CORRALES, N.M. (KRQE) – The blockbuster movie ‘Oppenheimer’ has brought a lot of attention to New Mexico. After Robert Oppenheimer left Los Alamos, he would head to Princeton to be the director of the Institute for Advanced Study. It’s where he would help bring together intellectuals including local physicist Jacob Kuriyan who now lives in Corrales.
The then-25-year-old had just finished his Ph.D. in physics when he crossed paths with Oppenheimer in 1966. “Something that I wrote in my application appealed to him obviously, and I got selected,” said Kuriyan.
He was one of two people that year Oppenheimer selected for a two-year membership at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. “So it’s really, think of it as an institution with no students, but dedicated to just totally free thinking. And it’s very rare to find a place like that and they really produce some of the finest mathematicians and physicists in the world,” said Kuriyan.
Oppenheimer’s office was above Kuriyans. “But most of the time he was in his office, which was right above my office. And so one day I decided that you know, I might as well go and say hello to him,” said Kuriyan.
He recalled being intimated and curious the first time he met Oppenheimer. “He opened the door and let me in, guided me to the chair, pulled the chair out for me to sit on it, and then he went and sat also…I mean, just the kindness of the man,” Kuriyan said.
Oppenheimer was battling cancer at that time and would die the following year. Kuriyan spoke on Oppenheimer’s legacy of being one of the first scientists in the United States who knew quantum physics. “He coached and trained and taught and managed all the initial group of physicists who worked in quantum physics. So, by the time he got selected for Los Alamos, he already had a track record of managing these people and their futures,” said Kuriyan.
Now in his 80s, Kuriyan joked that it was tough to top starting out his career with the most powerful physicist in the world. “So it was quite an honor to you know, to be part of that just as soon as I finished my PhD, and I always have people let it it’s been downhill ever since.”
Dr. Kuriyan would go on to become a physics and meteorology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He came to New Mexico in the 1990s to start a software company.