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From Middlemarch to the atom bomb

Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer in the forthcoming movie

Robert Oppenheimer is best known as the “godfather of the atom bomb”, say Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook on The Rest is History. But few people realise what an odd guy he was. His parents were rich Jewish émigrés who collected paintings by Picasso, Rembrandt and Cézanne, and would cart their young son around Manhattan’s galleries. Not surprisingly given this “very cerebral” upbringing, Robert was a bright little boy who loved reading poetry and collecting minerals. He was obsessed with George Eliot, and when his parents shipped him off to summer camp was more interested in chatting to the other boys about Middlemarch than the Yankees.

Socially, he was inept. As a young academic he’d eat alone every day: chocolate, beer and artichokes for dinner, and something he called “black and tan” for lunch – essentially toast covered with peanut butter and chocolate syrup. When Oppenheimer transferred to study at Cambridge, he became pals with Rhodes Scholar Francis Fergusson, but was depressed when his companion got a girlfriend given his own dismal love life. He eventually found an outlet for his pent-up lust – writing bad erotic poems – which provide pretty compelling evidence science was “more his thing”.