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Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the world he made up Hardcover – August 4, 2009
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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)
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Top Customer Reviews
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. Frank went into exile as a rancher in rural Colorado, funded at least in part by selling his family's paintings by Van Gough and Picasso (page 103-116), and eventually gained the trust of his neighbors. Frank took a high school teaching job and acquired a reputation for producing high-quality students. As mentioned above, Frank eventually made his way back to the University (Univ. of Colorado) where this was aided by letters of recommendation from a number of physicists who continue to be "household words," e.g., Hans Bethe and George Gamow (page 130). As it turned out, Frank's interests turned to science teaching, and he received two Guggenheims for funding visits to science museums in Europe (page 141).
Thus, up to this point, the book conctains plenty of INTRIGUE, as the narrative concerns atomic bombs, communists, spies, high-altitude balloons landing in weird places around the world, Picasso and Van Gough paintings, and exile in a remote spot in Colorado.
1968 marked a big turning point for Frank, as he formed a board of directors for initiating a science museum in San Francisco, later called the Exploratorium (page 151). The rest is history. The rest of the book concerns the development and funding of the Exploratorium (page 151-321).
The following concerns the literary style. The reader is provided with amusing or perceptive details that place you right at the side of Mr.Oppenheimer. These details include the "burns from forgotten cigarettes" in Frank's desk (page 9), Frank's habit of "bobbing his head back and forth like Howdy Doody" (page 10), and the notion that "he was like Tom Sawyer in a business suit." (page 10). We learn of Frank's philosophy for setting up the Exploratorium, e.g., "no one flunks a museum" (page 17), and that "He hated how science education promoted the myth of the collective right answer." (page 170). We learn an amusing fact about Frank's graduate years where, eager to make new discoveries, believed that he'd discovered new spectral lines, but that it was actually an artifact due to his eyes failing to focus properly in the dark (page 41). We learn of a difference between Frank (stood at the fringe) and Robert (center of any group) (page 44). The following is still another fun fact that transports the reader to the very moment in history--this is the story that management at Los Alamos placed actors in taverns in Santa Fe to engage in dialogues about "electric rockets" in order to initiate rumors, thereby preventing the townsfolk from suspecting that the project was actually about bombs (page 56).
This book will be of especial interest to: (1) Folks who live in the San Francisco Bay area and have been to the Exploratorium; (2) People interested in older brother Robert Oppenheimer, and wanting a better-rounded view of the Oppenheimer family; and (3) Science museum directors and dedicated science teachers.
If there is any criticism to make, I would have liked to see a reproduction of the Acheson-Lilienthal plan (page 70), perhaps in an Appendix. Also, Chapter Four uses the literary technique of starting out with a reproduction of a letter, perhaps a couple of other chapters should start with the same technique. FIVE STARS.
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'. The success of this method of teaching by scientific showmanship gave Frank the idea for a museum of science in which these wonderful experiments and fascinating demonstrations could be open and available to all. The idea for the Exploratorium had been born.
The Exploratorium in San Francisco has been a great success and is now the model for museums all over the world. Frank Oppenheimer wound up changing the world for the better. In many ways it was his answer to the atomic bomb. This wonderfully informative and often quite moving book is Frank's story. It is a story whose delay in being told is mitigated by the expert way that author K. C. Cole, a science writer and friend of Frank Oppenheimer's for many years, has told it in simple unadorned prose. The book is candid, unflinching and wide-ranging in its scope. The Oppenheimer brothers lived brilliant, privileged lives that might have ended in tragedy. Due to Frank Oppenheimer's perserverance, integrity and imagination, their legacy is more than that terrible flash and vast explosion that roiled the desert on that long ago July evening in 1945. This is an inspirational book in many ways.