and let’s face it, because they’re Jewish.So the army is eyeing these guys suspiciously and putting in measures that are hampering them from doing their work. So it’s easy to see the army as the bad guys, stopping progress on this research.But it’s worth pointing out that in fact, all of the nuclear secrets did end up leaking from the American program. The Soviets did not independently invent the atom bomb. They stole the plans from the American program. There were leaks all over the place, including in Oppenheimer’s own team.And so in that context, one could argue that actually the army was correct, and Oppenheimer was wrong.I would just say that they were both right. The army was right about what it would take to keep nuclear secrets out of Soviet hands, and Oppenheimer was right that they would be unable to develop a bomb in time for use in WW2 with such restrictions in place.Robert initially estimated that Los Alamos would require the work of 50 physicists and 50 technicians. However, by the end of the war, nearly 10,000 people were living and working at Los Alamos.And you just couldn’t keep a lid on that many people and stop them from communicating.Secret SauceThey are able to develop an atomic bomb before the Germans, before the Japanese, and before the Soviets. In part that’s because the conditions were just so different.So, Niels Bohr and, uh, Edward Teller had a disagreement about, uh, whether U 235 could be separated from U 238. And Niels Bohr said, no, it's impossible. You can only do it by turning the country into a giant factory. Years later, writes Edward Teller, when Bohr came to Los Alamos, I was prepared to say, you see.But before I could open my mouth, he said, you see, I told you it couldn't be done without turning the whole country into a factory. You have done just that.Oppenheimer was able to see how the science fit with this industrial project. Oppenheimer was probably the best lab director I have ever seen because of the great mobility of his mind, because of the successful effort to know about practically everything important invented in the laboratory. And also the psychological insight into other people, which in the country is very much the exception.He knew and understood everything that went on in the laboratory. Whether it was chemistry or theoretical physics or machine shop. He could keep it all in his head and coordinate it. It was clear also at Los Alamos that he was intellectually related to us. And he understood immediately when he heard anything.And fitted it into the general scheme to write conclusions. There was just nobody else in the laboratory who came even close to him. In his knowledge, it was human warmth as well. Everybody certainly had the impression that he cared what each particular person was doing. Talking to someone, he made it clear that that person's work was important for the success of the whole project.But even with his leadership, there are technical issues.One of the big ones is the firing mechanism.Moral/Ethical QualmsFrom the beginning of the project there were ethical qualms about building a bomb with such terrifying destructive power. Such a bomb would necessarily involve civilian casualties in its use.Isidor Rabi, a friend of Oppeneheimer’s and a fellow physicist, refused to join the project full time because of his reservations, though he did offer some advice as a part-time consultant.Many of the physicists urged openness and transparency with the Soviet Union, especially those like Oppenheimer who had communist sympathies. But it wasn’t just because they wanted to help the Soviet Union, though there may have been some of that, but for men like Oppenheimer, they could see where things were headed. They anticipated the cold war with its build up of massive amounts of nuclear weapons, and they could see that such large nuclear arsenals had the power to destroy the world as we know it.So there were reservations throughout the Manhattan Project, but they were relatively muted, at first.But then, in mid-1944 as it became clear that Germany was going to lose the war, the voices of dissent started to grow louder.Many of the physicists were Jewish, and they held special disdain for Germany. Some of them were themselves European exiles who had fled Nazi persecution. They had wanted to drop the bomb on German civilians, not on Japanese civilians. And it was becoming clear that the bomb would not be ready in time to use against Germany.One physicist wrote “We had been too late. Now that the bomb could not be used against the Nazis, doubts arose.”Leo Szilard, the physicist who first urged FDR to initiate a nuclear program, now opposed their use on Japan, and after Hitler’s suicide, sought a meeting with Truman to try to squash their development.He was also very worried by the idea of an arms race with the Soviets. You see this fundamental disconnect between leftists, who see the Soviet Union and United States as fundamentally going after the same thing by different means, and rightists who see the Soviet Union as totally different from and opposed to the American way of life.After all, none of these people saw an arms race with Nazi Germany as a bad thing. They only oppose it with the Soviet Union.The same could be said of Oppenheimer.And yet he rallied the scientists to finish the project. He made a number of arguments, including that maybe, just maybe, this bomb would actually end warfare, by making it too terrible to engage in lightly.“Improve the international prospects, in that they are more concerned with the prevention of war than with the elimination of this specific weapon. We find ourselves closer to these latter views; we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.”And there is some evidence that this might be the case. Since the end of WW2 there hasn’t been a war between the nuclear armed great powers. And previous to WW2 the world’s great powers were going to war all the time.Oppenheimer was at the committee meeting where targeting was worked out. It was decided that the bomb was overkill for a military strike, that it should be used on an industrial target, surrounded by civilians in order that a large number of people would see it and it would make a psychological impression.The official language was “A vital war plant employing a large number of workers and closely surrounded by workers’s houses.”Oppenheimer gave some thought to the idea of inviting the Japanese to the first ever nuclear test. The only trouble was, it was a test, and no one knew if it would work. And if the bomb didn’t work, the Japanese might be even more emboldened to hold out.“We didn’t know beans about the military situation in Japan. We didn't know whether they could be caused gto surrender by other means or whether the invasion was really inevitable. But in the backs of our minds was the notion that the invasion was inevitable because we had been told that.”Eisenhower thought the atomic bomb use in Japan was unnecessary because “the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”Eisenhower not exactly known as a peace-nik. So if the Japanese were trying to surrender, why was the bomb used?Well they were trying to get a negotiated surrender, and the United States wanted an unconditional surrender.I think the other thing is, you know I mentioned that the Jewish physicists wanted to use the bomb on the Germans because they were motivated by revenge and racial hatred. And I find that understandable but regrettable.Well I think you can say the same of the mostly gentile military leadership of the US. They had this same revenge and racial hatred thing going on toward the Japanese because of Pearl Harbor.And look, I don’t mean to condemn anyone too harshly here. I think the use of the atom bomb in Japan was a bad decision. I agree with Eisenhower that a negotiated peace might have been possible and should have been pursued harder. But the fog of war applies. There was no guarantee that negotiations would have been successful. And the Soviets had declared war on Japan. Every day of delay brought them closer to Japan. If the US had delayed, you might have ended up with a divided Japan like you see in Korea.And that would have been a real tragedy.There were a lot of discussions at Los Alamos. One physicist, Edward Teller, circulated a petition that no bomb should be dropped without a public statement of the terms of surrender that they were refusing.But at the end of the day, the truth was that the US diplomatic and military organizations viewed the advice of the physicists as little more than a curiosity. Huh. Interesting. Thanks, we’ll really think about that.The only thing the physicists could have done was a complete strike or I guess sabotage the development of the bomb. The consequences of either of those two actions would have been very dire. We’re talking about long prison sentences.In the end, the decision came from the top. President Truman decided that the bomb would be dropped.An important deadline was set. A test needed to be conducted before the Potsdam conference on July 17, 1945. The heads of state of the allied powers would be there to work out the  details of a new post-war world order.It was thought that the United States possessing an atomic weapon would give them powerful negotiating leverage at the conference.And so Oppenheimer had his marching orders. One final push to have the bomb ready for testing by mid-July.

