J. Robert Oppenheimer was an unlikely American hero. A theoretical physicist who was more interested in quantum mechanics and metaphysical poetry than in politics or war, Oppenheimer was tapped by the United States Army in 1942 to lead the top secret Manhattan Project. His task was to manage the world's best scientists and engineers in the fashioning of the first atomic bomb. As the world saw in 1945, Oppenheimer had been enormously successful. After the war, the demiurge of the bomb also became one of America's most important intellectuals, directing the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton (with faculty members such as Albert Einstein, Kurt Godel, and T.S. Eliot) and chairing the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission. Oppenheimer's opposition to the development of the hydrogen bomb in 1949 led to a series of political battles, and his affiliations with leftist intellectuals during the 1930s in Berkeley and after came back to haunt him. In April, 1954, at the height of McCarthy's investigations, the Atomic Energy Commission conducted a special hearing on the matter of Oppenheimer's "loyalty" and voted to strip him of his security clearance.
Despite his fall from power, Oppenheimer continued to be a prominent public intellectual, and his essays and lectures are among the most subtle and powerful investigations of the relationship of science and freedom in a democratic society. On the occasion of both the centennial of his birth in (April 22, 1904) and the moment of a half century since his infamous security hearings, Robert Faggen, will discuss the significance of Oppenheimer's life and thought for post-cold war American culture.
Robert Faggen is a professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College and the author and editor of numerous works including Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin (1997). He received his A.B. from Princeton University, a Ph.D. from Harvard University and has been the recipient of an NEH Fellowship.