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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index O > J. Robert Oppenheimer Quotes

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J. Robert Oppenheimer
(22 Apr 1904 - 18 Feb 1967)

American theoretical physicist and science administrator.

Science Quotes by J. Robert Oppenheimer (14 quotes)

A discovery in science, or a new theory, even when it appears most unitary and most all-embracing, deals with some immediate element of novelty or paradox within the framework of far vaster, unanalysed, unarticulated reserves of knowledge, experience, faith, and presupposition. Our progress is narrow; it takes a vast world unchallenged and for granted. This is one reason why, however great the novelty or scope of new discovery, we neither can, nor need, rebuild the house of the mind very rapidly. This is one reason why science, for all its revolutions, is conservative. This is why we will have to accept the fact that no one of us really will ever know very much. This is why we shall have to find comfort in the fact that, taken together, we know more and more.
— J. Robert Oppenheimer
Science and the Common Understanding (1954), 53-4.
Science quotes on:  |  Acceptance (35)  |  Analysis (86)  |  Articulation (2)  |  Challenge (17)  |  Comfort (25)  |  Conservative (3)  |  Discovery (394)  |  Element (70)  |  Experience (142)  |  Fact (350)  |  Faith (78)  |  Framework (8)  |  Granted (2)  |  House (20)  |  Immediate (10)  |  Knowledge (718)  |  Mind (292)  |  Narrow (11)  |  Need (66)  |  Novelty (9)  |  Paradox (23)  |  Progress (209)  |  Rapidly (3)  |  Reason (177)  |  Reserve (4)  |  Revolution (37)  |  Scope (7)  |  Theory (378)  |  Vastness (4)

Bertrand Russell had given a talk on the then new quantum mechanics, of whose wonders he was most appreciative. He spoke hard and earnestly in the New Lecture Hall. And when he was done, Professor Whitehead, who presided, thanked him for his efforts, and not least for 'leaving the vast darkness of the subject unobscured'.
— J. Robert Oppenheimer
Quoted in Robert Oppenheimer, The Open Mind (1955), 102.
Science quotes on:  |  Appreciation (12)  |  Darkness (11)  |  Lecture (32)  |  Quantum Theory (36)  |  Bertrand Russell (86)  |  Wonder (68)

But when you come right down to it, the reason that we did this job is because it was an organic necessity. If you are a scientist you cannot stop such a thing. If you are a scientist you believe that it is good to find out how the world works; that it is good to find out what the realities are; that it is good to turn over to mankind at large the greatest possible power to control the world and to deal with it according to its lights and values.
Regarding the atomic bomb project.
— J. Robert Oppenheimer
From speech at Los Alamos (17 Oct 1945). Quoted in David C. Cassidy, J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century (2009), 214.
Science quotes on:  |  Atomic Bomb (72)  |  Control (42)  |  Enquiry (72)  |  Light (125)  |  Mankind (116)  |  Necessity (88)  |  Reality (72)  |  Research (372)  |  Scientist (259)  |  Value (73)

Despite the vision and the far-seeing wisdom of our wartime heads of state, the physicists felt a peculiarly intimate responsibility for suggesting, for supporting, and in the end, in large measure, for achieving the realization of atomic weapons. Nor can we forget that these weapons, as they were in fact used, dramatized so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war. In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.
— J. Robert Oppenheimer
The Open Mind (1955), 88.
Science quotes on:  |  Atomic Bomb (72)  |  Crude (7)  |  Evil (34)  |  Humour (97)  |  Inhumanity (3)  |  Knowledge (718)  |  Lose (7)  |  Merciless (2)  |  Modern (47)  |  Physicist (76)  |  Realization (25)  |  Responsibility (24)  |  Sense (114)  |  Suggestion (15)  |  Support (29)  |  Vision (24)  |  Vulgarity (2)  |  War (82)  |  Weapon (36)  |  Wisdom (95)

I am become death, The Shatterer of Worlds.
[Quoting from the 2,000-year-old Bhagavad Gita of India at the instant the first test atomic device exploded.]
— J. Robert Oppenheimer
Abraham Pais and Robert P. Crease, J. Robert Oppenheimer: a Life‎ (2006), 44.
Science quotes on:  |  Atomic Bomb (72)  |  Death (197)  |  World (258)

If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima. The people must unite, or they will perish.
— J. Robert Oppenheimer
Speech at Fuller Lodge when the U.S. Army was honouring the work at Los Alamos. (16 Oct 1945). Quoted in Kai Bird, Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer‎ (2005), 323.
Science quotes on:  |  Atomic Bomb (72)  |  Curse (4)  |  Hiroshima (10)  |  Los Alamos (2)  |  Mankind (116)  |  Name (65)  |  Nation (52)  |  War (82)  |  World (258)

