Exploratorium: Home

Dr. Frank Oppenheimer - Quotes

Dr. Frank Oppenheimer - Quotes

While most of these quotes can be found in the other articles that are published on this site, we thought that we could supply you with a dose of “concentrated Frank” by gathering up some of our favorites. Reading these will (hopefully) will give you a “feel” for his vision and hopes for the Exploratorium.

General Considerations
The basic objective of science is to discover, understand and unify what’s happening around us, whether in living things or inanimate things. Very often people talk about the scientific method, but I believe that the way of understanding in science has a great deal in common with the way of understanding anything. Yet there are a couple of very special things about science that are not part of its methodology really, but which are crucial to its progress. One of these is that if you are genuinely trying to understand what’s going on around you there’s no point fooling yourself, or for that matter, fooling any of your colleagues. Within the scientific community there is a tradition that anybody who fabricates data is completely ostracized. This tradition is one of the basic tenets of science and science had traditionally been one of the very special strongholds of that tenet. I wish it also applied to politicians and advertisers, so that they would ostracize people who willingly and deliberately fabricate data.

One of the nice things that is true of the Exploratorium is that people trust it. We don’t “rig” any of the exhibits; the exhibits do not show things artificially. The natural phenomena are there and the visitors can ask questions of the exhibits, and the exhibits can then answer these because they behave according to nature.

If people feel they understand the world around them, or, probably, even if they have the conviction that they could understand it if they wanted to, then and only then are they also able to feel that they can make a difference through their decisions and activities. Without this connection people usually live with the sense of being eternally pushed around by alien events and forces. I believe that the Exploratorium does help create or renew this conviction for very many people and that, especially for young people, it builds a desire to understand. I sense also that this is happening when I hear adult visitors tell me, “I wish that science had been taught this way when I was a kid.” What they are telling me is that now, after a lifelong rejection of the subject, they could in fact have understood it. The conveying to our visitors a sense that they can understand the things that are going on around them may be one of the more important things we do. This sense can then so readily extend to all aspects of people’s lives. The intellectual apathy that I am told now exists among young people may have come about because these youths have never been convincingly taught the wonder of understanding or learned that when one does understand, then each person, as an individual or as a member of a group, can feel that they can make a difference.

Although the Exploratorium does not consciously glorify the achievements of people, it is impossible to come away without some sense of awe at the subtleties, complexities, and the almost unbelievable reliability of sensory information and processing. One also frequently comes away with a new awareness that causes one to stare, squint, close one’s eye, or cock one’s head, in a word, to experience everyday phenomena.

The Exploratorium is not designed to glorify anything. We have not built exhibits whose primary message is, “wasn’t somebody else clever,” or, “hasn’t someone done a great service to mankind and the American way of life.” Nor do we tell people what they are supposed to get out of a particular exhibit or make them feel silly or stupid because they enjoyed it in a way that was perhaps not intended. In this sense the Exploratorium is a playful place, and people are aware that they are not being pushed around.

The roots of science frequently lie in sightseeing. In recent years much of high energy physics, especially bubble chamber analysis, has constituted little more than a very elaborate form of sightseeing. The individual sights combine to form patterns, which constitute a simple form of understanding. The process continues beyond this stage as groups of seemingly disparate patterns then coalesce to form the patterns that provide the deepest insights about nature. We are exploring various forms of museum teaching and learning in the Exploratorium, but our effort would be worthwhile even if it did no more than provide some good sightseeing.

Sightseeing always requires some amenities to make the sights accessible. If one is concerned with the interest and understanding of the general public then sightseeing must not require, as it did with Marco Polo, an undue amount of heroism or expense.

Many people who talk about the discovery method of teaching are really talking about arranging a lesson or an experiment so that students discover what they are supposed to discover. That is not an exploration. The whole tradition of exploration is being lost for entire generations.

It is, therefore, more important than ever that museums assume the responsibility for providing the opportunities for exploration that are lacking for both city and suburban dwellers. It would be fine, indeed, if they would, but it will take a bit of doing to do so properly. If museums are too unstructured, too unmanageable, people get lost and simply want to get back to home base. On the other hand, if they are too rigid, too structured or too channeled, there are no possibilities for individual choice or discovery.

Exploring, like doing basic research, is often fruitless. Nothing comes of it. But also like basic research, as distinct from applied or directed research, exploring enables one to divert attention from preconceived paths to pursue some intriguing lead: a fragrance, a sight or smell, an interesting street or cave, an open meadow encountered suddenly in the woods or a patch of flowers that leads one off the trail, or even a hole in the ground! Often it is precisely as a result of aimless exploration that one does become intensely directed and preoccupied.

A museum that allows exploration does not have to be disorganized either physically or conceptually. It does, however, mean that the museum must contain a lot of which people can readily miss, so that discovery becomes something of a surprise, a triumph, not so much of personal achievement as of personal satisfaction. It is the kind of satisfaction that invariably leads me to tell someone about the experience.

There is one piece of oft-repeated advice to which we have not paid the slightest attention. Over and over again, I have been lectured at by exhibit designers with the statement, “You have to decide who your audience will be.” We recognize that it is essential that neither I nor the staff are bored by our exhibits, that we learn something as we make them and that we enjoy showing them to people, especially our friends and colleagues, over and over again....

As far as we can determine, there is no age limit, no training limit, nor any cultural limit to the range of people who use and enjoy the place. Preschool groups and old-folks-home groups come and come back. Mentally or sensory retarded groups repeatedly come and special classes for gifted students use the place as the basis for a variety of projects. Ours is one of the few formal institutions that attracts teenagers.

