Jul 21, 2023 - News

Chicago's Oppenheimer connection

Man pointing to a poster of a bomb while three other men look on.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was in charge of the Los Alamos, New Mexico, atomic bomb experiment, points to a photograph of the huge column of smoke and flame caused by the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

The projected summer blockbuster "Oppenheimer," which tells the story of American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, opens in theaters today.

Why it matters here: Chicago was the birthplace of the scientific discovery that would eventually lead to Oppenheimer becoming the "Father of the Atomic Bomb."

Flashback: Enrico Fermi and his team created the first sustained nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago in 1942, and Oppenheimer led the team of scientists who advanced that discovery to create the first atomic bomb in 1945.

  • That same year, a group who helped build the bomb founded the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at the university. It was central for scientists to debate the ethical ramifications of the bomb and how to minimize its danger. Oppenheimer was the organization's first chair.

Between the lines: Almost immediately after the atomic bomb was created, Oppenheimer warned the U.S. Defense Department about its danger.

  • President Harry Truman ignored Oppenheimer's and other scientists' warnings to first test the bomb in unpopulated areas, and the U.S. bombed Japan in 1945 killing an estimated 200,000 people.

The intrigue: Oppenheimer was later accused of being a communist and Soviet spy, in 1954 his security clearance was revoked.

What they're saying: Oppenheimer understood the "awesome power" as well as the "sheer destructive force" of nuclear energy, Rachel Bronson, head of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, tells Axios.

  • After the COVID pandemic and amid global warming, it's even more crucial now for politicians and world leaders to recognize the expertise of scientists, and for the public to serve as a check on that power, Bronson says.

Zoom in: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is still published today and covers nuclear risk, climate change and disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence.

  • "What connects those issues is a belief that we created them, we have a responsibility to control them," Bronson says.

Go deeper: The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists' latest issue is centered around Oppenheimer and the new Christopher Nolan movie. It's available to read for free online.

Editor's note: This story was corrected to reflect that Enrico Fermi and his team were the first to create a sustained nuclear chain reaction (not the first to split an atom).


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