J. Robert Oppenheimer's Legacy
While much of J. Robert Oppenheimer's legacy centers around the relationship between science and public policy, his impact on education was significant. In addition to his many scientific achievements, Oppenheimer was responsible, according to the late Nobel Prize-winning physicist Hans Bethe, of "creating the greatest school of theoretical physics that the United States has ever known." By establishing the graduate program at Berkeley, he engendered opportunities for scientists in America that previously did not exist. When he came to the Institute for Advanced Study, he did much the same thing.
In the Institute's 1948–53 Report of the Director, Oppenheimer wrote, "The Institute for Advanced Study is devoted to the encouragement, support and patronage of learning–of science, in the old broad, undifferentiated sense of the word. The Institute partakes of the character both of a university and of a research institute; but it also differs in significant ways from both. It is unlike a university, for instance, in its small size... It is unlike a university in that it has no formal curriculum, no scheduled courses of instruction... It is unlike a research institute in that its purposes are broader; it supports many separate fields of study... The Institute, in short, is devoted to learning, in the double sense of the continued education of the individual and of the intellectual enterprise on which he is embarked."
Following Oppenheimer's death in 1967, a memorial service was held in Alexander Hall at Princeton University. Three speakers presented tributes to Oppenheimer, and their words were included in a memorial publication produced by the Institute. The speakers were Hans Bethe (1906–2005), Nobel Prize winner and John Wendell Anderson Professor of Physics Emeritus at Cornell University; Henry DeWolf Smyth (1898–1986), former Chairman of Physics at Princeton University; and George F. Kennan (1904–2005), then Professor Emeritus in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute.
Kennan spoke of his Institute colleague and contemporary (both men were born in 1904): "In preserving and developing the Institute for Advanced Study as a seat of the purest and highest sort of scientific and intellectual effort; in giving hospitality, encouragement and inspiration to a host of talented scholars–in many instances great scholars–from all parts of the world; in setting for these visitors and for thousands of others outside of Princeton an example of the scientific mind at its best, rigorous but humane, fastidious but generous and powerful, uncompromisingly responsible in its relationship to ascertainable truth but never neglectful of the need for elegance and beauty in the statement of it; in doing all these things, he was rendering a service of great importance to the progress of science and humane letters in this country and the world over; and he was conscious of doing so. This was, I am sure, a comfort and a solace to him in the face of the disappointments and frustrations with which these years were otherwise replete."
Smyth said of Oppenheimer, "In this small town of Princeton, we have been proud to have him as a leading citizen. Princeton University has continued to enjoy close and happy relations with the Institute for Advanced Study. Our scientists have rejoiced in their opportunity to know Robert Oppenheimer as a physicist and as a man. We share his deep regret that a brilliant discovery of science had to be perverted to an appalling weapon. We regret that this great work for his country was repaid so shabbily, and that he felt impelled to quote these lines of Shakespeare:
The sad account......
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
"If he paid heavily, as indeed he did, we hope he knew how greatly his country and the world have been rewarded by his work."
In addition to his remarks at the service, Bethe wrote a memorial to Oppenheimer in the March 3, 1967 issue of Science, where he said, "Oppenheimer will leave a lasting memory in all the scientists who have worked with him, and in all the many who have passed through his school and whose taste in physics was formed by him. His was a truly brilliant mind."
According to Bethe, Openheimer was best described by his long-time associate, physicist Charles Lauritsen (1892–1968), who said, "This man was unbelievable. He always gave you the answer before you had time to formulate the question."
Those wishing to know more about Oppenheimer and his life have a wide variety of materials to explore, including the Academy Award®-nominated 1981 documentary film The Day After Trinity (Image Entertainment); the 1980 seven-episode BBC series Oppenheimer; and numerous books, including Oppenheimer, Portrait of an Enigma by Jeremy Bernstein (Ivan R. Dee, 2005); American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin (Vintage, 2006); The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer: and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race by Priscilla McMillan (Penguin, 2006); J. Robert Oppenheimer: Shatterer of Worlds by Peter Goodchild (Fromm International, 1985); and J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life by Abraham Pais and Robert P. Crease (Oxford University Press, 2007). Freeman Dyson, Professor, Emeritus, in the School of Natural Sciences at the Institute, also includes an essay on Oppenheimer in his Scientist as Rebel (New York Review Books, 2006).