If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once into the sky
That would be like the splendour of the Mighty One...
I am become Death,
The shatterer of worlds.
[Quoted after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.]
— J. Robert Oppenheimer
Sacred Hindu Epic, Bhagavad Gita. Quoted in A. Berry (ed.), Harrop's Book of Scientific Anecdotes (1989), 175.
Science quotes on:  |  Burst (12)  |  Death (197)  |  Poem (76)  |  Radiance (3)  |  Shattering (2)  |  Sky (36)  |  Splendour (2)  |  Sun (118)  |  Thousand (38)  |  World (258)

The great testimony of history shows how often in fact the development of science has emerged in response to technological and even economic needs, and how in the economy of social effort, science, even of the most abstract and recondite kind, pays for itself again and again in providing the basis for radically new technological developments. In fact, most people—when they think of science as a good thing, when they think of it as worthy of encouragement, when they are willing to see their governments spend substance upon it, when they greatly do honor to men who in science have attained some eminence-have in mind that the conditions of their life have been altered just by such technology, of which they may be reluctant to be deprived.
— J. Robert Oppenheimer
The Open Mind (1955), 89-90.
Science quotes on:  |  Abstract (21)  |  Alteration (17)  |  Attainment (23)  |  Basis (28)  |  Condition (75)  |  Deprivation (4)  |  Development (132)  |  Effort (46)  |  Emergence (18)  |  Eminence (8)  |  Encouragement (12)  |  Government (51)  |  History (167)  |  Honour (21)  |  Life (491)  |  Men Of Science (94)  |  Pay (11)  |  People (72)  |  Providing (3)  |  Radical (11)  |  Reluctance (3)  |  Response (9)  |  Science (956)  |  Social (18)  |  Substance (43)  |  Technology (107)  |  Testimony (5)  |  Thinking (176)  |  Willing (2)  |  Worthy (4)

The open society, the unrestricted access to knowledge, the unplanned and uninhibited association of men for its furtherance—these are what may make a vast, complex, ever growing, ever changing, ever more specialized and expert technological world, nevertheless a world of human community.
— J. Robert Oppenheimer
'Science and the Common Understanding' (1954), 95. Reprinted in John Dewey and Julius A. Sigler, Classical Selections On Great Issues, Vol. 8, Science, Technology, and Society (1997), 35.
Science quotes on:  |  Access (3)  |  Knowledge (718)  |  Society (89)

There is something irreversible about acquiring knowledge; and the simulation of the search for it differs in a most profound way from the reality.
— J. Robert Oppenheimer
In Physics in the Contemporary World (1949), 20.
Science quotes on:  |  Difference (142)  |  Irreversible (3)  |  Knowledge (718)  |  Profound (26)  |  Reality (72)  |  Search (44)  |  Simulation (4)

There must be no barriers to freedom of inquiry. There is no place for dogma in science. The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors. ... Our political life is also predicated on openness. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it and that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire. And we know that as long as men are free to ask what they must, free to say what they think, free to think what they will, freedom can never be lost, and science can never regress.
— J. Robert Oppenheimer
Life (10 Oct 1949), 136.
Science quotes on:  |  Assertion (17)  |  Barrier (5)  |  Dogma (13)  |  Doubt (69)  |  Enquiry (72)  |  Error (154)  |  Freedom (44)  |  Openness (2)  |  Politics (56)  |  Question (171)  |  Scientist (259)

Today, it is not only that our kings do not know mathematics, but our philosophers do not know mathematics and—to go a step further—our mathematicians do not know mathematics.
— J. Robert Oppenheimer
'The Tree of Knowledge', Harper's Magazine (1958), 217, 55.

[About the great synthesis of atomic physics in the 1920s:] It was a heroic time. It was not the doing of any one man; it involved the collaboration of scores of scientists from many different lands. But from the first to last the deeply creative, subtle and critical spirit of Niels Bohr guided, restrained, deepened and finally transmuted the enterprise.
— J. Robert Oppenheimer
Quoted in Bill Becker, 'Pioneer of the Atom', New York Times Sunday Magazine (20 Oct 1957), 54.
Science quotes on:  |  Atomic Physics (4)  |  Niels Bohr (35)  |  Collaboration (9)  |  Creativity (55)  |  Deep (19)  |  Difference (142)  |  Enterprise (7)  |  Guide (20)  |  Land (29)  |  Scientist (259)  |  Spirit (55)  |  Subtlety (6)  |  Transmutation (10)

