‘Chasing Oppie’ to be topic of lecture

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By Kirsten Laskey

Many people know parts of Robert Oppenheimer’s story, particularly his time at Los Alamos playing a significant role in the Manhattan Project. There are other parts of Oppenheimer that people are not as conscious of, until now.

Historian Jon Hunner will be discussing these lesser known aspects of Oppenheimer’s life during the upcoming Los Alamos Historical Society’s lecture at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Fuller Lodge. The lecture is free.

He will present what occurred when Oppenheimer first came to New Mexico, and the profound change that the West had upon him.

Hunner said Oppenheimer was born into a privileged family in New York. When he was older, he became very ill and spent a year recuperating from his illness. To ensure Oppenheimer fully recovered, he traveled to New Mexico.

“He loved it out here,” Hunner said.

Oppenheimer was changed; from a sheltered, naïve kid, he transformed into someone who loved to hop on a horse and ride up a mountain in a thunderstorm, Hunner said. It was more than just the landscape; New Mexico exposed Oppenheimer to different cultures, particularly Hispanic and Native American cultures, Hunner said.

As a result, Oppenheimer was impacted in several areas from his time out west. “(It) changed him physically, changed him intellectually,” Hunner said.

Plus, “His privileged (life) didn’t mean anything out here,” he added, “They just accepted him for who he was.”

This impact was not one-way; Hunner said Oppenheimer also had a large effect on New Mexico.

“In a broad view, he brought theoretical physics to the West,” Hunner said.

Plus, he brought the national laboratory to Los Alamos. Hunner said at one point, Oppenheimer said his two loves were physics and New Mexico and he wished he could join these two loves together. With the national laboratory in New Mexico, he was able to fulfill this wish.

Oppenheimer’s life is almost like a Greek tragedy, Hunner said. His work earned him a cover on Time magazine, being sought after by policymakers to presidents for his opinions and packed houses for his lectures.

“This is a person who was a celebrity in the early post-war period,” Hunner said. “People thought he could solve a lot of different things.”

He went from celebrated to broken. Oppenheimer went against the U.S. government’s philosophy of keeping nuclear weapons to themselves and suggested an alternative.

“Oppenheimer was one that addressed the issue of nuclear profileration … he wanted some kind of world-wide organization to administer and manage nuclear weapons,” Hunner said. “Because of the alternative path he proposed, his security clearance was removed. He was used as an example of what happens when you go against the main government policies.”

Hunner explained he became interested in the nation’s nuclear history because of his father. Hunner said he was an officer at Manzano Air Force Base in Albuquerque, which stored nuclear weapons. “I was always interested in nuclear weapons,” Hunner said.

When he was doing his graduate work, Hunner became interested in Los Alamos. His professor recommended he write about someone who impacted the West, and Hunner said he immediately thought of  Oppenheimer.

“This is a very key figure in the 20th century and he needs to known about,” Hunner said.

He explained, his upcoming book about Oppenheimer, is titled “Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, The Cold War, and the Atomic West.” This is Hunner’s second time coming to Los Alamos to speak about its history. Four or five years ago, he spoke at Fuller Lodge about his other book, “Inventing Los Alamos: The Growth of an Atomic Community.”  To speak in Fuller Lodge, where the people he wrote about ate, danced and had parties, was a big deal for Hunner. “It was a special night for me,” he said.

In regards to his upcoming visit, “I’m looking forward to coming up and addressing the people of Los Alamos,” he said. “(I’m) definitely looking forward to coming up and talking about the person responsible for Los Alamos National Laboratory.”