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Oppenheimer and Fermi: Two Developers of the First Atomic Bomb


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I'm Sarah Long. And I'm Steve Ember with PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English. Today we report about two scientists, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi, who helped lead the world into the nuclear age.

It is July sixteenth, nineteen forty-five. All is quiet in an American desert at Alamogordo, New Mexico. Suddenly there is a terrible explosion. A huge cloud rises from the Earth. The sky turns purple and yellow.

The first atomic bomb has been exploded. It is a test of the mostly deadly weapon ever known. American officials are considering using this weapon to try to end World War Two.

J. Robert Oppenheimer is the head of the Los Alamos laboratory. It is the creative center of the secret Manhattan Project, which made the explosion possible. As the cloud rises, Mr. Oppenheimer remembers words from the Hindu holy book, the Baghavad Gita. He says: "For I am become death, the destroyer of worlds. "

Less than one month after the test at Alamogordo, the United States dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities. President Harry Truman announced to the world about the first bomb:

PRESIDENT TRUMAN: "The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. We won the race of discovery against the Germans. We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans. We shall continue to use it, until we completely destroy Japan's power to make war.

The Japanese soon surrendered. World War Two ended.

Enrico Fermi had been the first to use a neutron to produce the radioactive change of one element to another. He was a refugee from Fascist Italy. He and other refugee scientists were worried that Germany was working to develop an atomic bomb. They urged the United States government to pay for a secret scientific effort, called the Manhattan Project, to create the bomb. Mr. Fermi helped Mr. Oppenheimer prepare the Alamogordo bomb test.

Yet later both Mr. Oppenheimer and Mr. Fermi spoke against further development of nuclear weapons. Both men opposed the hydrogen bomb.

J. Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York City on April twenty-second, nineteen-oh-four. Even as a boy, he showed he had unusual intelligence. As a young man he attended Harvard University, in the eastern United States, and Cambridge University in England.

He earned his doctorate in physics at Gottingen University, Germany, in nineteen twenty-seven. There he worked with the famous scientist, Max Born. By nineteen thirty, Mr. Oppenheimer was teaching at two top universities on the American West Coast. His fame as a teacher spread. Soon he was teaching the best students of physics in the United States.

In nineteen forty-two, Mr. Oppenheimer joined the American government's project to develop the atomic bomb. He was appointed head of the Los Alamos Laboratory. Many of his former students worked for him on the project.

One year after the bombs were dropped on Japan, he received the Presidential Medal of Merit for his work. In nineteen forty-seven, he began to direct the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton University on the East Coast.

At the same time, Mr. Oppenheimer became chairman of the advisory committee to the United States Atomic Energy Commission. He used the position to try to make the public recognize the dangers of nuclear power as well as its possibilities for good.

He regretted that work was being done to develop the hydrogen bomb. He felt it was bad for both scientific and humanitarian reasons. However, extreme tension existed between the United States and the Soviet Union at the time. So in nineteen forty-nine President Truman decided that work on nuclear weapons should continue.

J. Robert Oppenheimer's life and work were affected deeply by Americans intense fear of Communism in the nineteen fifties.

Mr. Oppenheimer made an easy target for suspicious critics. His wife had once been a Communist. Some of his friends were former Communists. Years earlier he had suggested sharing nuclear secrets with the Soviets. He opposed developing the hydrogen bomb.

In nineteen fifty-four, the Atomic Energy Commission and a special security committee moved against Mr. Oppenheimer. They did not question his loyalty to the United States. However, they said his personal life made him a threat to national security.

Mr. Oppenheimer had directed one of America's most important secret scientific projects. Now this famous physicist was barred from secret work for the government.

He published several books during this difficult period of his life. One of the best known was "The Open Mind. "The books contained his thoughts about science. He continued teaching at Princeton University. Again he taught many of the most important scientists of our century.

In time Mr. Oppenheimer's work in science and teaching made people forget the accusations against him. The government decided to give him the highest award of the Atomic Energy Commission for his work on atomic energy. President Lyndon Johnson presented the honor in late nineteen sixty-three. It was called the Enrico Fermi Award.

J. Robert Oppenheimer died of throat cancer on February eighteenth, nineteen sixty-seven. He was sixty-two years old.

Enrico Fermi had worked with Robert Oppenheimer and other top scientists to develop the atom bomb. He won an award for his work in atomic energy from the Atomic Energy Commission in nineteen fifty-four. It was the first time the award was presented. Later, the honor was named for him. It recognized Mr. Fermi as one of the greatest physicists of the Twentieth Century.

Enrico Fermi was born in Rome, Italy, on September twenty-ninth, nineteen-oh-one. After his education in Italy, he studied with Max Born in Germany, just as Robert Oppenheimer had.

Enrico Fermi returned to Italy in nineteen twenty-four. He became that nation's first professor of theory of physics. At the time there was almost no physics education offered in Italy

He married Laura Capon, who also was a scientist, in nineteen twenty-eight. Laura was Jewish. Later the Fermis decided to leave Italy, because the Fascist government had begun oppressing Jews.

Enrico Fermi went to Stockholm, Sweden, to accept a Nobel Prize in nineteen thirty-eight. He won for producing new radioactive elements beyond uranium. Without knowing it, he had split the atom. However, that fact was not recognized until later.

He and his family sailed directly from Stockholm to the United States. If he stayed in Europe, he might have been forced to work for Nazi Germany.

Mr. Fermi taught at Columbia University in New York City. He also was part of the American research team for the top secret Manhattan Project

Mr. Fermi led the team that created the world's first controlled, continued nuclear-fission reaction. It happened on December second, nineteen-forty-two, at the University of Chicago.

Mr. Fermi directed the building of the first atomic reactor that made the reaction possible. He had invented the method with another scientist, Leo Szilard. The reactor was put together in a squash court under the seats of the university sports center. It contained natural uranium placed in graphite and controlled by pieces of cadmium and boron rods.

By nineteen forty-four, Enrico Fermi had become a citizen of the United States. He was asked to help Robert Oppenheimer with the atomic bomb test at Alamogordo.

Mr. Fermi returned to the University of Chicago after the war. There he headed the Institute for Nuclear Studies, now known as the Enrico Fermi Institute.

Like Mr. Oppenheimer, Mr. Fermi recognized the dangers of atomic energy. They both worried about the possible use of a hydrogen bomb.

With another scientist, Mr. Fermi wrote a nineteen forty-seven report to the Atomic Energy Commission. The report opposed creation of the bomb for humane reasons. Enrico Fermi died of cancer in Chicago in nineteen fifty-four. He was fifty-three years old.

J. Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi were two of the greatest scientists of the century. They were both concerned about the results of their discoveries that led the world into the Nuclear Age.

This Special English program was written by Jerilyn Watson. It was produced by Paul Thompson. I'm Sarah Long. And I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.

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Correction: This story misidentifies a research center that J. Robert Oppenheimer directed. The correct name is the Institute for Advanced Study. And although it is based in Princeton, New Jersey, it has never been connected with Princeton University.


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