*** MUSIC CUE ***Final Testing and UseThe Summer of 1945 was intense. It was a particularly hot summer in New Mexico, and Oppenheimer drove his scientists to work harder and longer hours.Everyone seemed on edge. The easy fraternal attitude and casual drinking seemed to dry up with the landscape.One person observed “There was tension and accelerated activity. Explosions on the Plateau seemed to increase and then to cease.”The bomb was nearing completion, and was almost ready to test.For a test site, Oppenheimer selected an open patch of desert that the local Mexicans had called the “Jornada del Muerto” the journey of death.Oppenheimer dubbed the test site “Trinity” although he could never quite explain where the name came from.Again, Robert did have some hesitations about the bomb, and the way it was being used. But all of that was pushed out of his mind by the immediacy of completing the project on a tight deadline.All of his thoughts were turned toward making sure the bomb worked, and that it was completed on time.


According to Robert Oppenheimer’s brother, Frank, Robert’s only words after the blast were “it worked.”His friend and physicist Rabi saw Robert shortly thereafter. He was buoyant. “I’ll never forget his walk;” Rabi recalled “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.”Robert Oppenheimer is often quoted as saying “I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad-Gita - ‘Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.’”And this is widely understood to be an expression of regret. But I want to read the whole quote.“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 destroyed of worlds.’ I supposed we all thought that, one way or another.”So in other words, this was not an expression of unvarnished horror, but rather a continuation of his line of reasoning of hoping that this new tool would awe the world into doing the right thing and bringing an end to this war and hopefully soon to all wars.The attitude back at Los Alamos was euphoric. Robert was euphoric too.Though in the coming days he would have growing reservations about the bombs use, he never disavowed his work, and in fact he helped advise the airforce on how to use the bomb.Having said that, at least one person did catch him in his office, puffing on his pipe and muttering “those poor little people, those poor little people.”The first bomb was dropped less than a month later, on August 6, 1945. General Groves called up Oppenheimer to congratulate him.“I’m proud of you and all your people,” Groves said.“It went all right?” Oppenheimer asked?“Apparently it went off with a tremendous bang,” Groves responded.Oppenheimer responded, “Everybody is feeling reasonably good about it, and I extend my heartiest congratulations. It’s been a long road.”

