Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out

Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out

Aimee Heidelberg - August 13, 2023

Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer (2023) had a formidable rival during the summer blockbuster season. The quiet story of J Robert Oppenheimer’s team developing the atomic bomb, his ‘after the fact’ horror of its use on two Japanese cities, and the scandalous hearings around his security clearance faced off with a bubbly blonde doll having an existential crisis and her beachy boyfriend Ken. Barbie, centered around the Mattel doll’s visit to the ‘real world,’ splashed across theaters in a beachy, pink wave. In three weeks, it earned $1.03 billion. Nolan’s science epic flew past $500 million in the same period. For two weeks it grossed only behind Barbie‘s unexpectedly profound tale. Nolan’s film offered a series of moments in Oppenheimer’s life and scandals. But three hours isn’t enough to fully encompass the complicated theoretical physicist whose work quite literally changed the world. There is much more to Oppenheimer’s story.

Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out
Oppenheimer movie advertisement. conceptphoto (2023, CC2.0).

The Movie that Made Oppenheimer (Even More) Famous

Christopher Nolan’s epic film Oppenheimer shows flashes of Oppenheimer’s life from his student days to 1963 when he was awarded the Enrico Fermi Award. He is shown dabbling in faculty labor organization, hanging out with Communists, his relationship with Communist and psychologist Jean Tatlock and botanist wife Kitty, and how he got wrapped up in the politicization of quantum physics. While Nolan offers glimpses of Oppenheimer’s life in short bursts, it mainly focuses on his time at Los Alamos, his fraught relationship with US Atomic Energy commissioner Lewis Strauss and the nightmare hearings around his security clearance revocation. Central to the film is the development of the atomic bombs that decimated the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and his emotional turmoil in seeing how his team’s scientific innovation became a weapon of death and sparked a Cold War.

Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out
J Robert Oppenheimer at age 17 in his passport photo. Public domain via Dave Miller, Flickr, CC 2.0.

‘J’ is Oppenheimer’s Actual First Name (maybe)

J Robert Oppenheimer was born on April 22, 1904. Notice the lack of a period before the J. That J represents Oppenheimer’s very first controversy – the enigma of his actual first name. His father’s name is Julius. Oppenheimer’s birth certificate lists it has his first name, too. But his family intended him to answer to his middle name, Robert. The United States War Department used “Julius” as his first name when they granted him security clearance. But in 1946, Oppenheimer said of his first name, writing to the U.S. Patent Office, “This is to certify that I have no first name other than the letter J, and that my full and correct name is J Robert Oppenheimer.” Naming Oppenheimer “Julius” would be against Jewish tradition to avoid naming someone after a living relative, but his family wasn’t particularly observant. But most people called him “Oppie,” something the movie got right.

Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out
Children at an urban playground, 1912. Public domain.

Young Oppenheimer was a Smart-Aleck Genius

Oppenheimer grew up in New York City with his textile importer father Julius and mother Ella and brother Frank, who also became a physicist. He was a thoughtful, introverted kid who preferred poetry and collecting rocks over playing with his peers. In a New York Times profile of Oppenheimer in 1963, the physicist recalls he didn’t go the playground much, but one of the times he did, another kid tossed a ball out of the playground area. The playground director scolded the child, but Oppenheimer precociously did the math and determined that the force of the ball hitting the sidewalk wasn’t enough to hurt anyone. By third grade, he was doing lab experiments, and at 10, he was studying physics and chemistry. He finished third and fourth grade in one year, and skilled part of eighth grade due to his accelerated mind.

Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out
Man stands on the shore near the Hudson River Palisades. A. Loeffler, c. 1903. Public Domain.

Oppenheimer was a Geologist as a Kid

Oppenheimer made a name for himself in quantum physics. But as a child, he had rocks on the brain. He would comb the grounds around Manhattan and the Hudson River Palisades for unusual and interesting rock samples. He would contact famous geologists to confer with them about the samples he found. One of these geologists nominated Oppenheimer to the New York Mineralogical Club – not realizing he was a twelve-year-old child. At just twelve years old, the club invited him to deliver a speech. While his youth must have shocked members who didn’t realize their budding colleague was a minor, Oppenheimer’s parents encouraged him to deliver the speech. He got up in front of the crowd filled with experts and delivered his address, standing on a box so he could view the audience over the lectern. His geological interest shifted into an interest in physics and into infamy.

Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out
Oppenheimer’s former departmental building, Physics building (formerly LeConte Hall) at UC- Berkeley. Sanfranman59, (2009, CC 3.0)

Oppenheimer Wasn’t Religious but his Religion Shaded his Academic Life

Nolan’s film touched several times on Oppenheimer’s Jewish heritage, although he wasn’t a particularly observant. He was a secular humanist interested in, as The Times of Israel calls it, “universal moral tenet,” Oppenheimer biographer Ray Monk says the Oppenheimer “always insisted he was neither German nor Jewish.” His time at Harvard University was shaded by antisemitism, through admissions quotas were established for Jews. His fellow students shut him out socially, even as he showed ambivalence toward his heritage. When he taught at UC-Berkely, he tried to bring fellow physicist and engineer Robert Serber onto the physics faculty. Department Head Raymond Birge blatantly said, “One Jew in the department is enough.” Despite the barriers he faced for a faith he didn’t even practice, he was supportive of his Jewish family. Antisemitism would permeate through Oppenheimer’s career, with his concern for his Jewish family and fellow scientists.

Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out

Oppenheimer (l) and UC Berkeley friend Ernest O. Lawrence on a road trip in the early 1930a. Public Domain.

Oppenheimer was a Bad Date

For all his scientific brilliance, Oppenheimer’s love life was a bit of a mess. Not just complicated; at one point it became downright comical. When Oppenheimer was a young physics professor at University of California, Berkely, he was in his 20s. He was an eligible bachelor living at the Faculty Club, dating multiple women at a time, including some of his graduate students, a move unacceptable by Universities today. In one case, he and his date were driving near a train line. A train was running along nearby tracks, and he decided to try to race it. Whether he hadn’t calculated the car’s physics, or lost focus for a second, he crashed the car. His date was knocked out. Oppenheimer feared he had killed her. But he had the sense to feel bad about the incident; his family gave her an original Cezanne painting in an attempt to apologize.


Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out
View from Grizzly Peak of the Berkeley Hills. trmarch (2011, CC 2.0).

No, Seriously. Oppenheimer was a Really Bad Date

Oppenheimer’s dating life was full of mishaps. The San Francisco Examiner ran an article on 14 February 1934 about one particular date that must have left the poor girl with a feeling of what just happened? He had been on a date with a Berkely woman. The pair went up to Grizzly Peak in the Berkely Hills to “sightsee” from their car. During the date, Oppenheimer told her he was going for a walk. A police officer found the woman asleep in the car, alone. He had gone home and crawled into bed. He left his date on the hill, alone, waiting for him to return. As he told police, once they found him in his room, “I am subject to doing eccentric things, although I don’t believe I ever did this before.” While he apologized for his erratic behavior, there was probably no “next date.”

Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out

A passage from the Bhagavad-Gita written in Sanskrit. Ms. Sarah Welch (2018, CC 4.0)

Oppenheimer Could Read Sanskrit

Oppenheimer touched on some of the most impressive feats in the scientist’s life outside of physics. One was his penchant for languages. He was fluent in Greek, Latin, French, German, and Dutch, but he wasn’t content to be fluent in a mere five languages. In the movie, lovers Jean Tatlock and Oppenheimer read profound passages of the Bhagavad-Gita during an encounter. While this is a dramatization for the film, Oppenheimer really did learn to read Sanskrit, a language nobody has used for common communication since about 1350 CE. He was always up for new intellectual challenges, and given his big-brain energy, things that actually challenged him were exceedingly rare. After meeting with a professor of Sanskrit at the University of California, he requested private instruction on the long-dead language. As with his many other languages, he quickly became fluent.

Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out

J Robert Oppenheimer in 1946. Department of Energy (DOE) at Oak Ridge. Public domain.

Oppenheimer Loved Art

Oppenheimer was a typical scientist, spending hours in a lab, focused on his discipline, hypothesizing, testing, collecting data, testing again, and bantering about findings with fellow scientists. But he was also typical in how he had interests outside his academic field. His mother, a painter, and father hung the works of some of history’s greatest artists around their apartment; young Oppenheimer would be greeted in his home by the exquisite images of van Gogh, Cezanne, and Gaugin. In 1954, he would deliver a lecture called “Prospects in the Arts and Sciences” at Columbia University. In his speech, he observed how the artist and the scientist are both essential, saying “They can make the paths that connect the villages of arts and sciences with each other and with the world at large the multiple, varied, precious bonds of a true and world-wide community.

Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out

J. Robert Oppenheimer, profile, 1946. Public domain.

Moving From Apolitical to Politically Savvy

For a man as well-rounded as Oppenheimer, he rarely connected with world events around him. Before the world descended into political turmoil in the years leading to World War II, he preferred to study ancient texts (in its original Sanskrit, Greek, or Latin, of course). He refused to listen to the radio, a main news source at the time, and did not have a telephone. As politically savvy as he would become, he avoided reading anything about politics and economics, instead focusing on his more academic pursuits. He hung out with Communists and supported some of their causes, but never joined the party himself. He became more involved with the world around him when he saw what was happening to his family and colleagues in Germany.


Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out
Postcard of Oakland, California, c. 1930 – 1945. Tichnor Bros., public domian.

Oppenheimer Helped Extract Family from Germany

As Hitler rose to power, Oppenheimer understood the threat the Third Reich posed to Jews in Germany. He and his brother Frank personally sponsored his Aunt Hedwig Stern, their father’s younger sister, and her son, cousin Alfred, from Cologne, in 1937. Aunt Hedwig and Alfred intended to stay with Julius Oppenheimer when they arrived in the United States. Unfortunately, he died just before their arrival. They went to California, where Oppenheimer helped them set up a home in Oakland, where Alfred got his medical license. Oppenheimer was close with his aunt after her relocation. On VE day in 1945, Oppenheimer wrote his aunt, “Hedwig, dear, Endlich. It is true that the most terrible and menacing problems remain. But VE is not nothing. It is twelve years late, but not nothing. Our love to you all, & every good wish. Our thoughts are with you at this time. Robert.”


Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out
Oppenheimer during his PhD program in Göttingen, Germany. Public domain.

Oppenheimer Helped Jewish German Scientists Relocate to America

The German atomic bomb program struggled. They lacked the money and materials to maintain an accelerated program. But even worse, Hitler’s policies sent Jewish German scientists fleeing the country. Oppenheimer and the United States scientific community saw the writing on the wall; German Jewish scientists would not fare well under Hitler. They were fired from their jobs; they could not be hired to atomic projects. Their exodus was a great blow to the German scientific community. But with Nobel laureates like Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, and Niels Bohr now practicing in the United States, it was a great gain for US physicists. 192 of these displaced German scientists came to the United States by 1939. Oppenheimer, who had earned his PhD from the University of Göttingen in Germany, contributed three percent of his salary to support these scientists as they fled their homeland and set up new lives.

Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out

Albert Einstein (l) and J Robert Oppenheimer (r), c. 1950. Public Domain.

Einstein and Oppenheimer

Nolan’s dramatized Oppenheimer and famous physicist Albert Einstein had the two on friendly terms. In reality, their early relationship was strained by common academic conflict. Einstein was not supportive of Oppenheimer’s field of study, quantum physics. Oppenheimer considered Einstein rather outdated, and as he put it, “Einstein is complete cuckoo.” But Einstein and other leading scientists became vocally concerned about Germany’s atomic weapons program and suggested the US develop their own. The USA listened, setting up the Manhattan Project featured in Nolan’s movie. Yet Einstein was barred from the project because his leftist views were considered a security risk. Oppenheimer was barred from consulting Einstein about the Manhattan Project. Which was probably fine with Einstein. After the attack, Einstein was burdened with remorse for recommending the atomic bomb program. He said, “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in developing the atomic bomb, I would have done nothing.”


Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out
Los Alamos main gate with historic sign. National Park Service, public domain.

Los Alamos Displaced a lot of Homes

In the movie, Oppenheimer says there is a boy’s school and Indians performing burial rights on the land proposed for nuclear testing. But this wasn’t the case. The Pajarito Plateau had the boys school and Native American ceremonial sites, but it also had thirty two homesteads. Homesteaders had forty-eight hours to leave their homes and land, surrendering it for the Los Alamos Laboratory project. The National Nuclear Security Administration claims homesteaders were compensated, but at a lower rate than normal, as the homesteaders were Hispanic and compensated at a lower rate than Caucasian property owners would have been. The homes were leveled, and the livestock set loose or shot (this, too, is disputed by the National Nuclear Security Administration, who claim they didn’t know these things were being done). There have been class action lawsuits over the treatment of these homesteaders.


Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out
Portrait of J Robert Oppenheimer, 1944. Public domain.

Oppenheimer’s Hamburgers

When the U.S. government scouted out scientists to coordinate the Manhattan Project, they had to choose the best of the best. They needed a leader who knew the science and could lead a large team of equally brilliant minds. There was no question of Oppenheimer’s skills in physics. But he had some strikes against him. He was young, he was a theorist not experienced in applied physics and engineering and never before oversaw a project of that magnitude. As one colleague said during the vetting process, Oppenheimer “couldn’t run a hamburger stand.” But Oppenheimer had latent skill in administration. He understood the need to establish Los Alamos as a research center, and the lab would need to become a community, providing for the families. This ensured Los Alamos was more than an academic center. It would be a home. He ran that “hamburger stand” through solid leadership.


Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out
Werner Heisenberg, head of German nuclear program, c. 1927. Public domain.

Oppenheimer vs Heisenberg

Nolan’s film frequently mentions the Nazi nuclear program, and how the United States had to beat them in A-bomb development. Germany was considered the hub of nuclear physics at the time, led by theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg. Despite this fear, what Oppenheimer didn’t know that, despite Heisenberg being a brilliant (some say eclipsing Oppenheimer) quantum physicist, he wasn’t a good project manager. Heisenberg, feeling a nuclear bomb wasn’t achievable any time in the near future (and some historians suggest German scientists purposely did not want the a-bomb to succeed), focused German weapons programs on those with more immediate impact. The flight of Jewish German scientists complicated their nuclear program. Los Alamos physicist Edward Teller praised Oppenheimer’s ability to run a lab, despite his inexperience. Heisenberg was shocked when the United States beat Germany in the nuclear race, but Oppenheimer was just a better manager.


Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out
Albert Einstein, 1947. Jack Turner, Princeton, NJ. Public domain.

Einstein Didn’t Help with the Manhattan Project

The Oppenheimer movie shows a terrifying dramatization of what might happen if the Manhattan Project misfired. It could have caused an unstoppable chain reaction. The fireball from the a-bomb would keep going…and going… and not stop until it consumed the entire Earth in an apocalyptic fireball. To avoid this horror from coming true, Oppenheimer in the movie consulted Albert Einstein to look over the work. But as much as Oppenheimer respected Einstein, he considered him out of date. A good colleague, but according to American Prometheus authors, historians Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, “not a working scientist.” Oppenheimer did consult with a colleague outside of the Manhattan Project, but it wasn’t Einstein, it was Nobel Prizewinner Arthur Compton, who was working from a Manhattan Project satellite in Chicago. Nolan had Einstein in the ‘consultation’ role because he is a familiar face and name to non-physicist audiences.


Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out
J Robert Oppenheimer meets with Mnhattan Project military lead Leslie Groves (1942). Public Domain.

Oppenheimer’s Initial Stance on the Atomic Bomb

World War II clouded Oppenheimer’s successful objective to develop an atomic bomb. The war was hurting his family in Europe, and fractured the scientific community. Making the decision to actually drop the bomb on Japan was fraught with conflict. In Nolan’s movie, the conflict before the decision-makers (including Oppenheimer, as leader of the Los Alamos science team) was summarized into a few options, including simply doing a demonstration of the bomb’s capability, giving the population of target cities warning ahead of the bomb drop, or bombing only military targets rather than communities teeming with civilians. Oppenheimer was among those that felt Japan would surrender only after they experienced the mass devastation and terror of the bomb. He felt they had to see the destruction it can wreak on a whole city in one drop, and nothing less.


Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out
Oppenheimer (in light colored hat) at the site of the Trinity test, September 1945. Public domain.

Military Targets Weren’t Enough

Nolan’s movie goes further into the committee’s conflict. The idea of a demonstration blast, one that would show Japan what the weapon could do was quickly shot down. Oppenheimer knew Japan would not surrender based on a demonstration, and a necessary US invasion of Japan would result in mass casualties. If the bomb failed during the demonstration, it would be humiliating. The Interim Committee, tasked with studying nuclear weapon issues discussed warning target cities in time to evacuate civilians. The Interim Committee dismissed this idea. If Japanese forces knew of the bomb, either by demonstration or warning, they were capable of intercepting or sabotaging the bomb enroute. Ultimately, the decision to drop the bomb and on Japan was to force was to stop a war and halt the loss of more lives, at the cost of the lives of Japanese civilians, around 200,000 by the end of 1945.


Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out
J Robert Oppenheimer. Dutch National Archives, public domain.

The Ethical Struggle, in Oppenheimer’s Own Words

In Nolan’s Oppenheimer, a great deal of discussion surrounds whether to drop the bomb on only military targets, or just do a demonstrate its power to scare Japan into surrender rather than actually bomb a civilian target. Oppenheimer was interviewed by NBC news saying, “On the one hand they hoped that this instrument would never be used in war, and therefore they hoped that we would not start out by using it. On the other hand, they hoped or other people hoped that it would put an end to this war, save countless lives, put an end to it, a butchery that had been going on for many years and had been marked- by atrocities…on the whole we were inclined to think that if it was needed to put an end to the war and had a chance of so doing, we thought that was the right thing to do.”


Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out
Leo Szilard..Credit: U.S. Department of Energy, Historian’s Office. Public Domain.

Scientists Try to Stop the Bomb from Being Dropped

There were scientists who opposed the bomb. Physicist Leo Szilard drafted the Szilard Petition, signed by 70 scientists, in 1945. The petition to President Truman acknowledges the need to end the war, but plead to give Japan a chance to surrender before using the atomic bomb. The petition detailed how the atomic bomb, given its ability to annihilate cities, would sink the United States into a new ruthlessness and put the USA under constant threat of their use from rival nations who developed their own atomic bomb. In short, without coining the name, a Cold War. Oppenheimer did not sign the petition. He wrote to the Secretary of War, “The safety of this nation…cannot lie wholly or even primarily in its scientific or technical prowess. It can be based only on making future wars impossible.” The petition never reached President Truman, and the A-bomb dropped in August 1945.



Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out
Atomic bomb as it destroys Nagasaki, Japan on 8 August, 1945. US Dept. of Energy, public domain.

Oppenheimer’s Full Statement “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Oppenheimer was a scientist, but also understood the broader context of his work, the implications not only for the scientific community, but for mankind. In a video of the NBC news interview, Oppenheimer, in a close-up and with a haunted look in his eyes, describes the atmosphere at Los Alamos after the first atomic bomb test. The passage has become synonymous with Oppenheimer and the Los Alamos atomic research. “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.‘ Krishna 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 destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.’


Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out
Hiroshima after atomic bomb. NBC News

Oppenheimer was Haunted

The Oppenheimer movie shows his conscious starting to bother him right after the bombings. In reality, it was the second atomic bomb drop at Nagasaki that hurt his conscious. The first drop, at Hiroshima, was based on the military feeling Japan would never surrender unless there was a strong, definitive ‘statement,’ the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer may have hated it, but he understood it. The first drop intended to halt the war and stop the larger patterns of death and destruction. Oppenheimer felt that the second bomb was dropped on an “already defeated” enemy. Historians debate whether the Soviets joining the Japan theater under the insistence of the USA just days after Hiroshima would have resulted in surrender. Japan, in this scenario, could have surrendered without bombing a second civilian target. Knowing Oppenheimer’s keen understanding of the larger political and military context, these thoughts may have crossed his mind.

Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out
Kitty Oppenheimer, Los Alamos ID badge photo. See attribution notes below “Select Readings and Resources.”

Trouble at Home

One of Oppenheimer’s most biting moments was Kitty Oppenheimer’s testimony to the Committee during Robert’s security clearance hearings. The scene isn’t fiction; according to Elle, “many of her lines in those scenes were taken right from transcripts of the hearings.” But Oppenheimer’s home life, particularly during the Los Alamos years, with Kitty had troubles. Kitty Oppenheimer, an honors graduate in botany, had married three times already before meeting Oppenheimer in 1939. After a summer together with Oppenheimer (while Kitty was still married), she became pregnant. Their son Peter was born in 1941. But Kitty wasn’t happy. She felt confined by motherhood and isolation at Los Alamos. Daughter Katherine was born at Los Alamos in 1944. While Oppenheimer relied on Kitty, she felt her role was to support Robert. The pressure of motherhood, isolation, and having a husband in the public eye drove her to alcoholism.


Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out
Albert Einstein. Comet Photo AG (Zürich), CC 4.0.

Einstein’s Advice After the A-Bomb

Oppenheimer and Einstein weren’t close in the early years of their relationship. The relationship turned after the bombs had dropped and they were both working at Princeton University. Oppenheimer said they were “close colleagues and something of friends.” Despite his success with the Manhattan Project, the United States government sought to revoke Oppenheimer’s security clearance during the Red Scare, a huge, embarrassing blow to his career and credibility, and a focal point for Nolan’s film. Oppenheimer’s fight for security clearance, Einstein advised his colleague to avoid participating in the hearings. He advised Oppenheimer to step back and avoid having his life picked apart, that he shouldn’t have to submit to such treatment after the younger man’s service to his country. Despite his efforts to help, Einstein was tough on Oppenheimer, calling him a ‘narr’ (fool) when Oppenheimer ultimately decided to submit to the 1954 US Atomic Energy Commission hearing.


Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out
Oppenheimer wins the prestigious Fermi award in 1963. Public domain.

Why Didn’t Oppenheimer win a Nobel Prize in Physics?

Oppenheimer received a Nobel Prize nomination three times, 1946, 1951, and 1967. Nolan’s movie shows the ceremony when he won the prestigious Presidential Enrico Fermi Award, an award dedicated to the 1938 Nobel Laureate quantum physicist. Oppenheimer saw eighteen of his Los Alamos colleagues win the prestigious Nobel, but never won it himself. The academic world has a mantra, “Publish or Perish.” Some academics don’t care and choose to practice in their field, with little time for the rigorous publishing process. But for someone pursuing Nobel status, publishing is vital. As Los Alamos senior historian Alan Carr says, “The Nobel Prize requires more than just a remarkable idea, it requires evidence.” While his involvement in the atomic bomb may have played into the decision, Oppenheimer didn’t have the body of work required by the Nobel committee; a major discovery or proving a foundational theory.


Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out
Robert, Peter, and Kitty (L to R) at White House Fermi Award ceremony, 1963. Public domain.

Oppenheimer’s Son

A family friend of Oppenheimer’s once said, “To be a child of Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer is to have one of the greatest handicaps in the world.” Oppenheimer’s children may indeed have been impacted by their parents’ achievements. Peter Oppenheimer, born in 1941, didn’t have a good relationship with his alcoholic mother, but had an overall good relationship with Oppenheimer. Despite his brilliant parents, Peter struggled in school. He earned a high school degree but preferred to work with his hands rather than indulge in intellectual pursuits. Peter moved back to Oppenheimer’s ranch in New Mexico, where he works as a carpenter and had three children. His daughter Dorothy, is a technical writer working for Nevada National Security. His son Charlie, is a father of two, works in software and writes about nuclear power, and Ella lives a quiet, and private life.


Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out
United Nations (New York chambers pictured) denied Toni Oppenheimer a job due to security clearance. Norbert Nagel (2006, CC 3.0).

Oppenheimer’s Daughter

Toni Oppenheimer, born in 1944, suffered polio as a child. To help her health, the family started travelling to the Virgin Islands. Like her brother, she didn’t have a good relationship with her mother because of Kitty’s alcohol abuse. Unlike her brother, she went to college, earning her degree at Oberlin. While her relationship with Kitty was difficult, Robert seems to have had a loving bond with his children. His death in 1967 affected Toni deeply. In 1969, she applied to be a translator for the United Nations – but in shades of her father’s conflict, she was denied security clearance. This, coming so soon after her father’s death and two divorces, left Toni despondent. She moved back to the family cottage in St. Johns where she lived a solitary life. Ultimately her unusual life took its toll and she died by her own hand in 1977.



Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out
J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1964, ETH Bibliothek, Zürich, cc 4.0.

Oppenheimer’s Family Likes the Movie, Save for One Scene

There was only one scene of Nolan’s film that Oppenheimer’s family says may not have been quite accurate. Overall, they quite liked the film, but the scene where Oppenheimer injects an apple with a toxic substance, intending that his professor, they felt, would not have happened. Oppenheimer’s grandson Charles told Time Magazine, “There’s no record of him trying to kill somebody. That’s a really serious accusation and it’s historical revision. There’s not a single enemy or friend of Robert Oppenheimer who head that during his life and considered it to be true.” The Pulitzer-prize winning book American Prometheus, which served as the basis for Nolan’s movie, reflects on the apple incident as reflecting on Oppenheimer’s unhappiness at Cambridge. The book also notes if it were true, the substance would likely not have been poisonous, as it would have ended with attempted murder charges, or worse (for Oppenheimer), expulsion.


Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out
J Robert Oppenheimer (r) and Norris Bradbury (r), at Los Alamos National Laboratory, 1964. Department of Energy, public domain.

Oppenheimer’s Epilogue: Restored Security Clearance

Oppenheimer would have his security clearance restored in full. Unfortunately the renown theoretical physicist, who had the support of the scientific community, wouldn’t live to see it. He passed away on February 18, 1967 at age 62 in Princeton, New Jersey from throat cancer. At his memorial service, Henry DeWolf Smyth said, “We regret that his great work for his country was repaid so shabbily.” Oppenheimer’s security clearance was restored by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2022. After reviewing his case, Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said in a press release, “As time has passed, more evidence has come to light of the bias and unfairness that Dr. Oppenheimer was subjected to while the evidence of his loyalty and love of country have only been further affirmed.”


Oppenheimer: What We Realized The Movie Leaves Out
Recent position of Asteroid 67085 Oppenheimer Location in Space, 2 August 2023. NASA Small-Body Database.

Oppenheimer is Eternal (and not just philosophically)

J Robert Oppenheimer didn’t live to see his revered security clearance restored. Nor did he see the movie that honors his contribution to science and his ethical dilemma about its result. Yet Oppenheimer has a permanent place in the annals of time and science. A floor-fractured crater on the moon bears the name Oppenheimer. It sits in the south pole/ Aitken basin area of the moon. The crater has “more than a dozen localized pyroclastic deposits associated with the fractures” events (Bennett, et. al, 2016). But his name reaches far beyond the earth and moon. Stefano Sposetti discovered Asteroid 67085 on January 4, 2000. Sposetti, an amateur astronomer in Switzerland at the Gnosca Observatory, named the discovery after Oppenheimer. It is currently orbiting between Jupiter and Mars. Oppenheimer’s asteroid is about 1.947 astronomical units (au), or roughly 180,984,957 miles (291,267,054 kilometers) away from Earth.


Where did we find this stuff? Here Are Our Sources:


5 things to know about the real-life Oppenheimer. Judy Kurtz, The Hill, 20 July 2023.


‘A ball of blinding light’: Atomic bomb survivors share their stories. Haruka Sakaguchi, National Geographic, 20 July 2023.


Complex explosive volcanic activity on the Moon within Oppenheimer crater. Bennet, K., Horgan, B., Gaddis, L., Greenhagen, B., Allen, C. Hayne, P., Bell, J., Paige, D. (2016). Icarus (Elsevier) 273(14), pp 296 – 314.


Historian unwinds the complexities of J Robert Oppenheimer as scientist, legend. Samantha Laine Perfas, Harvard Gazette,19 July 2023.


Meet the real J. Robert Oppenheimer’s family, including his wife Kitty, his 2 children, and his grandchildren. Eammon Jacobs, Insider, 21 July 2023.


Oppenheimer: The secrets he protected and the suspicions that followed him. Neil Kagan and Stephen Hyslop, National Geographic, 11 July 2023.


Scientific Exodus. (n.a.) Atomic Heritage Foundation. (4 June 2014).


Szilard Petition. Leo Szilard, et al, A Petition to the President of the United States, 17 July 1945.


The Jewish story behind Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer,’ explained. Shira Li Bartov, The Times of Israel, 21 July 2023.


The real Oppenheimer’s stranger than Hollywood love life. Katie Dowd, SFGate, 19 July 2023.


The real history behind Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer.’ Andy Kifer, Smithsonian Magazine, 18 July 2023.


The scene Oppenheimer’s grandson says he would have cut from the movie. Katie Dowd, SFGate, 27 July 2023.


What was Oppenheimer’s first name? Brye Steeves, Los Alamos National Laboratory, 16 February 2021.


Why Einstein wasn’t part of the Manhattan Project even though he convinced President Roosevelt to build an atomic bomb. Sonam Sheth, Insider, 19 July 2023.

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