Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and His Astonishing Exploratorium

Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and His Astonishing Exploratorium

by K. C. Cole, Murray Gell-Man

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How do we reclaim our innate enchantment with the world? And how can we turn our natural curiosity into a deep, abiding love for knowledge? Frank Oppenheimer, the younger brother of the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, was captivated by these questions, and used his own intellectual inquisitiveness to found the Exploratorium, a powerfully influential museum of human awareness in San Francisco, that encourages play, creativity, and discovery—all in the name of understanding.   In this elegant biography, K. C. Cole investigates the man behind the museum with sharp insight and deep sympathy. The Oppenheimers were a family with great wealth and education, and Frank, like his older brother, pursued a career in physics. But while Robert was unceasingly ambitious, and eventually came to be known for his work on the atomic bomb, Frank’s path as a scientist was much less conventional. His brief fling with the Communist Party cost him his position at the University of Minnesota, and he subsequently spent a decade ranching in Colorado before returning to teaching. Once back in the lab, however, Frank found himself moved to create something to make the world meaningful after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was inspired by European science museums, and he developed a dream of teaching Americans about science through participatory museums. Thus was born the magical world of the Exploratorium, forever revolutionizing not only the way we experience museums, but also science education for years to come.   Cole has brought this charismatic and dynamic figure to life with vibrant prose and rich insight into Oppenheimer as both a scientist and an individual.  

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226009360
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 959,084
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

K. C. Cole is a science writer for the Los Angeles Times, professor at the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California, and the author of many books, including The Hole in the Universe.

Read an Excerpt


By K. C. Cole

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2009 K. C. Cole
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-11347-0

Chapter One


I met Frank Oppenheimer soon after I got my first real writing job with the venerable Saturday Review, which had just moved from New York to San Francisco. It was the early 1970s, and San Francisco was, in the lingo of the day, happening—the place where you wore flowers in your hair.

For an East Coast kid, everything about it was magic. There were golden hills and wildflowers; rows of pastel wedding-cake houses set shoulder to shoulder on impossibly steep streets; a tunnel you entered through a rainbow. You could take a ferry boat to Angel Island and commune with seals. The stealth fog spilled over the hills fast and fierce, snuffing out the red towers of the Golden Gate Bridge and engulfing you in a silent, splendid isolation. Nothing seemed real. But the air of possibility was palpable.

I had no interest in science whatsoever, having taken the usual dull courses in school and gone on to more interesting and relevant things, such as politics and culture. But one of the editors at the magazine had heard about a strange new science museum in the city, and I was sent to write about it. I had no idea what to expect.

This so-called Exploratorium was housed in the Palace of Fine Arts, at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge—a huge "Roman ruin" created by Bernard R. Maybeck for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Maybeck designed it to crumble under the weight of time. In the interim, the city had put it to use as a fire station, a warehouse for telephone books, a garage for limousines, an airplane hangar, tennis courts. It almost did become a ruin, but by the 1960s, sufficient public support had rallied to restore it—and by that time it had become enough of a landmark that even Maybeck went along. It had just reopened in 1968.

My taxi pulled up beside a quiet lagoon in a sunny park with swans and ducks and old folks on benches feeding the pigeons. Behind rose a massive salmon-pink colonnade and Romanesque rotunda; maidens leaned over giant cisterns draped with garlands. The air was sweet with eucalyptus—a scent that can still take me back to that day.

Nearly hidden behind all this architectural pageantry was an enormous semicircular building. I walked under an archway at one end and opened a door into a dark cavern that seemed to pulse with dim lights and eerie sounds. It was spooky and inviting.

Although I couldn't see it all from where I stood, the space was vast—ninety thousand square feet. The concrete supports and steel girders looked like the bare ribs of a giant fish, and I felt as if I'd entered the belly of a whale. The floor was rough and ugly, the walls concrete. Wires and cables dangled from the rafters. The only light came from rows of fluorescent lamps forty feet above; despite the presence of four enormous fireplaces, there was no heat, and it was cold. An early 1970 article said the place "has all the charm of a blimp hangar."