*** Musical cue***DenouementOppenhimer became a celebrity. That year he was put on the cover of Time magazine. He was a war hero, and even more than that he was the model of the modern man of science.He was older now, and it had now been years since he had done serious physics research. Rather than going back into academia, he spent increasing time in Washington as a nuclear advisor and member of the Atomic Energy Commission.Eventually, he took a job as the director of Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study, where he oversaw a multidisciplinary program that welcomed scholars from many disciplines who were doing world changing research, men like Einstein, and John Von Nuemann.As the cold war progressed, more and more scrutiny was placed on those with communist ties. People like Oppenheimer.This time period became known as the red scare, although truth be told, now that the soviet union has fallen and we have access to all of those documents, Joseph McCarthy was basically right, and if anything might have understated the problem. The US government was absolutely infested with communists.And in fact, we now know that there were four spies who were directly transmitting top secret information under Oppenheimer’s nose from Los Alamos.There were individuals who were treated unfairly, but it probably made sense to root out as many people with communist ties from the government as possible.And in that context, Oppenheimer was cooked.He had been a secret party member, he had associated with communists, he his wife had been a communist, he had multiple communist lovers.There is some evidence that he himself actually might have been a Soviet spy. I’ll go over that evidence in the end notes episode, ultimately I don’t find it persuasive and I don’t think he himself directly spied for the USSR, but he was certainly a security risk, and it’s understandable why you might want to have him removed from sensitive information when his contributions were no longer strictly necessary and his communist sympathies were well known.Oppenheimer’s decision to insist that he be given a hearing to dispute the revocation of his security clearance (it wasn’t actually revoked but allowed to lapse) turned out to be a master stroke. Media outlets eventually picked up on it, and it made him a martyr.Stripped of any influence within government, Robert became a public figure and advocate for scientific inquiry generally. He gave speeches, wrote articles, and talked with the powerful and influential, but with increasingly little real impact.He purchased land on the US Caribbean island of St John, where he spent an increasing amount of time.In terms of his appearance, Oppenheimer was famous for two things, one was his hat. All the great ones have a signature look, and he was no different. And the other was his constant smoking. He smoked cigarettes and pipe tobacco all the time.Well in 1965 he was diagnosed with lung cancer which progressed relatively rapidly.He died on February 18, 1967.LessonsCome join the madnessT-shaped skillsSetting apart a spaceThe way he would build up weaker and push the stronger performersDensity of talentIt can be difficult to take too many lessons from a genuine genius. He just had raw mental horsepower that few people in the history of the world have ever possessed.But think back to when he was in England, trying to strangle his friend with a luggage strap, and crying in bed with this girl who he couldn’t make a move on, and poisoning his professor’s apple.There is often a fragility to genius. Genius needs to be nurtured. It can very easily go the other way. Elon Musk “When I was five or six or something, I thought I was insane. It was clear that other people - their minds were not exploding with ideas. It was like hmmm I’m strange. I don’t think you’d necessarily want to be me. It’s very hard to turn it off. It’s like a never ending explosion all the time.”

He spent the next few years as a nuclear advisor.

I won’t go too much into the denouement of the Oppenehimer story.

Theory of why ego matters. Your ego becomes an organization. It is the entity that other people gravitationally revolve around, orbit, it is the entity that other people orbit and come to rely on. It is a brand. Nelson is a brand.He comes back to the US briefly, gets a teaching job in California, but decides he really needs to beef up on his knowledge. The one area where he was still weak, and actually would remain weak despite his efforts, is mathematics.So he goes to the Netherlands.As I mentioned, Oppenheimer was a genuine genius, and he had a tremendous facility for languages. So he shows up in the Netherlands, and he delivers his first lecture in Dutch in three weeks. Mind you, he already knew German, which is a related language, because of his time in Gottingen, but still… Incredible.People start calling him Oppie.Gets sent off to SwitzerlandDevelops an important relationship with Wolfgang Pauli.Comes back to California where at first he teaches at Cal Tech and then splits his time between Caltech and Berkeley. He actually founds the theoretical physics department at Cal Berkeley.He starts out as a bad professor. He mumbles, his thoughts are brilliant but erratic, his lessons hard to follow. But he quickly learns how to become a better teacher.

