In 1926, the 22-year-old doctoral student J. Robert Oppenheimer faces anxiety and homesickness during his studies at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge under experimental physicist Patrick Blackett. Disturbed by Blackett’s demanding nature, Oppenheimer leaves a poisoned apple but later reconsiders. Visiting scientist Niels Bohr suggests he pursue theoretical physics at Göttingen.
Completing his PhD there, Oppenheimer meets fellow scientist Isidor Isaac Rabi and later encounters theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg in Switzerland. Eager to advance quantum physics research in the U.S., Oppenheimer teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and the California Institute of Technology. He marries biologist Katherine “Kitty” Puening and has an intermittent affair with Jean Tatlock, a troubled Communist Party USA member who tragically commits suicide.
In December 1938, the discovery of nuclear fission prompts Oppenheimer to realize its potential weaponization. In 1942, during World War II, U.S. Army General Leslie Groves recruits him to lead the Manhattan Project for atomic bomb development. Driven by the Nazis’ nuclear program, Oppenheimer assembles a scientific team in Los Alamos, including Rabi and Edward Teller, collaborating with Fermi, Szilard, and Hill at the University of Chicago. Teller’s calculations raise concerns about a catastrophic chain reaction, but after consulting Einstein, Oppenheimer proceeds, dismissing Teller’s hydrogen bomb proposal.
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After Hitler’s death in 1945, some Project scientists question the bomb’s relevance. Oppenheimer believes it will hasten Japan’s surrender and end the war. The Trinity test succeeds, leading to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite public praise, Oppenheimer is haunted by the devastation and urges restraint in further nuclear development, a plea Truman dismisses.
As an AEC advisor, Oppenheimer’s stance sparks controversy, while Teller’s hydrogen bomb gains interest in the Cold War era. AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss resents Oppenheimer for publicly humiliating him, leading to a secret hearing in 1954. Exploiting Oppenheimer’s past communist ties, the board revokes his clearance, damaging his public image. In 1959, during Strauss’ Senate confirmation hearing, Hill exposes Strauss’ motives, leading to the Senate rejecting his nomination.
In 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson presents Oppenheimer with the Enrico Fermi Award, symbolizing political rehabilitation. A flashback reveals Oppenheimer’s 1947 conversation with Einstein never mentioned Strauss. Instead, Oppenheimer expressed his somber belief that he had initiated a chain reaction that could destroy the world.