Now I Am Become Death Destroyer of Worlds J. Robert Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer and nuclear bomb
This page is going to look at the historical and political background surrounding J. Robert Oppenheimer’s famous utterance that is often referenced with his repurposing of the quote “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” The full quote by Oppenheimer can be viewed below and hints at the level of dismay that the legendary physicist had about dropping the bomb.

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If you’d like to hear the full quote from J. Robert Oppenheimer, you can do so here. The delivery of the lines underscores not just his seemingly immediate regret driven home by the tone that Oppenheimer delivered it in. Having said that here is, as promised, the full quote from Oppenheimer is as follows:

We knew the world would not be the same. Few people laughed. Few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

J. Robert Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer said it, so what’s the story?

The story of J. Robert Oppenheimer is already well known and readers can, and are encouraged to, watch the full interview with the man.  However, we’re going to tell the lesser referenced version of events given to us by fellow theoretical physicist Richard Feynman. The young Feynman, who was called in to solve a series of complex equations that proved crucial to the development of the nuclear bomb, was watching the first (successful) nuclear test experiment with his fellow group of young physicists.

Upon the successful test, the group erupted in exaltation as this multi-year, unbelievably complicated project was successful. In high spirits, they walked away from the spot they were watching from only to find a downtrodden, depressed, and melancholic J. Robert Oppenheimer standing by himself. 

When they approached them, bewildered by their excitement, he stated simply: “Don’t you realize what just happened?”

Feynman would later say that this was the moment that snapped him into a depression and immediate guilt for his critical role in the project. Physicist Lawrence Krauss once commented that Feynman was known in the following years for walking around New York City and looking up and saying “you know these buildings aren’t going to be around much longer.” 

A patriot who had gotten swept up in the war movement (and nearly dropped out of college to volunteer for the army years earlier), Feynman would point to his disappointment in himself that when Germany surrendered he didn’t stop to re-evaluate his position on why he was building the bomb. 

Though historians are torn about the use of the bomb in World War II, the U.S. would put their new weapon to use just a month after J. Robert Oppenheimer’s prescient quote. The first was on August 6th, 1945 with the bombing of Hiroshima. The second came on August 9th, 1945 with the bombing of Nagasaki. The total killed is believed to be between 129,000 and 225,000.

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