Oppenheimer's science beyond the atomic bomb
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.