The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 20 December 2009

Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens

Frank Oppenheimer and the World He Made Up

by K. C. Cole

I can not write one of my microscopic reviews about this moving biography and memoir of physicist Frank Oppenheimer without acknowledging my own debt to this remarkable man. He was the founder and insipiration of the Exploratorium, the innovative museum of science and human perception in San Francisco. I worked there in the early 1980s, and became acquainted with Frank through his vision for the museum, his engaging lectures, and through too few brief conversations. My time at the Exploratorium was pivotal in the formation of my identity, my career, and my way of looking at the world around us. This book is almost as much a biography of the Exploratorium as it is of its founder, and I simply can't read about the place without strong personal feelings. Indeed, the writer, K. C. Cole, can not really write about it without strong personal feelings of her own, and as a reader, I was right there with her for the whole fascinating journey of Frank's life.

Frank Oppenheimer might be best known, outside of San Francisco, as the brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer, widely considered the "father" of the atomic bomb. Frank himself joked that this made him the "uncle" of the bomb. His experiences with the Manhattan project and his subsequent years as a subject of FBI blacklisting were a troubled time in his life, but they also helped to form his complex and compassionate view of humanity and its potential. We don't live in the "real world", he said, we live in a world we made up. As a result, he was convinced that humans could indeed make dramatic and significant changes if they really wanted to fix the problems that at first seem inevitable. This is one of Frank's legacies to the people who knew him and who knew his thinking. Cole, who knew Frank for many years, devotes a considerable chunk of this book to Frank's philosophy of education, human potential and politics. She describes the Exploratorium as more than a museum. It is also a political statement about people's ability to learn, develop critical thinking skills, and their ability to integrate these into political life and communal action. The book is, of course, a biography as well. We read of Frank's early years raised by cultured parents in New York, his life in the shadow of his brother, who was nine years older, his education and the remarkable experiences of the atomic bomb project (though these last are described with reference to the mountains of books that have explored that project in far greater detail). As Frank slowly emerged from the shadow of McCarthyism, living on a remote Colorado ranch, he dedicated himself to the teaching of science and eventually came to found the Exploratorium in 1969. The place was an amazingly fertile ground for learning about the world and, among its staff, a place for learning about ourselves. Its exhibits have been duplicated all over the world and artists, scientists and students who worked there have gone on to successful careers. The place has never been fully duplicated, and Frank's absence (after his death in 1985) has resulted in some significant changes there. It is still haunted by Frank's ghost, though, and remains a truly unique educational experience. Cole's book is devoted to Frank and the world he made up. Seeing familiar names and voices in the book has been, for this reader, a very moving experience. The less-familiar reader, though, will also find an engrossing biography of a unique individual.

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