Professor and Political ActivismAccording to Oppenheimer, his political awakening started in the 1930s. There were a couple good reasons for this.First of all, the Nazis had risen to power in Germany, and Oppenheimer’s literal friends were being kicked out of teaching positions in Germany. He also had cousins and an aunt and an uncle who were in Germany who were suffering.Then there is the matter of the Spanish civil war. Which became a cause celebre amongst liberals. Oppenheimer started donating to the civil war.There was also the fact of the great depression. This is starting to make alternative economic systems look attractive.Add into the fact that Oppenheimer is in a liberal milieu as a Jewish professor in Berkeley, and of course he was going to become a communist.He also starts dating a girl. Talk about Jean and her relationship to communism.He was a communist. He paid regular dues, well after the Spanish Civil War. He

The Early Atom BombThe paper comes out. The test comes back. They replicate the next day.He starts doing research. Everyone is doing some research.The Chevalier affair.Then America starts to get serious about making a bomb.Groves comes to him and they meet. Very impressed by Oppenheimer. “A genuine genius”They agree on the need for a secure site. That becomes Los Alamos.Marries Kitty and that whole saga

Los AlamosAt first things are not going well for Robert. He hadn’t managed people before.He doesn’t know to do basic things like an org chart and a timeline or a schedule.Draws out the initial flow chartInitially learns to replace himself as leader of the theoretical divisionBecomes an effective leaderGet some quotes about people wanting to perform for himHow does this happen? I think it’s a few things. Openness.Being able to engage with the work. He was a great physicist who could understand the quality of what they did and the intricacies of it. People who only understand results don’t get it. Study that feedback from peers is most valuable in creative work.Has to get security off their backs and allow them to workDevelops incredible sense of camaraderie - Setting apart is really importantRun-ins with Edward TellerThey’re working against the clock… but eventually they realize that the Germans are much further behind than they thoughtAnd then the war in Europe starts drawing to a closeThis bums out Oppenheimer and some of the other scientists, because they really wanted to bomb the Germans lolWhen they find out they won’t be able to kill white people is when they really start to worry about the morality of the bomb for the first timeIt’s incumbent on Oppenheimer to keep them motivated. He uses a few different lines of argument to keep everyone working hard.Oppenheimer had his own misgivings, but remember, for him being important is the most important thing. He really liked his role. He was the man. And so he’s trying to pull off a successful atomic test.He really wants the test to go well.They really don’t know what to expect. Place bets on whether it will blow up, how much destructive force, and whether it will end the world.They see a blinding light and a mushroom cloud 20k feet tallOppenheimer mutters “we did it”A minute and a half later, the sound hits.The results are in: 20k tons of tnt - literally blowing away their expectationsThe feelings become more tortured nowAnd yet still, Oppenheimer offers advice on how to drop the bombThe military targets and the decision to drop two bombs on Japan in Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Post-Manhattan Project

Settles into the role of a senior statesmenHe basically stops being a physicistHe had sort of already stopped being a physicist. He had to in order to learn to lead the project.He steps into a senior statesman role.Joins the AECMeets with Truman - Crybaby quoteEventually leaves California and goes to work for the IASVehemently opposes the Hydrogen Bomb, Thermonuclear bomb, or Super BombMeets Strauss

DownfallThe reasons for Oppenheimer’s downfall:Opposed thermonuclear bombSupported transparency with the SovietsLegitimate security concernsSham trialEdward Teller major betrayalGroves and Von Neumann really come throughHis wife does a good job of testifyingSo does RabiIn the end his security clearance is revokedHe ends up leaving the IAS, and spends increasingly more time on the Caribbean island of St John’s before dying of lung cancer

About Episode

Learn the true story behind the father of the atomic bomb. This episode explores not only his groundbreaking achievements as the inventor of the nuclear bomb but also the profound lessons his life and work offer. From his relentless pursuit of knowledge to his remarkable ability to assemble and lead brilliant scientific minds, Oppenheimer's story serves as a case study on the complexities of leadership, scientific discovery, ethical responsibility, and the perils of human ambition.

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