Dr. Frank Oppenheimer


Frank Oppenheimer’s many contributions to the progress of science reflect a rich and varied life. He was, from the beginning, an original thinker, a dauntless explorer, a creative and insistent teacher, and a seeker of brave new worlds.

He was born Frank Friedman Oppenheimer in New York City to a family well versed in the sciences and arts. His mother was a painter, and Frank himself studied painting as a young boy. He also studied the flute under Barrera and became quite a competent musician. During this time, he attended grammar and high school at New York’s Ethical Culture Society. And even then, he was exploring the Manhattan skyline from a most original point of view: by crouching in the conical tops of water towers on the city’s roofs. He wrote a charming essay about his nocturnal adventures, and wrote prolifically on a wide variety of subjects throughout his life.

In 1933, Frank graduated Phi Beta Kappa in three years from Johns Hopkins University, where he was awarded a scholarship as a top member of his class. He then spent a year and a half in the Cavendish Laboratories in England—the laboratory of Sir Ernest Rutherford—working on natural radioactivity with C .E. Ellis and other greats in physics. He was invited to work on the development of nuclear particle counters at the physics laboratory in Florence, Italy, and again had contact with many of the greats in the field, including Ochialini and Bernadini. All the while, he continued to play the flute (he was a member of the Bach Club in Baltimore); pursue his interests in art (he got to know personally almost all the paintings in the Uffizi Gallery while in Florence); and embark on new adventures (while in England, he earned a pilot’s license flying a Gypsy Moth—a specimen of which is now in the London Science Museum).

On returning to the United States., Frank spent four years at the California Institute of Technology earning a Ph.D. and working on artificially induced radiation. He subsequently became a teaching assistant in introductory physics and optics at Stanford University for two years. He also worked with Felix Bloch on neutron physics at this time.

In 1941, he began work on uranium isotope separation at the Radiation Lab in Berkeley, where he was a group leader on the project. He remained a research associate at Berkeley on the Manhattan Project (directed by his brother, J. Robert Oppenheimer) for four years, during which time he spent several months at Westinghouse supervising the manufacture of isotope separation devices (calutrons), and eight to ten months at Oak Ridge National Laboratory where he was valued for his boundless energy and ingenuity.

Frank arrived at Los Alamos in 1945—rather late in the story, but in time to serve as the tireless executive officer to Kenneth Bainbridge, who was in charge of planning and conducting the first atomic test at Trinity of the first plutonium implosion bomb. Frank’s experiences at Los Alamos convinced him of the seriousness of the gap between scientist and layperson—and the importance of making an understanding and appreciation of science accessible to the public at large. After the war, Frank worked on the development of linear proton accelerators with Wolfgang Panofsky and Nobel Prize winner Luis Alvarez. He did the first experimental work on the newly completed 194-inch cyclotron in 1947. During this period, he was asked several times to direct the research on nuclear energy for the propulsion of aircraft.

In 1948, Frank was at the University of Minnesota, teaching and doing research on cosmic rays, when he conceived and carried out a landmark experiment: to fly balloons to high altitudes—100,000 feet—to study cosmic radiation. The balloons carried two types of devices to detect and characterize primary particles of cosmic rays, a cloud chamber and a set of photo emulsions. The data they gathered suggested that cosmic rays come from exploding stars. The balloons were launched from an aircraft carrier off the south coast of Cuba and Frank and his team hiked through Cuba’s Sierra Maestra to recapture lost balloons. These adventures became the subject of another one of Frank’s delightful essays.

Soon after, Frank was forced to resign from his university post as a result of harassment by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Almost overnight, he changed from being a brilliant researcher and author of significant papers to a cattle rancher. However, his banishment from academic physics at the hands of McCarthy did not in any way end his career; on the contrary, it marked the beginning of several new ones.

Frank’s passion for excellence and willingness to give himself wholly to whatever pursuit captured his interest made him a successful and ingenious rancher. As he had in the physics laboratory and even back in his early years in New York, he was a creative experimenter who liked to make his own tools and find his own solutions. In addition to building a farm and raising his cattle on a 1500-acre ranch near Pagosa Springs, Colorado, he became president of the Blanco Basic Telephone Company, chairman of the Archuleta County Soil Conservation Board, and elected delegate representing the Archuleta County Cattlemen’s Association to the Senate Agriculture and subcommittee hearings. Drawn back into education, he gave Pagosa Springs High School a band, and he taught biology, chemistry, physics, and general science there. It wasn’t long before the students of this small, unknown school were carrying off first prizes at the Colorado State Science Fair.

Frank’s approach to science education, which was to help students make discoveries for themselves, is nicely illustrated by his work in Pagosa Springs. For example, he would take his charges out to the dump to explore abandoned auto parts and get a hands-on feeling for how things worked.

