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The Other Oppenheimer

The Other Oppenheimer
Science journalist K. C. Cole

People know all about Robert Oppenheimer, the Promethean figure who gave us the atomic bomb.

Numerous biographers have chronicled his rise and precipitous fall. Composer John Adams made him the Faust-like hero of a recent opera. But few people know much about his kid brother, Frank Oppenheimer – also a pioneering physicist, also a pacifist who worked on the Manhattan Project, also a hapless victim of McCarthyism.

That’s about to change. In August, veteran science journalist and USC Annenberg professor K. C. Cole published Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the World He Made Up (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). It is the first biography of this under-celebrated, mid-century visionary.

But don’t expect too much pathos. Unlike Robert’s story, Frank’s takes an unexpected turn from melodrama to comic fantasy. Hounded out of academe for his socialist leanings, Frank rose from the ashes of his ruined career to reinvent himself – and to create from whole-cloth a new kind of educational institution: the hands-on science center.

Cole describes in affectionate detail how Frank Oppenheimer – her friend and mentor – retreated to Colorado in the 1950s to take up a life of quiet ranching; how he ventured back into the classroom, teaching science at rural Pagosa Springs High School (where he launched an unlikely generation of future researchers, including Nobel laureate James Heckman); how he inched his way back into academic life at the University of Colorado; and most improbably, how he conceived, birthed and fostered his greatest invention – the Exploratorium, a San Francisco landmark that has enchanted millions of visitors, young and old, with the magic of scientific phenomena.

“There was absolutely nothing like it anywhere,” said Cole of the 90,000-square-foot facility, which she first saw soon after it opened in the early 1970s. At the time, she was a general-interest reporter, “completely uninterested in science,” she said. Her editor at the venerable Saturday Review had sent Cole to report on the strange new tenant in the stately Palace of Fine Arts complex.

“I walked in,” Cole recalled, “and it changed my idea about science. I almost couldn’t believe that all the stuff he was showing me was science, because it was all so intriguing and wonderful – like this big house full of great toys.” Today, there are interactive science museums the world over modeled on the Exploratorium – including one in USC’s backyard: the California Science Center.

“It was, in effect, a playground,” Cole writes. “But in place of jungle gyms and slides were nifty gadgets and natural phenomena – rainbows and magnetic fields and electric oscillations. It was not so much a place as a way of being in the world – a verb rather than a noun: spin, blow, reach, vary, strum, look, throw, fiddle, watch, wonder.”

As Cole got to know Frank Oppenheimer, her fascination grew: “He was probably the most interesting person I had ever known.” She started writing brochures and labels for the Exploratorium in her spare time and, pretty soon, she was hooked on science. Cole was already an established young writer, with a New York Times Magazine cover story on world politics under her belt. It was Oppenheimer who encouraged her to shift gears and become a science writer – something Cole has done with considerable success. Her articles frequently are reprinted in anthologies of the year’s best science writing.

Cole wrote Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens as a biography-memoir, framing the story of Frank Oppenheimer through the lens of her own relationship with the quirky physicist-educator-humanitarian. She was singularly well placed for the task, having conducted many hours of tape-recorded interviews with him in the years before his death in 1985. They had planned to co-author a book setting out Oppenheimer’s ideas – he had a great many of them: elaborate theses on topics ranging from science education to art-making and the path toward world peace.

The “ideas” book never materialized, but Cole put her many hours of interviews to good use in Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens. The book’s title, incidentally, comes from an article Oppenheimer wrote in 1980, in which he recounts his childhood explorations in chemistry – mixing household detergents, spices and over-the-counter drugs in an empty milk bottle to see what would happen. “Of course, nothing happened,” he wrote. “I ended up with a sticky gray-brown mess.… Much research ends up with the same amorphous mess and is or should be thrown out only to then start playing around in some other way. But a research physicist gets paid for this ‘waste of time’ and so do the people who develop exhibits at the Exploratorium. Occasionally though, something incredibly wonderful happens.”

The overarching goal of the Exploratorium, Cole explained, came directly out of his atomic bomb experience. “It was about empowering people to understand, making them feel confident in a world of science and technology and art, not to just listen to what the experts say.

“He really believed that if the world was to stay out of war – that was his main purpose, to figure out ways that we could maintain a decent, civil and safe society – people had to feel confident that they could think for themselves.”

The Other Oppenheimer

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