Los Alamos continues to feel Oppenheimer’s presence

-A A +A
By Kirsten Laskey

J.Robert Oppenheimer’s name is remembered throughout the world but it seems plausible that nowhere is his name recognized with such admiration as it is in Los Alamos.


Several projects are underway to continue celebrating the scientific director of the Manhattan project.

At 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Church in Los Alamos, theoretical physicist and former Los Alamos National Laboratory employee Fred Ribe will give a talk about Oppenheimer’s 1954 security clearance hearing.

The presentation is part of the Los Alamos Historical Society’s lecture series.

According to a press release, in December 1953, less than a decade after service as scientific director of the Manhattan Project that helped the United States end World War II, Oppenheimer was accused of being a security risk. A public hearing that followed in the spring of 1954 focused on Oppenheimer’s past Communist leanings and his association during the Manhattan Project with those suspected of being disloyal or Communist sympathizers. Many top scientists, as well as government and military figures, testified on Oppenheimer’s behalf. However, inconsistencies in his testimony and his erratic behavior on the stand convinced some that he was unstable, unreliable and a possible security risk. The Atomic Energy Commission stripped Oppenheimer of his security clearance.

Heather McClenahan, Los Alamos History Museum assistant, said Ribe will address how the Los Alamos community reacted to Oppenheimer’s situation and how the area offered him support.

“I think obviously J. Robert Oppenheimer is a very dear figure to this community,” she said. “And what happened to him is really a tragedy.”

The lecture is just one event that is celebrating Oppenheimer.

Additionally, a brass statue of Oppenheimer is currently being displayed at Fuller Lodge.

Hedy Dunn, the director of the museum, said the sculpture will remain there until a second statue of Gen. Leslie Groves is completed. The sculptures will ultimately be set up on the east side of the lodge.

Suzanne Vrtel is the artist creating the pieces.

Having sculptures of Oppenheimer and Groves was spearheaded by former county councilor Nancy Bartlit. Dunn said the sculptures will provide an educational experience for visitors as well as enhance the surroundings.

She commented, “Art very often attracts people who love art for art’s sake and also want to learn the history behind the art.”

Dunn added many people are tactile learners. Also, when an individual sees a piece of sculpture, they want to learn more about the individual.

The county council approved the Art in Public Places Board’s recommendation for the sculptures on Oct. 21, 2008. During the Jan. 6, 2009 meeting, the council approved having Vrtel create the sculptures.

To select a site, the Historical Sculptures Master Plan Committee looked at a variety of data such as utility easements and deliberated for a long time, Dunn said. They also scored various sites and weighted the scores.

Ultimately, the east side of the lodge was chosen because Fuller Lodge will be set behind the sculptures and they can be spotted from up the street.  

To continue recognizing Oppenheimer, the historical society is planning to host a symposium Sept. 22-23 at Fuller Lodge.

Dunn said the historical society was given Oppenheimer’s house by its current owners. The house’s residents have the right to reside there until their plans change.

When the current residents leave the home, she said, the historical society will have full use of the home.

During the symposium, input will gathered on how the society should utilize the house.

Scholars, historians, Bath Tub Row residents and other interested parties including the public will be invited to the event.

“We will be looking at ways to use it as a public institution,” Dunn said, “and how to make it the best it can be.”

Some specific issues that need to be addressed are accessibility for individuals with disabilities, how much, if any, of Oppenheimer’s artifacts should be there and how they should be used as well as how to use the house for educational offerings, Dunn said.

“We want to find out from the experts what they think might be the best use for the building once we will be able to use it … we want to make sure it is accessible to everybody,” she said.