Published on 13 February 2024

Robert J Oppenheimer, the conflicted inventor

Professor Joseph Sung
Dean, Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine

“Prometheus stole fire from the Gods and brought it to the world. For this he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity.” That is the quote at the beginning of a recent Oscar movie, Oppenheimer.

Everyone knows Robert J Oppenheimer as the American physicist who expanded the knowledge of quantum physics established by Neils Bohr, Max Planck and Albert Einstein, and created the world’s first atomic bomb. This happened during World War II when Germany, Russia and the United States were all racing to produce a weapon of mass destruction to gain the upper hand in the conflict. After more than two years of hard work with a team of hundreds of scientists as well as weapon experts, and spending over a billion dollars, they succeeded to test-launch the first atomic bomb in the dessert of Los Alamos, New Mexico. Within weeks, US President Harry Truman ordered to drop two atomic bombs, one in Hiroshima, one in Nagasaki, killing over 220,000 Japanese, among them many civilians. Without realising the full impact of his invention, Oppenheimer made the cover of Time magazine in 1948, received an honorary degree from Harvard, and became the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission’s General Advisory Committee. Yet he deeply regretted what he had done. He then warned the country about the dangers of this invention, which may lead the world to a disaster never imagined. His change in attitude turned the country against him, and he was suspected to be a communist.

The movie then detailed how Oppenheimer was investigated, his connection to the communist party scrutinised, his loyalty to his country questioned. They probed his intentions of building this powerful weapon and claiming it “a great success”, yet strongly opposing the development of the hydrogen bomb. For a period of time, he was under the unbearable surveillance of FBI. His phone was tapped and he was followed wherever he went. At home, he received thousands of letters either praising him as a hero to the country or condemning him as a traitor. He was then subjected to an intense hearing set up by the national agency during which many of his colleagues, friends and enemies were called up as witnesses. In the end, President Dwight Eisenhower declared him a security risk to the country, making Oppenheimer the most prominent victim of America’s anti-communist crusade.

During the six months of his trial, some of his closest friends noticed Oppenheimer had aged noticeably. They said, “The ordeal destroyed this man”; “One day he would look drawn and haggard. The next day he was as robust and as beautiful as ever.” After the trial, it was reported that he was like a wounded animal – he retreated into a shell. And returned to a simpler way of life. Oppenheimer confessed to a friend that he had been a “damn fool” and that he probably deserved what had happened to him. 

On 25 Feb 1967, despite the bitter cold in Princeton, 600 friends and colleagues, made up of Nobel laureates, scientists, politicians, military generals, poets, novelists, and composers – people from all walks of life gathered to celebrate the life, and mourned the death of probably the most controversial person of their times. They came with heavy hearts to remember a brilliant man whose remarkable life had been marked by triumph as well as tragedy. Kai, Bird and Martin J Sherwin, the writers of American Prometheus - Oppenheimer, a book which won the Pulitzer Prize, said, “Robert Oppenheimer was an enigma, a theoretical physicist who displayed the charismatic qualities of a great leader, an aesthete who cultivated ambiguities. In the decades after his death, his life became shrouded in controversy, myth and mystery”.

This book touched my heart deeply. In 2003, in the months after the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) pandemic, as Chief of Medicine in the hospital where the crisis started,  I faced a similar (but much smaller) ordeal. Looking back, my reflections are:

  1. Scientists should not only indulge in the science, but need to think about the consequences of his/her work. Don’t be naïve.
  2. There are many different ways and perspectives one can look at an issue, be it an atomic bomb, an outbreak of infectious diseases or a groundbreaking technology that permeates everything in life e.g. Artificial Intelligence.
  3. Human values and moral principles should always be upheld, no matter how fascinating the work is. A clear conscience is what keeps us alive in the face of adversity.

Oppenheimer was a phenomenal human figure, as talented as he was complex, at once brilliant and naïve. As described by his friend Rabi, he was very wise, and he was very foolish.