J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the defining figures of the 20th century, will be introduced to a new generation with the release of Christopher Nolan’s movie Oppenheimer on July 21, 2023. A look at the film’s trailer and at LIFE’s pictures of the scientist known as “the father of the atomic bomb” will confirm at least this: the movie’s star, Cillian Murphy, bears a stunning resemblance to Oppenheimer.
Oppenheimer first appeared in LIFE in 1945, the year the first atomic bombs were dropped. The pictures here show Oppenheimer with General Leslie Groves (played by Matt Damon in Nolan’s movie), who led the Manhattan Project that developed the bombs, and also addressing reporters who came to New Mexico to see the site of the first atomic bomb detonation.
Oppenheimer returned in LIFE’s Dec. 29, 1947 issue, as part of a larger story on Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies. Oppenheimer was its new director, and the photos by LIFE’s Alfred Eisenstaedt showed Oppenheimer in conversation with Albert Einstein, one of the institute’s founding professors, thus capturing two of the most influential figures of 20th-century physics in one frame.
LIFE’s biggest and most defining story on Oppenheimer came in the Oct. 10, 1949 issue, when the scientist appeared on the cover of the magazine. The story was written by Lincoln Barnett, a former LIFE editor who that year had produced a major book about Einstein. The photos, again by Alfred Eisenstaedt, depicted Oppenheimer’s softer side—in one his young son is giving him a noogie. But Barnett’s story delved into the heart of what makes Oppenheimer so fascinating: he possessed both the brilliance to create the atomic bomb and the awareness to grasp the horror of his creation.
It all comes to a head when Barnett describes Oppenheimer witnessing the first detonation of at atomic bomb at the test site in New Mexico. It is as heavy a paragraph as anyone will every write about anyone:
And when the great ball of fire rolled upward to the blinded stars, fragments of the Bhagavad-Gita flashed into his mind: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the MIghty One….I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.” And as the shock and the sound waves hurled themselves furiously against the distant mountains, Oppenheimer knew that he and his coworkers had acquired a promethian burden they could never shed. “In some crude sense,” he observed later, “which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin, and this is a knowledge they cannot lose.”
Weeks after that moment, Oppenheimer’s creation did indeed shatter worlds, as the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing between 129,000 and 226,000 thousand people, and bringing World War II to a close.
Oppenheimer would go on to oppose the creation of the next generation of nuclear weapons, the hydrogen bomb, and LIFE again took a close examination of Oppenheimer’s life in its April 26, 1954 issue, when, owing in part to that stance and also to some associations, he became a target for anti-communists during the Red Scare and had his security clearance revoked. LIFE wrote, “Whatever the truth of the charges and whatever the outcome of the inquiry the situation which involved one of the nation’s most brilliant scientific minds was in itself a national tragedy.”
The government would eventually mend fences with Oppenheimer, who was back in LIFE in its Dec. 13, 1963 issue for a major piece on his receiving the Enrico Fermi Award. The prize for scientific achievement was awarded by John Kennedy but actually delivered by Lyndon B. Johnson—the main story of that issue of LIFE is about Johnson assuming the presidency after Kennedy’s assassination. That story brought yet another portrait of Oppenheimer by the estimable Alfred Eisenstaedt. This time he photographed the scientist in color, marking a more benign kind of technological progress.
Is it a tribute to the artistry of Eisenstaedt that his various portraits of Oppenheimer, shot across the years, reflect the story of his life through the subject’s eyes.