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Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the world he made up Hardcover – August 4, 2009


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade (August 4, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0151008221
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151008223
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.1 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,028,074 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Product Description
As a young man Frank Oppenheimer followed in his famous brother's footsteps growing up in a privileged Manhattan household, becoming a physicist, working on the atomic bomb. Tragically, Frank and Robert both had their careers destroyed by the Red Scare. But their paths diverged. While Robert died an almost ruined man, Frank came into his own, emerging from ten years of exile on a Colorado ranch to create not just a multimillion dollar institution but also a revolution that was felt all over the world. His Exploratorium was a "museum of human awareness" that combined art and science while it encouraged play, experimentation, and a sense of joy and wonder; its success inspired a transformation in museums around the globe. In many ways it was Frank's answer to the atom bomb. K.C. Cole a friend and colleague of Frank's for many years has drawn from letters, documents, and extensive interviews to write a very personal story of the man whose irrepressible spirit would inspire so many.



A Look Inside Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens
(Click on Images to Enlarge)

Frank and Robert Oppenheimer, approximately 1915 Frank Oppenheimer with gyro, late 1950s

Frank in the empty Exploratorium, late 1960s Frank with pendulums, 1980s



From Publishers Weekly

Many visitors to the world-famous Exploratorium in San Francisco probably know little about its founder, Frank Oppenheimer (1912–1985). Like his brother, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, Frank both worked on the Manhattan Project and was a victim of the 1950s Red Scare. Blacklisted and unable to find a university professorship, he taught high school in Colorado, turning out scores of science prize winners. After moving to California, Oppenheimer drew on his teaching experience to found the Exploratorium, a hands-on science museum that continues to influence others in the field. In this fond memoir, well-regarded science writer Cole (The Universe and the Teacup), who knew Oppenheimer well, capably surveys his early career, but the book's true subject is his work at the Exploratorium and his philosophy, not just of science education but of life. This constitutes most of the second half of the book, which may frustrate readers looking for pure biography, but it offers much that is provocative for those interested in science education. 8 pages of b&w photos.(Aug. 4)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
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This wonderfully informative and often quite moving book is Frank's story.
Michael Birman
Writer Cole was close with Frank Oppenheimer and what the book loses in objectivity it more than makes up in thoroughness.
Theseus
Fans of science books and biography buffs, as well as the casually curious, are all likely to enjoy this book, as I did.
Eric C. Sedensky

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Tom Brody VINE VOICE on June 24, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
SOMETHING INCREDIBLY WONDERFUL HAPPENS by K.C. Cole is 380 pages long. The pages are good quality bright white paper, not beige newspaper-type paper. There are no photographs or diagrams, aside from photos of Mr. Oppenheimer on the front cover and the author (with reflection of Mr. Oppenheimer) on the back cover. Excellent source documentation is found, as the section on footnotes and bibliography is lengthy (pages 328-380).

The book is a biography of Frank Oppenheimer, younger brother of the reknowned Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb. The narrative begins with Frank's childhood in New York, where he found an interest in art and flute playing. We learn of his undergraduate years (1930-1933) at Johns Hopkins University, and graduate years at Cal Tech to study physics. We learn of Frank's interest in communism (pages 46-50) and consequent extended scrutiny by the FBI (pages 75-127, 139). In effect, this scrutiny came to an end when Frank finally succeeded in securing a full-time research position at the University of Colorado in 1959 and eventual promotion to full professor in 1964 and attainment of professor emeritus in 1979 (pages 128-147). We learn of Frank's contribution to the atomic bomb effort, where he supervised the refinement of U235 from U238, and calculations of radioactive clouds, which involved working in Pittsburgh, Oak Ridge, and Los Alamos (pages 51-65).

Frank easily obtained a faculty position at the University of Minnesota, where he made discoveries in particle physics with high-altitude experiments using balloons (pages 76-92). But Frank was eventually fired in 1949 and subjected to inquisitions from HUAC and the FBI.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Michael Birman TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 16, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Robert Oppenheimer was an extremely controversial figure following his stewardship of the Manhattan Project. His work as head of the effort to build the first atomic bomb lasted some three years. Years in which many of the world's most talented physicists worked in secret while the most expensive engineering project in human history was built from scratch around them. Oppenheimer stroked their egos, assuaged their guilt and acted as a liason between the unruly scientists and the strait-laced, infinitely more rigid military men and government agents who constituted the security apparatus. It was their job to crack the whip and to keep a distrustful eye on them. Oppenheimer had pre-war left-wing sympathies but kept aloof from joining any organizations. He was never a Communist. Unfortunately for him, his mistress, his brother Frank and Frank's wife all were. Too valuable to remove, he was tolerated until after the war when fear of the Russians and the drive to build the 'super' or hydrogen bomb spurred the government to revoke his security clearance after several infamous hearings behind closed doors. Frank Oppenheimer, also a physicist, had worked on the atomic bomb as well. He was caught in the crossfire, outed as having been a communist in the 1930s and his career as a scientist shattered. He felt as if his life had ended.

Frank spent ten years in exile working on a Colorado ranch. Eventually he found his way back to an academic career teaching physics at the University of Colorado. Devising increasingly more sophisticated and visually arresting physics experiments for the students, he housed them in a laboratory that was open most days from 8:30 to 5. He called it his 'library of experiments'.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By J. GARRATT VINE VOICE on July 31, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
On more that one occasion, K.C. Cole's biography of Frank Oppenheimer comes rather close to reading like fan girl praise with lots and lots of adulation for its subject. But she checks herself before she wrecks herself: "Still, I think it's fair to say that while the unpleasant side of Frank's nature is part of his legacy - mostly affecting his family - even those who saw his dark side tend to remember him with admiration and affection." (Page 22)

As "Something Incredibly..." rolled along, I easily got caught up in the praises and stories of Robert Oppenheimer, a man whom I knew nothing about prior to reading this book. His life was definitely interesting and his stature as physicist-for-the-everyman could probably rival Feynman. So if you really enjoyed "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman," then you will likely really get into Frank Oppenheimer.

The story starts from his Manhattan childhood, through his formal schooling, lightly dipping its toe into the Communist party, explains his role in the development of the atomic bomb, getting kicked to the curb by his country during the McCarthy-era red scare, up to the stories behind his legendary museum known as the Exploratorium. The fact that he once cheated on his wife is briefly mentioned.

Two gripes keep me from rating this book a 4, and one is the lack of any visual aides. A good half of the book is dedicated to unfolding the inner workings of the Exploratorium. The museum, so I'm told, is filled with gadgets, toys, and illusionary art. Even though K.C. Cole tries to explain it all in writing, I get the nagging feelings that I'm never going to "get it" unless I see it. Or maybe I'll get part of it if I see some photographs and/or diagrams.
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