The Weekly Reflektion Week 28 / 2020

Albert Einstein proposed his special theory of relativity in September 1905. The theory predicts the equivalence of mass and energy and leads to the iconic equation of E = mc2. Einstein and other physicists recognized the implications of the equivalence and the potential to create weapon of mass destruction. Einstein fled to the USA before the second world war. He became increasingly concerned that German physicists would develop a nuclear weapon and together with Leo Szilard, a Hungarian physicist, he sent a letter to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He encouraged the US to start its own nuclear program and do everything in its power to hinder any German program. The letter eventually led to the Manhattan project and the development of the nuclear bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Are you aware of how your personality affects the people around you? Do you stifle the conversation and prevent innovation and new thinking? Do you discourage people to speak up through your behaviour?

Robert Oppenheimer was an American theoretical physicist and was nominated head of the Los Almos Laboratory on the Manhattan project. Oppenheimer was responsible for the theoretical and technical work and led a team of scientists and engineers that were tasked with the development of an atomic bomb.

Oppenheimer was a tall thin chain smoker and he was described as having self-destructive tendencies and he was often sarcastic with his students. He was perceived as being arrogant and had antagonistic relationships with many people including his tutor at Cambridge, who he was alleged to have tried to poison with an apple soaked in noxious chemicals. He would have been thrown out of Cambridge had it not been for his parents who lobbied the authorities and succeeded in convincing them that Oppenheimer should remain at Cambridge.

Oppenheimer was however a brilliant physicist and there were many academic and research institutes that wanted him and his talent. He was offered a professorship at Berkeley and during his tenure he developed a mild case of tuberculosis. He spent time in New Mexico at a ranch not far from the Los Almos Ranch School. The school later became the site for the people working on the Manhattan project partly due to Oppenheimer’s familiarity with the area.

President Roosevelt approved a crash program to develop an atomic bomb in October 1941. General Leslie Groves was appointed director of what became known as the Manhattan Project and Oppenheimer was selected to head up the secret weapons laboratory reporting to Groves. Groves perceived a driving ambition in Oppenheimer. He understood that Oppenheimer was disappointed that his contributions to theoretical physics had not been recognized and that the project was his chance to really establish himself. Groves was however concerned by the fact that Oppenheimer did not have a Nobel Prize and might not have the prestige to lead his fellow scientists.

Groves was aware of the negative side to Oppenheimer’s personality and how this could affect the people around him. There were many brilliant people on the project and the task ahead was enormous. Arrogance and sarcasm from Oppenheimer could stifle the innovation and new thinking that was required to progress the theoretical and practical work required for the project to succeed. Groves established a close relationship with Oppenheimer treated him delicately and guided him in his approach.  

Are you aware that your behaviour influences people around you? Are you conscious of the effect that your personality has on other people? Do you stifle the discussions and prevent innovation?  Could you modify your behaviour to release the potential in your team?

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