Oppenheimer as Scientific Intellectual: A Centennial Conference

Friday - Sunday
23 Apr - 25 Apr 2004

Faculty Club

Event Type

J. Robert Oppenheimer sensed that his life would be lived as an example. He could not have guessed in how many ways. A self-profiled intellectual and a theoretical physicist who built up a coterie of admiring students at Berkeley, his manners, charisma, and (by the later 1930s) his politics stamped the founding generation of American quantum field theorists. However unexpected some colleagues found his appointment at Los Alamos, its spectacular success came to stand for the Manhattan Project at large. Then his postwar apotheosis epitomized the physicists’ entry into positions of power – just as the 1954 stripping of his security clearance defined their political bounds.

What to make of this figure? Oppenheimer was raised in a cultivated Jewish family and politically schooled in the scientific left of the 1930s, adopting a classic intellectual’s persona shored up by allusions to Sanskrit and Donne and (more unsettling to some colleagues) bohemian tendencies in private life. How did the theorist get remade as a large-scale scientific leader, a political insider, and the mid-century scientist par excellence? Oppenheimer’s ambitions only highlighted his separateness in a discipline dominated by experimenters and machine-builders like Ernest Lawrence. Unlike experimenters, who at least built things, theorists did nothing remotely familiar. But it was Oppenheimer who came to be called the father of the bomb.

Oppenheimer’s ascendancy marked a critical turn in conceptions of the promise and power of intellectuals and science. Our conference is open to a broad range of Oppenheimer scholarship. Focusing from the 1930s through the 1960s, it places the Oppenheimer story into a larger frame: scientific activism before World War II, new links between intellectuals and power, the shaping of the theorist’s persona, and the institutional and political contexts of his unsettled career.

This event is sponsored by CSTMS.
Additional sponsorship comes from:  National Science Foundation • Office for the History of Science and Technology • Townsend Center for the Humanities
Office for the History of Science and Technology