J. Robert Oppenheimer and President’s Day 2019

I appreciate that February only has four weeks, but must they be as long as they are? What? They’re the same length as those in June? No, can’t be. You’re making that up. Next week is National Tell Me A Fairy Tale Day, not this week.

Nuclear Club: Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer 
LIFE Magazine cover, 1947.

Well, given that…Julius Robert Oppenheimer (known either as Robert or Oppie) was born on 22 April 1904 in New York City to an affluent first-generation German Jewish immigrant family in the textile business. Young Robert’s early education was typical of secular Jews in Manhattan, but untypically Robert was introduced to the quasi-Christian/quasi-atheist Ethical Culture movement in the primary grades, which may have informed his life thereafter. 

Young Robert, like the physicist Oppie would become, had a wide-ranging mind and interests that ranged from English and French literature to horseback riding and mineralogy. At Harvard he majored in chemistry but gravitated to physics, graduating summa cum laude in just three years. He moved on to Cambridge and to the University of Göttingen, where he earned his PhD in physics at the age of 23 while he developed his most cited work, the Born–Oppenheimer approximation in quantum physics.

After university, Oppie (from a Dutch-derived nickname) was much sought after, dividing his time between the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) and Harvard for a year. Known to work himself to exhaustion while still in school, he was also subject to fits of depression. He had no spare time, dividing himself between hard science and Eastern philosophy, learning Sanskrit on his own so he could read the Bhagavad Gita in the original. He supported communist ideals in the ’30s while supporting refugee scientists from Europe–including many who he would work with on the atomic bomb. At the same time he practically ignored the world around him, and was unaware of the Wall Street crash of 1929 until he was told about it two years later.

Morally Oppenheimer could be described as a mess. He had an affair with divorcee Jean Tatlock, a fellow communist sympathizer who really was a communist, that supposedly ended in 1938. Then he married another communist, divorcee Katherine Puening, who had two children with him while he was still sleeping with Tatlock from time to time. All of this made for interesting reading and constant surveillance while he worked on the most secret project of WWII.

Oppenheimer joined the Manhattan Project in 1942 as the head scientist, in part because he was a good referee. Oppie was the one world-class physicist among all those in the Western world who all the others would work for. The military head of the project, Army brat Leslie R. Groves, had been the overseer for the building of the Pentagon and was regarded as one of the best civil engineers in the Army. The unlikely pair–unruly and eccentric Oppenheimer and straight-laced career soldier Groves–got along famously and became lifelong friends, though Groves was always concerned about Oppenheimer’s serial indiscretions. 

In July 1945 Oppie and thousands of other workers watched the Trinity device–a plutonium core nuclear bomb–ignite the very air in the New Mexico desert.  His reaction over the years has been described and reinterpreted, but the one that makes the most sense was relief. After all, the Manhattan Engineer District had cost the United States $3,000,000 for every man, woman, and child in North America. There were scientists who thought that the thing wouldn’t work and others who thought that it would cause a continuing chain reaction and consume the Earth. If he thought of the Bhagavad Gita at that instant we can’t know now, even as much as he said he did later.

His early flirtations with communist organizations, direct or not, caught up with him in the coming Cold War. He lost his security clearance in 1954, and his situation was made worse by his pronouncements that science knew no politics. As the head of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton from 1947 until 1966 when he began chemotherapy for throat cancer, he encouraged research of all kinds and consistently spoke for harnessing science for the public good. J. Robert Oppenheimer died 18 February 1967, eulogized by many and remembered as a cautionary yet unapologetic voice for the harnessing of science for the public good.

President’s Day 2019

From right, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter in College Station, Texas,  Oct. 21, 2017.  (AP Photo/LM Otero) ORG XMIT: TXMO103

The appellation “President’s Day” originated in the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968, which took effect in 1971. The Act established Washington’s birthday as the third Monday in February, in the week of 15-21 February; it didn’t officially merge Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday, nor did it establish a “President’s Day” by law…pop culture seems to have done that all on its own. 

The photo up top is of a unique club: five men who get to be called “Mister President” at the opening of the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California. There’s another to the right: a hurricane relief concert in 2017 when there were five living former presidents. WIth the incumbent in the White House, this was a period during which there were six living members of the President’s Club, which has happened four times. There have been six periods when there were no living former presidents:

  • When George Washington died in 1799;
  • When Andrew Johnson died in 1875;
  • When Grover Cleveland died in 1908;
  • When Calvin Coolidge died in 1933;
  • When Lyndon Johnston died in 1973.

Richard Nixon is the only person to have been both the only living US president (January 1973, after Johnson died, to August 1974, when he resigned) and one of six living presidents (January 1993, after Clinton’s inauguration, to his death in April 1994). Everyone should be known for something odd.

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