By the time his essay had published in The Saturday Evening Post on July 5, 1958, J. Robert Oppenheimer had been through a lot: As a professor at UC Berkeley, he made major contributions to theoretical physics. During World War II, he organized the Manhattan Project and oversaw the construction of the first atomic bomb. He was the first person to chair the General Advisory Committee of the United States Atomic Energy Commission and was an outspoken critic of the development of a hydrogen bomb. His security clearance was revoked during the Red Scare. He spoke out publicly against politicians who interfered in the pursuit of scientific freedom. And France had recently made him an Officer of the Legion of Honor.
Despite his brilliance (or maybe because of it), Oppenheimer thought it was important to communicate scientific ideas to everyone. He gave numerous lectures on the relationship between nuclear weapons and popular culture and regularly spoke about the importance of the history of science.
His essay for the Post was very much a part of his mission to reach out to non-scientists. In it, he carefully explains the workings of atomic and subatomic particles. He writes that it is important to understand how these building blocks of life worked because it would “make us better able to understand one another, and clearer as to the extent to which we do not. This will not be easy. To me it seems necessary for the coherence of our culture, and for our future as a free civilization.” In other words, a population who chooses to live in ignorance will be ill-equipped to navigate the future.
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