There are two things misleading about the statement, “You have to decide who your audience is.” In the first place, it is possible to make many, if not most, of the exhibits so that they can each individually be appreciated and enjoyed on a variety of levels. Secondly, it is ridiculous to think that every visitor should be able be appreciate or enjoy every exhibit in the museum. Not only should one not expect a visitor to become absorbed in very many exhibits, the atmosphere of the museum must be adjusted in such a way that people are relaxed about missing or not understanding something.

… a museum can be a hock shop and a Gumps window at the same time.

The Exploratorium architects wanted to build offices with low partitions that formed little work cubby holes with shelves for plants. They took me to see offices like that which they thought were very good. Everyone was working away in their cubby holes. Suddenly I shouted something out loud and everybody popped up out of their holes. I said to the architect, “See what would happen? I wouldn’t be able to shout.” He replied that such a place teaches people to talk softly. Well, I don’t want to be taught—or to teach anyone—to talk softly. They said something else about stopping the children from running about inside the museum. Well, why should we stop children from running? I had a difficult time convincing the architects that they weren’t really doing any harm. They hardly ever ran into anybody, but they appeared to be a little bit out of control and it worried the architects to see children behaving naturally. I think it’s quite wonderful that we don’t mind losing some control.

Art & Science
There are many common bonds between science and art. They both begin with noticing and recording patterns—spatial patterns, patterns in time, patterns of process and behavior. They both elaborate, reformulate, and ultimately link together patterns, in nature and meaning, which initially appeared as unrelated. Both art and science are involved with order-disorder transitions and the creation of tension and the relief of tension. Both endeavors are deeply rooted in culture and heritage; both expand our awareness and sensitivity to what is happening in nature, and in ourselves.

The commonalties have not been made use of in teaching and learning. But I now know that they can be linked because, at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, we have managed to let people look at parts of nature through the eyes of both the physicist and the artist. There has not even been the need to announce “this piece is physics,” or “that piece is art.”

The works of artists and the didactic demonstrations of scientists and engineers combine to do more than show the sights. They alter, each in a characteristic mode, the way in which individuals perceive both their past and future experiences, and they make people aware of aspects of their surroundings that they have either learned to ignore or never been shown how to see.

In growing up one even ignores what people’s faces are like, but by seeing paintings of people’s faces you begin to look at them again, and I think that the same thing is true of science. You look at the sky and you see the stars, and it is just an amorphous mass; but suddenly somebody talks to you about it and you see that some stars move with respect to other stars. There are many examples of things that one just does not notice until either they are brought before one because one begins to understand them.

They both change in this way, the way one looks at oneself and the rest of the world, and I think this is one of the reasons that science, as it has been taught, is so unattractive to many people, because it has not succeeded in changing the way they look at themselves.

Exhibit Development
Our treatment of perceptual phenomena makes for a basically humanistic atmosphere in the Exploratorium, and it has, at the same time, tied together an extremely wide range of natural and technical phenomena. We feel no compulsion to “cover the ground,” nor are there narrow limits as to what is appropriate within this integrative rationale.

We first try to decide what kind of effects or ideas are fundamental to an understanding of some aspect of science or nature. Then we sort out which effects are easier to understand if they are demonstrated rather than read about. Finally, we grope around for ways to effectively and captivatingly illustrate such effects. Outsiders who learn about what we are searching for will frequently help. Phil Morrison called from MIT to tell us of the exponential behavior of a bouncing ball; Luiz Alvarez sent us an article on a sequential array of long focal length lenses. Occasionally a staff member will read about some work in a journal or newspaper and contact the author. We gather a group of experts in linguistics, for example, or in visual perception. Invariably the group provides us with a great raft of ideas to work on.

Since, as an ongoing process, we are expanding exhibit curricula and filling gaps in the ones we have, we have been able to afford the luxury of being responsive (albeit also selective) to the continual flow of ideas and of actual exhibit pieces that visiting scientists, teachers and artists bring to us.

One of the more productive employees of the Exploratorium said to me some years ago that he felt confused because what he was doing much of the time in the machine shop was just playing around with no particular purpose. He didn’t see why he should be paid for doing that, even though his playing around sometimes resulted in the birth of wonderful and instructive exhibits; exhibits whose major purpose or form was in no way conceived at the outset of the playing around. My brother, when he was a young man, said his teaching made him feel he was giving somebody their money’s worth, whereas almost none of his research calculations had anything to do with anything. It seemed hard for him to justify his being paid for just doing research.

Whether it is exhibit-building or research or sculpture, so much time is spent just playing around with no particular end in mind. One sort of mindlessly observes how something works or doesn’t work, or what its features are, much as I did when, as a child, I use to go around the house with an empty milk bottle pouring a little bit of every chemical, every drug, every spice into the bottle to see what would happen. Of course, nothing happened. I ended up with a sticky gray-brown mess, which I threw out in disgust. But 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 in the Exploratorium. Occasionally though, something incredibly wonderful happens.

The way a place is, emerges from decisions made about many details. The general view is that an executive should not pay attention to all these details. I don’t think that’s the right way. It doesn’t work when you are doing experiments and it doesn’t work in art. A lot of museums are on the right track to start with. They have a picture of what they should be. Then there is pressure—it’s rather like people who set up a symphony orchestra in order to play a certain kind of music, and when nobody comes to hear it, they change the repertoire.