"His sunsets were always the best"

So wrote Frank about his brother J Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb. There was always an element of competition between the two brothers as they emerged as highly trained physicists, but it was Robert’s underlying insecurities that caused him to inflate every pleasure into something that transcended everything else.

But then, J Robert Oppenheimer excelled in everything he did. Even before he became the director of the Manhattan project, his work on the quantum mechanics of molecules had already earned him a place in the scientific pantheon. By 1939 he had authored several papers dealing with the end products of stars, mathematically describing white dwarf stars as a product of their underlying quantum interactions, realising that gravitational collapse to even denser objects was inevitable if they exceeded 1.4 times the mass of the sun – the famous Chandrasekhar limit.

Oppenheimer didn’t stop there. With Richard Tolman and George Volkoff he then determined what remnant would be left after a white dwarf collapse – and invented the neutron star. His understanding led him to conclude that a stellar remnant made of neutrons could only be 3.2 times the mass of the sun before it would undergo further gravitational collapse. His work with Harland Snyder later in 1939 paved the way to an initial understanding of Black Holes almost 30 years before they would become popularised by John Wheeler.

All this before he become responsible for nuclear weapons and attempted to shape a peaceful post-war policy on the use of the atom.

All these thoughts buzzed through my head as Allan and I attempted to photograph the sunset through the windows of the bus as we returned from the radio telescope facility at Jodrell Bank. Trying to catch the sunbeams and the red orb of our parent star, we vied with each other to get the perfect sunset.

Mine was the best. But I’ve got a long way to go to beat Oppenheimer.

written by Martin Griffiths 

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