Jul 21, 2023 - Science

Oppenheimer's science beyond the atomic bomb

Photo illustration collage of J. Robert Oppenheimer working at a desk, surrounded by bits of scrap paper, a torn photo of a complicated mathematical proof, coffee stains, and a quote that reads, "The peoples of this world must unite or they will perish.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photos: Bettmann/Getty Images

J. Robert Oppenheimer has a scientific legacy that stretches beyond his work as the "father of the atomic bomb."

Why it matters: Oppenheimer is best known for leading the Manhattan Project, but before turning his attention to the building of the atomic bomb, he made his mark on a number of scientific problems.

Details: Before overseeing the weapons lab at Los Alamos, Oppenheimer worked as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, mentoring students, teaching and contributing to theoretical physics.

  • The development of quantum mechanics was just beginning and Einstein's theory of general relativity was re-shaping the scientific world.
  • "Almost all of his early papers are breaking new ground or clarifying an element of confusion in the community of scientists who were grappling at that time with a radically different conception technically ... and even philosophically than what came before," Los Alamos National Laboratory theoretical physicist Mark Paris tells Axios.

Between the lines: One of Oppenheimer's most important contributions to theoretical physics is still used today: the Born-Oppenheimer approximation.

  • The approximation helps give scientists a framework for attempting to solve the quantum many-body problem of predicting how three or more particles will interact.
  • "Although he developed an approximate way of solving the problem, he did it in a way that could be systematically improved, and it's still with us today," Paris says.

The intrigue: Oppenheimer's intellect wasn't confined to just one part of theoretical physics. He puzzled over everything from quantum mechanics to astrophysics — and took a keen interest in experiments being conducted to answer fundamental questions in physics.

  • He predicted the existence of black holes and the positron.
  • "One of the downsides of the way modern physics is done is we're constantly struggling against a fragmentary view of what theorists do and what experimentalists do," Paris said.
  • Oppenheimer, however, had a "deep and abiding interest in what experimentalists were doing in the laboratory," Paris added.
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