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Berkeley Talks: Oppenheimer’s Berkeley years

A panel of scholars discusses theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and how his years at UC Berkeley shaped both him and the university

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From left: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Glenn T. Seaborg and Ernest O. Lawrence in early 1946 at the controls to the magnet of the 184-inch cyclotron, which was being converted from its wartime use to its original purpose as a cyclotron.

Photo courtesy of Berkeley Lab

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In Berkeley Talks episode 177, a panel of scholars discusses theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and how his years at UC Berkeley shaped him, and how he shaped the university.

Oppenheimer, the subject of Christopher Nolan’s summer 2023 film Oppenheimer, came to Berkeley in 1929 as an assistant professor and over the next dozen years established one of the greatest schools of theoretical physics. He went on to direct the Manhattan Projects Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II, during which the first nuclear weapons were developed. He’s often referred to as the father of the atomic bomb.

“Exceptional students and postdocs flocked here to Berkeley to work with him,” began Cathryn Carson, a Berkeley professor of history and a specialist in the history of 20th century physics, who moderated the July 28 discussion at Berkeley.

“As we’ll hear today,” she continued, “the style of work that Oppenheimer unfolded at Berkeley was collaborative, pointed, directed at hard problems, not always successful. His modus operandi, you could say, was, ‘Work hard, play hard.'”

He landed in the Bay at a time when much else was in ferment. At the same time that he devoted himself to physics, he got engaged with contemporary left-wing politics. In the Bay Area in the 1930s, that included the fight against fascism in Nazi Germany and Spain and struggles for economic justice and labor in California. The Communist Party was part of that setting, and Oppenheimer immersed himself in the life of the Berkeley faculty, efforts to unionize it and intellectual currents across the university this broad liberal arts institution that fed his roving mind.

Panelists include:

  • Cathryn Carson, chair and professor of Berkeleys Department of History, whose research includes nuclear history and the history of 20th century physics. She co-edited a volume of papers about Oppenheimer, Reappraising Oppenheimer: Centennial Studies and Reflections.
  • Mark Chadwick, chief scientist and chief operating officer for weapons physics at Los Alamos National Laboratory, who edited and published a suite of papers on the technical history of the Trinity test.
  • Jon Else, professor emeritus of Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, who created the documentary The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb.
  • Yasunori Nomura, a Berkeley professor of physics and director of the Berkeley Center for Theoretical Physics.
  • Karl van Bibber, professor of nuclear engineering at Berkeley, who spent 25 years conducting nuclear energy research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Watch a video of the conversation below.

In July, a panel of scholars Cathryn Carson, Jon Else, Yasunori Nomura and Karl van Bibber of UC Berkeley and Mark Chadwick of Los Alamos National Laboratory discussed theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and how his years at Berkeley shaped him, and how he shaped the university.