1948 | Oppenheimer

Life magazine described him as “one of the most famous men in the world, one of the most admired, quoted, photographed, consulted, glorified, well-nigh deified as the fabulous and fascinating archetype of a brand new kind of hero, the hero of science and intellect, originator and living symbol of the new atomic age.” Novelist Joseph Kanon observed that, “like many charismatic people, Oppenheimer photographed well”

Yet one of the most famous photographs of Oppenheimer does not feature him. In 1948, when the American Institute of Physics began publishing a new journal called Physics Today, its inaugural issue had on cover a porkpie hat sitting on a piece of cyclotron equipment. Sam Goudsmit, the chief editor of the magazine, recalled later: “it could symbolise to his readers only one man” and the “fact that the photograph was uncaptioned was a tribute to Oppenheimer’s international reputation”.

In 1948, J. Robert Oppenheimer was at the peak of his fame. After Einstein, Oppenheimer was undoubtedly the most famous scientist in America. He had just became the director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and was chairing the influential General Advisory Committee to the newly created U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Publicly he lobbied for international control of nuclear energy and arms control treaty with the Soviet Union. The following year he would vocally oppose the development of the hydrogen bomb program – which would provoke the ire of some U.S. government and military leaders – and would eventually lead to a hearing to revoke his security clearance – an enquiry from which he never really recovered.

Those hearings were dramatized in the recent Christopher Nolan movie Oppenheimer, which I just saw this week, and based on the epic American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Michael Sherwin. Also included in the movie was the moment years later in 1963 when Oppenheimer was awarded the Fermi Award as a gesture of political rehabilitation. Edward Teller, the leading proponent of the hydrogen bomb who had fraught relationship with Oppenheimer and denounced him to the government, was in the attendance.

Ralph Morse, then working for Time magazine photographer caught the moment when two physicists came face to face. With Kitty Oppenheimer standing stone-faced beside him, Oppenheimer grinned and shook Teller’s hand.

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