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Exploring the Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Its Lessons for Children
Much has been talked about J. Robert Oppenheimer recently due to the release of the Hollywood movie Oppenheimer- His work, his life and everything in between. But children know very less about the father of the atomic bomb. We have curated this blog to help them know about this great physicist and what they can learn from his life, such as scientific brilliance, curiosity, dedication and several more things.
Childhood and Education
J. Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York, United States of America, on 22nd April 1904 in a Jewish family. His mother, Ella Friedman, was a painter, and his father, Julius Seligmann Oppenheimer, was a prosperous textile importer.
Oppenheimer was grown up in a wealthy family with cooks, servants and chauffeurs. He gets attracted to science at a very young age, just like many renowned scientists such as Srinivasa Ramanujan and Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis. When he was five, his family took him to Germany to meet their relatives. His grandfather gave him a collection of minerals, and after that, Oppenheimer started collecting rocks. When he turned eleven, he joined the New York Mineralogical Club, and after one year, he presented his first scientific paper.
He studied science, mathematics, philosophy, French, English and Eastern religion at Harvard. Experimental physics caught his attention when he attended a course on thermodynamics from university professors. He graduated in 1925 and then worked as a research assistant at the Cambridge university cavendish laboratory. However, laboratory work didn't inspire him, and he went to Germany to study quantum physics, where he studied with prominent figures such as Neil Bohr and Max Born. After that, Robert completed his doctorate and worked with Born, where he produced the Born-Oppenheimer approximation. He received offers to teach at the universities of California and Caltech in 1929, and he accepted both, which shows his brilliance and dedication towards his work.
Creation of the atomic bomb
German physicists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman successfully made a discovery in which, when they bombarded a uranium nucleus with neutrons, they found that it could be split, releasing a high amount of energy. So, Hahn and Strassman discovered the nuclear fission process. This discovery opened the possibility of creating a powerful weapon. Physicists who fled from Germany into Europe feared that Hitler scientists would make it. They explained the importance and dangers of nuclear fission to the American government. And after consulting Nobel Laureate Albert Einstein, the USA started the Manhattan Project in 1942, a research program to develop an atomic bomb.
Expert professors, researchers and scientists were chosen from leading American universities to create the world’s first atomic bomb. Oppenheimer was the head of the Manhattan Project research and development efforts. The research was conducted in a desert area in Las Alamos, New Mexico, to keep everything secret.
Many scientists complained about the security measure done by the military during the Manhattan Project research. However, Oppenheimer acts as a mediator between scientists and military people and keeps motivating scientists to focus on their goals. He managed to keep everyone happy and did everything possible to create the first atomic bomb.
Though everyone knew about the basic physics principle- on bombarding a nucleus, it splits and releases energy. But the question was how to produce the rare radioactive materials. And how to control the chain reaction once it starts. However, the team triumphed over all the challenges and created two bomb designs- Little Boy and Fat Man.
Little Boy, or uranium 235 bomb, used a gun assembly in which one subcritical mass of uranium was shot at another subcritical mass of U-235 to produce a nuclear fission process. Fat man or plutonium bomb used a different method; Explosives were surrounded around a sphere (subcritical) of plutonium, and when the explosives were fired, a shock wave was produced; This shock wave compressed the plutonium and started the nuclear reaction. After seeing the devastating effects of Atomic Bomb, Oppenheimer Said “Now I am become the death, the destroyer of worlds.”
The little boy dropped over Hiroshima and the Fat boy over Nagasaki city in Japan. After the bomb dropped, Japan surrendered, and the second world war ended.
However, the great discovery of atomic bombs cost millions of people their life. After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer and many scientists who were involved in the Manhattan starts understood the devastation that nuclear arms could cause and advocated strong regulations for its use.
Lessons for children
While the majority of schools in Baddi educate children about great Indian scientists, it is equally essential to introduce them to scientists around the world. Teachers and parents can come together to familiarise children with renowned scientists from diverse backgrounds. Telling them about their life, showing them their documentaries and giving them their biographies to read can help them better know about them. Here are some lessons from Oppenheimer's life for children.
1. Overcoming technical challenges
Oppenheimer and his team face numerous challenges while developing the atomic bomb. For example, it was difficult for them to find materials that were suitable for the nuclear fission process beyond uranium. However, they found a material- Plutonium-239, which they used to make the Fat Man bomb. They had to devise many methods to produce and isolate several materials to find plutonium, which depicts their hard work, dedication and capability to deal with challenges.
2. Maintaining coordination and security
Since Manhattan Project had to be kept secret, security agencies took a lot of safety precautions. Oppenheimer had to coordinate a massive team of scientists along with managing the challenges associated with everyday security checks to ensure they produced the bomb on time and no information about the atomic bombs got leaked from the research facility and got into the wrong hands.
3. Balancing ambition and ethics
Oppenheimer loved scientific discoveries, and his concern towards national security during the second world war made him develop the atomic bomb. However, when he learned about the destruction that the bombs caused in the city of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he did several things to ensure such things did not happen again, which displays his ability to balance his ambitions and ethics.
At last, J. Robert Oppenheimer's contribution towards the development of atomic bombs shows the power of human collaboration and scientific achievement. But, the moral and ethical dilemma he faced after making it teaches valuable lessons to children. His life teaches children to make a positive contribution towards the world.