It took a while for the eyes to adjust—and not only in a literal sense. The strange hums and flickers gave the place an ethereal, otherworldly feel. There was a big yellow tent on my left that housed an electronics shop. On my right was a noisy machine shop, all sparks and whines of saws and welding and lathes. Hanging above the shop, a handmade sign announced: HERE IS BEING CREATED THE EXPLORATORIUM, A COMMUNITY MUSEUM DEDICATED TO AWARENESS.

I dropped a quarter into a donation barrel and jumped back as 300,000 volts of purple lightning from a tesla coil zapped up a tall pole. Then I did it again.

I walked into a swirling wash of color where fine webs of sensuous red and blue and yellow created huge sheets of undulating light forms. A very tall man was twirling Mylar lassos in the light, spinning swirls of colors. Several children—and adults—joined him. When I traced the colors back, I could see that they were extracted from an ordinary white sunbeam coming through a hole in the ceiling; the beam spread out into a spectrum as it pirouetted through a rack of prisms; the prisms sent the whole palette of sunlight to a stand of thin vertical mirrors which then sliced it into thin ribbons of color—each uncannily pure. The tall man was Bob Miller, and this was his "Sun Painting," honored (along with Bob) in Muriel Rukeyser's poem "The Sun Painter."

I watched disembodied legs wearing patent-leather Mary Janes chase each other around in a circle—a shoe tester used by the National Bureau of Standards in the 1930s. Frank loved cool machinery.

Someone had made a dance floor of color-coded patches that played music as you stepped on them (the idea was later made into a toy sold at FAO Schwarz that was used to great effect in the movie Big). One day, I was told, a would-be John Travolta decked out in full Saturday Night Fever regalia came and played his heart out. In truth, it was almost impossible not to perform. (For amateurs, cards spelled out how to play "The Old Gray Mare" and the theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)

Farther on, two small children were playing with a giant checkerboard of colored lights, "shooting" squares of different colors on and off with red and green light guns. "Bang, I got the red one," a little girl said. She didn't know that the colors turned on when the beam was pointed vertically, off when it was horizontal, but her older brother quickly figured it out. When I came back, the brother was engrossed in conversation with a red-jacketed "Explainer"—a high school student—over the rudiments of polarization.

A boy and an old man were trying to get a four-hundred-pound cylinder of cement moving in a circle by throwing tiny magnets at a metal girdle encircling the center. Even the gentlest tugs, given the right timing, could get the cement weight swinging using the same principle of resonance that "pumps" a child on a swing. This "accelerator," I later learned, was built by Robert Wilson, a physicist and Frank's close friend from Los Alamos; it was, in essence, a miniature version of the four-mile-circumference particle accelerator Wilson had built at Fermi National Laboratory in Illinois.

I played an old-time electronic instrument called a theremin, where you make music merely by waving your hands in the air to modulate a current. (Talk about air guitar!) I spun around on a "Momentum Machine," toyed with all kinds of gyros, sang to a TV screen that responded by weaving colored strands of electronic spaghetti into beautiful, complex patterns. I moved around large red, blue, and green blobs on a color-TV screen with a powerful magnet—entranced as they "condensed" at the poles just like iron filings.

There were "glass catfish" that spun polarized light, which made them look transparent; a big red face called Albert that followed you when you passed; sculptures made of bathroom window glass, Christmas tree balls, and Polaroid filters; glass rods that disappeared when dipped in clear liquid; a "Magic Wand" that could pluck an image out of thin air; swirling soap bubbles that made storms of color, then faded into invisibility as the film stretched so thin that it shrank to less than a single wavelength of light.

I watched a father and son discover that it takes a lot of pedal power to keep just three light bulbs burning; the "Pedal Generator" was fashioned from a nineteenth-century lathe from the Oppenheimer ranch. A little girl talked to an electronic tree that talked back in colored electronic twinkles. "I'm going to stay here all day!" the girl announced.

The place was full of stuff that played on my own perceptions, making the mind's eye the real object of investigation. I tried to thread a giant needle with one eye; watched shadows on a wall pop into 3-D as I looked through smoky glass; reversed the images from my right and left eyes—in the process reversing depth perception and making near far and far near. People danced behind a white screen illuminated with red and green lights; if you looked at them through red/green glasses, the shadows came toward you or moved away.

