The Creator Of The Atom Bomb Tried To Poison His Teacher

“It’s apple pies that make the menfolks’ mouths water—pie made from apples like these!” —Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

In A Nutshell

Robert Oppenheimer was one of the scientists who helped to develop the atomic bomb. However, he wasn’t a stranger to unusual weaponry by this point in his life. While a student at Cambridge University, he attempted to poison his tutor with a poisoned apple, after which he narrowly avoided being expelled.

The Whole Bushel

Julius Robert Oppenheimer will forever be remembered as one of the most infamous and controversial scientists in history. Originally a professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1942 he was recruited and took a leading role in the Manhattan Project. As the “father of the atomic bomb,” he is regarded by his supporters as helping to end World War II prematurely, so saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of troops, while his detractors point to the simple fact that he created the deadliest weapon in human history.

However, Oppenheimer was no stranger to controversy, as one curious incident during his formative years demonstrates. In 1924, Oppenheimer was accepted into studies at the prestigious Christ’s College of the University of Cambridge as a theoretical physicist. Here, he was placed under the tutelage of Patrick Blackett, an experimental physicist later made famous for his work on cosmic rays and paleomagnetism. This was not a successful pairing; due to his own ineptitude in the laboratory, Oppenheimer became envious of Blackett’s skills as an experimental physicist. Indeed, Oppenheimer initially wished to study experimental physics, but was prevented from doing so because of his “clumsiness” in the lab.

In 1926, in a fit of psychological despair while on vacation in Corsica, Oppenheimer confessed to his two accompanying friends that he had to return to Cambridge immediately. The reason? Before he had left for vacation, he had coated an apple in noxious laboratory chemicals and placed it on Blackett’s desk. Oppenheimer wanted to make sure that Blackett was alright.

Fortunately, he was. Unfortunately, the university’s administration had been informed of his little “prank” and intended to press charges, because prestigious institutions like Cambridge usually look down on students murdering the faculty. It was only through the intervention of his parents that Oppenheimer wasn’t charged; indeed, he was placed on academic probation and ordered to undergo regular psychiatric evaluations. Finally, at the end of 1926, Oppenheimer left Cambridge at the invitation of Max Born to study theoretical physics at the University of Gottingen.

Oppenheimer and Blackett eventually repaired their relationship. There’s no word about whether the apple of friendship they exchanged was also poisoned.

Show Me The Proof

The tragedy of Robert J. Oppenheimer
Blackett: Physics, War, and Politics in the Twentieth Century, Mary Jo Nye
The New Yorker: No Mercy

  • Exiled Phoenix

    “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

    The best quote ever uttered. One day it may become true…

    • rincewind

      Oppenheimer quoted a Hindu scripture. The quote is from the Bhagavad Gita (“Song of the lord”). Some suggest it’s a misquote, which would explain the peculiar grammar; but “am become” is not an error but a (poetic) archaism, as in “I am become a name, for always roaming with a hungry heart” (Tennyson, Ulysses). Which in turn might be a trace of French; “Je suis devenu la mort”. Since Oppenheimer was proficient in sanskrit he read the original text, and the translation is his own; I haven’t found any other translation with “am become”.

      It certainly gives a certain something to the line, however, and it probably would have been less well known if it had been “I am death”. Here’s the verse with a little context, from a translation by Ramanand Prasad. Prince Arjuna hesitates to attack the enemy with his army; Vishnu, in the incarnation of Krishna, encourages him, and motivates him by explaining how the world works, with reincarnations, Brahman, Maya etc. Arjuna asks to see Vishnu in his “cosmic”, i.e. real, form, a wish that is granted. The overwhelmed Arjuna asks:

      Tell me who are You in such a fierce form? My salutations to You, O best of gods, be merciful! I wish to understand You, the primal Being, because I do not know Your mission.

      The Supreme Lord said: I am death, the mighty destroyer of the world, out to destroy. Even without your participation all the warriors standing arrayed in the opposing armies shall cease to exist.

      Therefore, get up and attain glory. Conquer your enemies and enjoy a prosperous kingdom. All these (warriors) have already been destroyed by Me. You are only an instrument, O Arjuna.

      Bhagavad Gita, chapter 11, verses 31-33

  • That’s messed up. I wonder what he tried to poison the guy with.

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