Monday, September 27, 2010

Frank Oppenheimer

Here's an interesting overview of a physicist that many of us don't know about. While Robert Oppenheimer is a well-known name, his younger brother, Frank Oppenheimer, has often been overlooked. So to me, I find it rather fascinating that someone decided to take a closer look at this physicist and what he has done.

As a teenager, Frank would devour letters Robert sent home from college at Harvard and, later, graduate school in Europe. They were full of news and gossip of the big characters of early 20th century physics, people such as Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac and JJ Thomson. Inspired, Frank decided to follow his brother into physics. After graduating from Johns Hopkins in 1933, Frank spent some time at labs in Cambridge and Florence, before moving to the California Institute for Technology for a PhD on artificially induced radiation.

It's always out of curiosity that I read biographies of physicists that I don't know of. Often, there are a few surprises in which I would realize that this person, who was unknown to me, actually has done something quite remarkable and important. In other words, this is person that one should know because if his or her important contribution. Unfortunately, I don't get that with reading this short blurb on Frank Oppenheimer. Sure, he worked with his brother on the Manhattan Project. We don't quite get exactly what his contributions were. But other than that, there's nothing significant about his story that convey the idea that this person has done something that I would consider to be significant. His "eccentricity" or creativity seems to be the main story here of what possibly be a good-enough reason to review his life history, which is fine if that's the purpose. However, after reading Dirac's biography, it is hard to top that in the eccentricity scale.


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