Robert Oppenheimer was a physicist and the father of the atomic bomb. He was Professor of Physics and Director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. As a student, he studied chemistry at Harvard before completing his PhD research in physics at Cavendish Laboratory in England with J. J. Thompson, the discoverer of the electron. He quickly realized he preferred theoretical to experimental research, and moved to the University of Gottingen to complete his PhD, which was awarded in 1927. He then taught at the University of California, Berkeley, and the California Institute of Technology. Between 1943 and 1945, he was director of the laboratory at Los Alamos in New Mexico where the first atomic bomb was made. From 1945 to 1954, he served in many advisory positions in the Atomic Energy Commission in the United States, where he advocated for arms control and non-proliferation. In 1947, he began work at the Institute for Advanced Study. In 1954, his security clearance was revoked during the Red Scare, though nine years later President Kennedy awarded him the Enrico Fermi Award as a gesture of reconciliation. He published popular books including Science and the Common Understanding. He was well-known to the lay public through his film Interview with Oppenheimer, based on his television appearance with Edward R. Murrow. He died in 1967.

Oppenheimer gave three lectures: Knowledge as Science, Knowledge as Action, & Knowledge as Culture. They were extremely popular, with overflowing audiences. All classes were withdrawn during his first lecture so that students could attend. He examined the implications of recent scientific developments in relation to the Trust’s purpose. His lectures were about both the new hopes and the new problems that faced the preservation of in the 1950s and 1960s. He focused on the effect of the revolution in the character, quantity, and nature of knowledge that had been brought about by the increasingly rapid and successful growth of the sciences. While the first lecture was about the effects of discovery writ large, the second was about humans as knowers, examining the content and character of knowledge (including what we ignore). His third lecture examined the relationship between knowledge and other cultural elements needed to nourish humans, including our values of good and meaningfulness needed to maintain dignity, freedom, and responsibility in human society. Alienation between the world of science and broader public discourse, as he saw it, had deprived the latter of legitimacy, encouraging anyone to offer an opinion without the backing of fact. In the past, but no longer, our common discourse was built on a common basis of knowledge and a stable and shared tradition. Finally, he insisted that we guard against limitations of our freedom, and extend access to knowledge for all. He advocated for a changed education system to allow students to continue learning long past their formal education years.

While at Queen’s, he had informal meetings with the Physics and Philosophy Departments, the Debating Club, and the Baconian Society.

Listen to an excerpt or read the full transcripts below.

Robert Oppenheimer delivers an excerpt from his Dunning Trust lectures.