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J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Man Who Challenged The Pioneer of Modern Physics to Build The First Atomic Bomb


World War I and II would have lasted longer if it wasn’t for the Scientists and the Physicists. It was their timely intervention that helped their allies win the battle and bring the war to a close. Though it seems easy to put everything together in words, it’s gazillion times harder for a Scientist to figure a way out. Especially when they have a deadline to adhere to. Or else more people would die. During the Second World War, two scientists were put in this same position. Having a strict deadline to obey, they were banking on a scientific breakthrough to win the war.

Role of scientists in World War II

Scientists had a profound significance during the war. Without Scientists, World War II could’ve taken a lot of civilians’ lives. Just like how Alan Turing cracked the Enigma to save millions of lives, Germany and America were banking on their scientists to build a war weapon. Something more powerful than a TNT. Either of these countries’ quest for war weapons gave the world a significant scientific breakthrough. This wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for the efforts put in by two scientists

Germany’s pick: Werner Heisenberg

Even though Hitler had a little to no interest in science, his team were on the lookout for scientists to work on a superbomb. They were left with only a few options, as many scientists including Albert Einstein, fled the country in the wake of the second world war. On the other hand, Germany’s asset was Werner Heisenberg. One of the youngest scientists to win the Nobel Prize, Heisenberg was a patriot. Though he had nothing to do with Nazis, he signed in as Germany’s lead scientist to lead his country to triumph. Together, they were on a quest to devise a superbomb.

Albert Einstein’s letter

Back in the day, there was no internet. Hence it was a challenge to keep track of the happenings around the world. If it wasn’t for Albert Einstein’s letter to President Roosevelt, America would have remained silent. He alerted the President of the dangers of a German superweapon being made.

America’s response: J. Robert Oppenheimer

Upon receiving Einstein’s letter, the President ordered the country’s top-secret military organisation to act fast. As per orders, Colonel Lesley Groves approached Robert Oppenheimer to lead the team. Oppenheimer was a Professor at UC Berkeley. Coincidentally, he is a huge fan of Heisenberg and his work on the uncertainty principle. It is believed that it was Heisenberg who motivated him to take up Theoretical Physics. Lesley Groves is considered to be picky when it comes to recruitment. He saw something in Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer had an easy-going attitude with a desire to win everything he works on!

Oppenheimer’s inexperience & Heisenberg’s early breakthrough

When America picked Oppenheimer, they knew they were going against one of the best physicists in the world. Heisenberg was working building modern physics from scratch, while Oppenheimer was giving lectures on Heisenberg’s work at Berkley. This showed America’s lead scientist’s inexperience.

However, the inexperience of Oppenheimer was the least that bothered the U.S Military. By the time they brought him onboard, Heisenberg had assembled his team to work on making this fiction a reality. Heisenberg finally succeeded in creating excess neutrons inside a chamber. Meaning, the nuclear chain reaction was indeed possible. He became the first scientist to achieve neutron propagation. Following his first successful test, he scaled up his calculations. Upon doing so, he blew the entire lab. This was a clear indication that the Nazis were closing in on the bomb.

“Manhattan Project”

Heisenberg’s success meant one thing for America. They must start acting soon, or else the Nazis would be having the world’s most destructive weapon. Oppenheimer and Groves started hunting places for setting up their base. With Oppenheimer’s assistance, they set up a base at a deserted place of Los Alamos. The mission was code-named the “Manhattan Project”, and Oppenheimer, along with his colleagues began working on the project more seriously.

Shortly after World War II, Los Alamos remained the centre for innovation and development. The impromptu Los Alamos National Laboratory was restructured for a major research program in systems biology modelling and Integrated Computing Network.

Oppenheimer’s plutonium bomb

This little tweak in the plan helped America devise the world’s first atomic bomb. Noticing the shortage of Uranium, Oppenheimer started searching for alternatives. Plutonium, a radioactive material that was readily available in America was a viable option for him. Without second thoughts he proceeded with it and changed his plans to incorporate Plutonium into the equation. This little change forced scientists to rework all their calculations.

Oppenheimer’s first breakthrough: “Implosion”

With everything in place, Oppenheimer still had one big problem. When it comes to Plutonium it is not as receptive as Uranium when it comes to a chain reaction. It demanded a powerful detonator to kickstart the process. This was a daunting task for Oppenheimer. He started doubting his theory. He even considered resigning.

However, he developed an insight into the detonation problem. This little insight put America and the “Manhattan Project” back on the map. He concluded with a vision to “implode” the plutonium before detonating it. This would involve putting a lot of TNT across the Plutonium chamber. These TNT are exploded at the same, exerting significant pressure on the Plutonium chamber. This would begin the much-needed detonation. With this theory, Oppenheimer was only a few months away from the bomb.

Heisenberg’s assassination plot

Positive news from Oppenheimer was not enough for the U.S Military. They wanted to buy “Manhattan Project” some more time. Hence, they sought assistance from a spy and a former Red Sox player, Moe Berg. Berg could speak fluent German. He was assigned to track Heisenberg’s progress. In an attempt to do so, he attended one of Heisenberg’s lectures. All through the lecture, he was looking for a small hint from the scientist amidst his lecture. After the lecture, it was evident that Heisenberg was years from the bomb. He was left unharmed, and Berg returned with the good news for the Los Alamos camp.

“Trinity”: Oppenheimer’s triumph

Oppenheimer had the last laugh on this battle for Atomic Bomb. In 1945, under the code-name of “Trinity”, he successfully tested the Atomic bomb. His implosion design exceeded his imaginations, making it ready for the bombing. Following the test, “Fat Man” was detonated over Nagasaki. A week after that, Japan surrendered from the war causing the Axis to collapse. Thereby ending the war. Heisenberg would then go on to claim that he knowingly stopped working on the atomic bomb understanding its repercussions.

This battle for the Atomic bomb holds a significance within Science. It was this battle that introduced the world to the Atomic bomb. But on a positive side, it encouraged the use of Nuclear power as a potential non-renewable energy source.

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