(2 of 8)
"I was born in New York in 1904," Oppenheimer wrote to the AEC. "My father had come to this country at the age of 17 from Germany. He was a successful businessman and quite active in community affairs ... I attended the Ethical Culture School and Harvard College, which I entered in 1922." . A classmate recalls that, as a third-or fourth-grader, Robert made one of his infrequent trips to the playground. A child threw a ball out of the lot, and the school director admonished the youngsters, telling them they might have injured a passerby. Robert immediately calculated the probable force with which the ball had struck the sidewalk, demonstrating that its velocity could not have hurt anyone. In high school, he learned calculus. He became interested in Greek, and within three months could read Sophocles without a dictionary.
When he was five, his grandfather had aroused in Robert an interest in minerals. He had a sailboat which he named Trimethyafter trimethylene bichloride, a compound for which he had apparently developed an attachment.
Of his social life at the Ethical Culture School, he once said: "It is characteristic that I don't remember any of my classmates. I was a somewhat repugnant brat." Despite the intense intellectual activity of his precollege days, Harvard affected him as an opening of gates to an intellectual paradise. Later, he called his Harvard experience "the most exciting time I've ever had in my life. It was like the Goths coming into Rome." Said he:"I really had a chance to learn. I loved it. I almost came alive. I took more courses than I was supposed to, lived in the stacks, just raided the place intellectually."
Why did Oppenheimer, who had devoured so much more learning than the typical American Gothic freshman, consider himself, of all people, a Goth? Why did this young man, apparently quivering with life, bless Harvard for bringing him "almost alive"? Did learning somehow cut him off from life instead of doing its normal job of bringing him closer to it? If so, that was not because Oppenheimer concentrated on technical studies. He decided that physics was his first interest, but he did not enter into that austere and noble priesthood, as some did, without exposure to the world of ideas that lay beyond and around it. At Harvard, the youth who had already met Sophocles, and was later to be, bewildered and surprised by the evil in the world, discovered Dante and pored over French literature.
The future leader of men, whose high-school classmates had made no impression on him, made little impression on his college classmates. The class yearbook has a one-line entry on Oppenheimer: "In college three years as undergraduate."
Robert Oppenheimer continued his studies in the U.S. and abroad. When he returned from Europe in 1929, already recognized as a physicist of great promise, he accepted concurrent appointments at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and the University of California in Berkeley. He knew he did not want to live in New York City, holding it to be not typically American. He loved the West, its distances and its solitudes. He loved to ride horseback in the desert.