[W]e have made a thing, a most terrible weapon, that has altered abruptly and profoundly the nature of the world. We have made a thing that, by all standards of the world we grew up in, is an evil thing. And by doing so, by our participation in making it possible to make these things, we have raised again the question of whether science is good for man, of whether it is good to learn about the world, to try to understand it, to try to control it, to help give to the world of men increased insight, increased power. Because we are scientists, we must say an unalterable yes to these questions; it is our faith and our commitment, seldom made explicit, even more seldom challenged, that knowledge is a good in itself, knowledge and such power as must come with it.
— J. Robert Oppenheimer
Speech to the American Philosophical Society (Jan 1946). 'Atomic Weapons', printed in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 90(1), 7-10. In Deb Bennett-Woods, Nanotechnology: Ethics and Society (2008), 23. Identified as a speech to the society in Kai Bird, Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer‎ (2005), 323.
Science quotes on:  |  Atomic Bomb (72)  |  Challenge (17)  |  Commitment (8)  |  Control (42)  |  Evil (34)  |  Faith (78)  |  Good (94)  |  Insight (29)  |  Knowledge (718)  |  Power (107)  |  Question (171)  |  Seldom (13)  |  Understand (12)  |  Weapon (36)  |  World (258)

Quotes by others about J. Robert Oppenheimer (5)

Dirac politely refused Robert's [Robert Oppenheimer] two proffered books: reading books, the Cambridge theoretician announced gravely, “interfered with thought.”
Alvarez: Adventures of a Physicist (1987), 87.
Science quotes on:  |  Book (106)  |  Paul A. M. Dirac (33)

Now we're all sons-of-bitches.
Remark to Robert Oppenheimer immediately after the first atom bomb test explosion at Alamogordo.
Quoted in Lansing Lamont, Day of Trinity (1966), 242.
Science quotes on:  |  Atomic Bomb (72)

There are 60 sub-atomic particles they’ve discovered that can explain the thousands of other sub-atomic particles, and the model is too ugly. This is my analogy: it’s like taking Scotch tape and taping a giraffe to a mule to a whale to a tiger and saying this is the ultimate theory of particles. … We have so many particles that Oppenheimer once said you could give a Nobel Prize to the physicist that did not discover a particle that year. We were drowning in sub-atomic particles.
Now we realize that this whole zoo of sub-atomic particles, thousands of them coming out of our accelerators, can be explained by little vibrating strings.
Quoted in Nina L. Diamond, Voices of Truth (2000), 334.
Science quotes on:  |  Accelerator (5)  |  Particle (50)  |  String Theory (5)  |  Theory (378)

I do not see how a man can work on the frontiers of physics and write poetry at the same time. They are in opposition. In science you want to say something that nobody knew before, in words which everyone can understand. In poetry you are bound to say ... something that everyone knows already in words that nobody can understand.
Commenting to him about the poetry J. Robert Oppenheimer wrote.
Quoted in Steven George Krantz, Mathematical Apocrypha Redux: More Stories and Anecdotes of Mathematicians (2005), 169
Science quotes on:  |  Physics (162)  |  Poetry (67)

The reason Dick's [Richard Feynman] physics was so hard for ordinary people to grasp was that he did not use equations. The usual theoretical physics was done since the time of Newton was to begin by writing down some equations and then to work hard calculating solutions of the equations. This was the way Hans [Bethe] and Oppy [Oppenheimer] and Julian Schwinger did physics. Dick just wrote down the solutions out of his head without ever writing down the equations. He had a physical picture of the way things happen, and the picture gave him the solutions directly with a minimum of calculation. It was no wonder that people who had spent their lives solving equations were baffled by him. Their minds were analytical; his was pictorial.
Quoted in Michio Kaku and Jennifer Trainer Thompson, Beyond Einstein: the Cosmic Quest for the Theory of the Universe (1987, 1999), 56-57, citing Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe (1979, 1981), 55-56.
Science quotes on:  |  Analysis (86)  |  Bafflement (2)  |  Hans Albrecht Bethe (4)  |  Biography (200)  |  Calculation (47)  |  Difficulty (81)  |  Equation (50)  |  Richard P. Feynman (38)  |  Happening (26)  |  Hard (20)  |  Life (491)  |  Minimum (7)  |  Sir Isaac Newton (181)  |  Physics (162)  |  Picture (26)  |  Solution (116)  |  Theoretical Physics (11)  |  Understanding (247)  |  Wonder (68)  |  Writing (59)

See also:
  • todayinsci icon 22 Apr - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Oppenheimer's birth.
  • book icon American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird, Martin J. Sherwin. - book suggestion.
  • booklist icon Booklist for Robert Oppenheimer.

Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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