There was a full-sized distorted room where people shrank and grew as you watched; I saw the blood cells in my eye—tiny corpuscles coursing through capillaries, pulsing with each heartbeat; I saw colors where there was only black and white; illusions that made the walls—and my head—spin. I had never realized how much of perception is guesswork—that the brain has a mind of its own and uses it to sometimes downright creepy (even fatal) effect.

The far end of the cavern took on a different cast, brightly lit by skylights and strewn with mirrors: not just kaleidoscopes, but mirrors that focused heat as well as light, for example, or allowed you to shake your own ghostly hand or grasp for a spring that you could shine a light on, yet still not touch. A woman in a sari emerged laughing from a three-sided wooden structure with a sign reading DUCK INTO KALEIDOSCOPE on the side. "Come on in! It's a party!" she invited, after seeing herself and her husband reflected into an infinite expanse of images of themselves.

There were giant lenses, a prism tree, a blower that balanced a ball in an airstream. A Montgomery glider hung from the rafters. I climbed and crawled and slid my way through a giant pitch-black igloo, created for the place by the artist August Coppola, brother of Francis Ford Coppola.

The whole place seemed to have a heartbeat, a breath, a voice—as if it were whispering to itself. There were hums and whines and bells and whistles and hisses and drips and splashes and echoes and pings. There were also oohs and aahs and shouts and giggles and song and screams and running feet.

It was, in effect, a playground. 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.

I found it hard to get over the feeling of playing hooky, or getting away with something. As if I'd broken into the zoo at night to pet the animals, or stayed in the art museum after closing time and climbed on the sculptures. There were no guides and no path and no right way to go through—no more than you'd expect a guide in a park or at the beach. Stuff was simply there to mess with. And what stuff! I thought there was nothing like it in the world, and I was right.

"It was like, Man, what is this place?" one staff member remembers thinking the first time she saw it. "I couldn't believe it. It was like no other place I had been to in my life ... It was like, Oh, God, this is heaven!"

One thing I knew for sure: it wasn't science, and it wasn't a museum.

"It did not look like a museum," recalled Alan Friedman, a physicist and now the director of the New York Hall of Science. "The look of the exhibits was right off the lab bench. Rough wood. Things nailed into the table. This looked just like my low-temperature physics lab when I was a graduate student. It looked really friendly. It looked like home."

But the big shocker, Friedman said, was that the people he met really seemed to care whether visitors were having a good time. "My prior museum-going experience was that the people who worked in the museum's job was to keep you from having a good time."

I always had a hard time convincing people that the Exploratorium wasn't a children's museum—just because people were having so much fun.


"He rapped me on the ankles with his cane a couple of times. 'I don't want it that way.' It was very gentle. It was a point of emphasis."

Frank's office was inside a small trailer that had been pulled into the building. I walked up some stairs and into a tiny backroom, rank with tobacco and occupied by an enormous black dog tied to a small sofa. (Whenever another dog came near, Frank's Labrador Orestes would drag the sofa to the doorway. The only thing that kept Orestes from escaping was that the sofa was too big to go through the door.)

Inside was a machinist's tool chest, a steel desk, and an old wooden desk, its surface scarred with parallel lines of finger-sized brown-edged indentations—burns from forgotten cigarettes left to smolder to their last. A bottle of whiskey, I later found out, could always be found in the right-hand drawer.

Of course, Frank wasn't there; he rarely was. I found him instead on the floor of the machine shop, rooting around for a two-by-four, encased in a cloud of cigarette smoke and sawdust. He wore a dark suit, a belt with a big silver buckle, a white shirt, and a thin tie knotted as if to strangle his skinny neck. The tie was tucked into his shirt, but often it hung down precariously, in imminent danger of getting caught in a table saw or lathe.

Tufts of wild gray hair poked up at odd angles, like unkempt hedges, on either side of his shiny head. His ears were big, his chin small, and his nose a little bulbous. He had a crooked stance, an awkward gait, a childlike giggle, and a harsh smoker's cough. Tinkering intently over some contraption of his own creation, he looked like something out of a cartoon.