In 1959, he finally was able to accept an appointment at the University of Colorado, where he eagerly returned to both research and teaching. He initiated and directed research in high-energy particle physics, using bubble chamber film in the Boulder physics department. This project was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and later by the Atomic Energy Commission.

At the same time, he became a central moving force in improving laboratory teaching for students. He developed a totally new kind of physics instruction called the "Library of Experiments" where students could explore phenomena at their own pace and according to their own inclinations. It soon achieved considerable fame and has since been copied in many other universities. (Frank was also involved in the MIT-sponsored curriculum development projects for high school, junior high, and elementary school science that were supported by the National Science Foundation.)

In 1965, Oppenheimer began the melding of his interests in peace and humanity, scientific research, teaching, art and history, philosophy, and museums that a few years later would blossom into the Exploratorium. He spent the year in London on a Guggenheim Fellowship and a half-year appointment at University College, London. (This prompted an insightful essay on “traffic patterns in Cambridge and their relation to harmony in human relations.”) During this time, he had ample opportunity to explore and study in depth three European science museums: one in the South Kensington district of London, the Deutsches Museum in Munich, and the Palais de la Decouverte in Paris. (He was also invited to give a paper on the use of mesons in the study of nuclear structure at Brussels; to spend a month in Ankara, Turkey, to consult on the development of better physics lab instruction; and to give a paper at a Budapest conference on the development of science in developing countries.)

While in Europe, Frank became convinced that museums of science and technology were vitally needed both for the general public and as a supplement for formal science teaching at all levels. During the summer of 1966, he was invited to give a paper at a conference of Museums and Education sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution and the Office of Education. He was invited to do the initial planning for a new branch of the Smithsonian, but turned it down to work on what he called his “San Francisco project.”

The Exploratorium opened officially in 1969. It soon became established as the “best science museum in the world” according to Scientific American and many others; some early visitors from Beijing called it “the people’s science museum.” Representatives from museums throughout the world have visited the Exploratorium for the specific purpose of planning a new science museum or improving an old one. The Exploratorium has been hailed in virtually every popular and scientific medium—from the Today show and the New York Times to the American Journal of Physics and the Smithsonian; articles have also appeared in many foreign publications.

What has made the Exploratorium so special are the same qualities that made Frank himself so special: an insistence on excellence, a knack for new ways of looking at things, and a high respect for invention and play. The Exploratorium provides a carefully controlled chaos in which visitors and students freely pick their path among a subtle and ingeniously devised science curriculum. The goal is not only to help people understand nature, but also to understand how they understand nature. Thus, from the beginning the central theme has been human perception—a natural way to unite art and science.

Each exhibit is designed to be used—and misused—in a variety of ways. The latter is crucial: only by being allowed to make their own mistakes can visitors truly discover science in their own way. The Exploratorium is unique among science centers in stressing many alternative approaches to each concept, so that they are seen and seen again in a multitude of contexts. Oddly, this same science museum is a favorite playground of both schoolchildren and nuclear physicists, of artists and little old ladies. (One little old lady recently remarked that she “had been waiting 70 years for a place like this.”)

But in the end, it has been the emphasis on developing a public library of scientific props that has made the Exploratorium the most popular and praised science museum extant. The focus on teaching and self-discovery has allowed the same institution to be used by different kinds of people in many different—and often surprising—ways; from a group that deals with perceptually deficient children who used it to sensitize parents, to a theology professor who used it to teach a course, to authors who have used it as the inspiration for essays and poems, to teachers from elementary to post-doctorate levels who have used it to develop science courses for their students.

Frank’s contribution to informal science education is especially significant in light of the growing importance of science museums and science centers in general. They are more popular than all other museums combined—and in many areas, more popular than any other form of public “entertainment.” This reflects a desperate need on the part of the public for access to and information about science—a need that is not, and cannot, be met by the already overburdened public schools. That the Exploratorium has been such a successful and acclaimed model has enriched the understanding and appreciation of science not only for its own visitors, but for visitors to all science museums all over the country, and indeed, the world.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that throughout his life, Frank kept up his original writings on wide varieties of significant subjects. Among his most provocative works are these: “War in the Shadow of the H-Bomb,” “The Personal Satisfactions of Science,” “Science and Fear,” “Science and Peace,” and “Science and the Ethics of Coercion.” He also wrote many articles about his involvement with the atomic bomb, about museums and education, and about the library of experiments and other ideas relevant to the creation of the Exploratorium.

It took courage, resilience, and dedication for Frank to pursue his dream. He accomplished—over and over again—that which many said could not be done. The Exploratorium is a remarkable and tangible culmination of one man’s life, experience, and ideas. Everyone who has been there cannot help but feel that their lives have somehow changed; that they have gained a new awareness of themselves.