The most remarkable thing about him was his eyes: intense, translucent, twinkly, powder blue. They looked different from other people's eyes, as if they saw through things, beyond things.

Frank paced while he spoke, and if he was speaking with you, you didn't know at first whether to walk along with him or wait for him to wander back—which he might, or might not. He fidgeted endlessly, fiddling with small objects he kept in his desk or his pockets: a slide rule, a top, a magnifying glass, a pocket spectroscope. He smoked nonstop, and on more than one occasion set himself on fire by put ting out butts in his pockets.

"He had all these unnerving mannerisms," one staff member said, recalling her job interview. "He had this smelly dog in his office. He's conducting the interview and he's walking in and out of the room in the middle of the conversation so that I couldn't even hear half of what he was saying."

He used his whole body to speak, or think—rubbing his forehead with the heel of his hand as if to push something in (or out of) his brain, bobbing his head back and forth like Howdy Doody, giving a quick nod and a shy smile to punctuate a point. When he played the flute, people said you could tell the notes even if you couldn't hear them because of the way his eyebrows rose with the pitch. Sometimes you'd see cigarette smoke wafting through the holes.

Frank laughed a lot, and he hummed while he worked, like a motor running. His intensity could scare people. But to me, he was like Tom Sawyer in a business suit.

In later years, Frank carried a cane, which became an extension of himself—a prop he used for almost everything but walking (sometimes he carried it on the wrong side). He had a bad hip, and was told to have it replaced, but he figured it would outlast him (he was right). One time when his wife Jackie was in the hospital, Frank ran down the corridor after a doctor. A nurse shouted to Frank: "You could run a lot faster without the cane!"

The cane was so much a part of Frank's persona that you could read it like a weathervane to see which way the winds were blowing inside his head. Staffers called this game "caneology." When he was agitated or impatient, he'd tap the cane in a sustained staccato. When he was angry, he'd slam it down. If he was in a good mood, he'd swing it around in circles, not paying much attention to who happened to be inside the perimeter, so he was always hitting and poking people. When you walked behind him, you had to watch out.

Like his tie—which he'd put to use erasing blackboards and securing trailers—the cane was an all-purpose tool. He used it to demonstrate physical principles, such as phases or reaction time or center of gravity. He also used it to stop traffic when he crossed the street against the light. He used it to manage the staff as well. When he got annoyed with one staffer for doing something not to his liking, he rapped her gently on the ankle.

He even used it as a "gun." When a contractor continued to pound away on the building's rotting ceiling even after Frank yelled at him several times to stop (he was afraid a piece of cement might fall on someone's head), Frank aimed his cane at the man and shouted, "Stop or I'll shoot!" The worker was far enough away that the true nature of the object Frank held was ambiguous; he took one look, and stopped.


"Misbehavior is as important in the study of nature as in people."

I introduced myself, and Frank took me on what amounted to a sightseeing trip around the museum. In fact, a place for sightseeing was exactly what Frank had in mind when he built the Exploratorium. Sightseeing, he liked to say, is the basis for all discovery. Marco Polo and Charles Darwin were both sightseers. "Individual sights combine to form patterns," he said, "which constitute a simple form of understanding." The patterns that Darwin noticed changed the way people see themselves, their origins, their relationship with other living beings.


Excerpted from SOMETHING INCREDIBLY WONDERFUL HAPPENS by K. C. Cole Copyright © 2009 by K. C. Cole. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Murray Gell-Mann

Part I: The World He Came Into
1.  Palace Delights
2.  A Little Royal Family
3.  The Uncle of the Atom Bomb
4.  Un-American
5.  Exile
6.  An Intellectual Desert—and a Library of Experiments
Part II: The World He Made Up
7.  A Museum Dedicated to Awareness
8.  A Decent Respect for Taste
9.  The Man with the Gold-Rimmed Glasses
10.The Sentimental Fruits of Science
11.The Anarch
12.The World He Made Up

Coda: Living a Fruitful Life

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