For the past ten years, K.C. Cole has been a science writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Times; she has also written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Smithsonian, Discover, Newsweek, Newsday, Esquire, Ms., People and many other publications. Her articles were featured in The Best American Science Writing 2004 and 2005 and The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2002. She has also been an editor at Discover and Newsday.
Cole is the author of several nonfiction books, including Mind Over Matter: Conversations with the Cosmos; The Hole in the Universe: How Scientists Peered Over the Edge of Emptiness and Found Everything; and The Universe and the Teacup, the Mathematics of Truth and Beauty.
Before I read this book, I knew jack all about Frank Oppenheimer, and even less about his pride and joy, the Exploratorium. In fact, I was on my way to pick up a book about his more famous older brother Robert, but this book - with its subject matter and its quite stunning cover - stole my attention and got taken home with me instead.
This book was a joy to read. K.C. Cole, who had the privilege and pleasure of knowing Frank personally and working inside the Exploratorium for years, does a great job telling Frank's story and also illustrating all of the layers that made his science museum such a unique trend-setting institution, a place where everyone is welcome and there is no wrong way to interact with the exhibits. I already know I want to visit the Exploratorium someday during my lifetime.
And then there is Frank's life story - scientist turned social pariah turned farmer turned high school teacher turned museum director - a roller coaster ride with twists and turns, and all of them that would eventually inform Frank's role as running an unconventional museum. It also doesn't retract any of the man's flaws, especially his cheating, although I think Cole tended to deliver these less than charming aspects with a gentler hand that some biographers would have.
I appreciated that the scope stayed firmly on Frank but did not ignore the very important and tumultuous relationship he had with his brother Robert. Robert's story is told here too, but mostly on the periphery of Frank's, aside from the points where they intersect the most, such as their childhood and the anti-community security hearings. It is done in a respectful way, cognizant of the fact that curious readers have dozens of books they can read about Robert, but this is (as far as I know) the only one focused on Frank.
It's a little long in the tooth - I definitely felt like some of the ideas got overstated, especially about how the museum was run - but it's a well-written, thoughtful telling of the life of a man who fell to his lowest depths and ended up rising beyond anyone's wildest dreams. It's the story of an enduring love of curiosity and imagination, and the meeting of science and humanities, and it's the kind of stories we should still be telling.
A very well written and surprisingly addictive read. I'd never heard of Frank Oppenheimer, but the man lived an interesting life and had such an incredibly unique worldview.
The first half, his preExploratorium biography I found really riveting, almost a page turner! But the second half, while interesting in a more philosophical way, focused too far in depth about very minute and sometimes tedious aspects of how the Exploratorium was run. Its peppered with some wonderful insights and revelations from Frank, but sometimes felt like a slog.
I would highly recommend this for anyone who is interested in teaching, or wants to increase their levels of curiosity about the world surrounding them.
This is an amazing look at the philosophy of how people learn and the start of the Exploratorium. I appreciated Frank Oppenheimer’s philosophy of treating people with kindness and that allowed them to flourish.
My dream job is working at the exploratorium, which i have always considered to be the greatest “museum” in the world. It was incredibly insightful to see the life and the thinking of the man behind the magic. Anybody who loves thinking and learning will love this book
Frank Oppenheimer's life is one full with unbounded curiosity and experimentation. He wanted to impart that and felt puzzled by the lack of curiosity in the general public. So he builds the exploratorium( some say, to make amends for what his efforts in making the atomic bomb w bro Robert), or what he calls " Woods of natural phenomena" a place full of exhibits of natural phenomena for people to tinker, explore, interact, and discover the joy of figuring things out on one's own. Frank believed that Art and science are two side of the same coin, one can inform the other, and the two are needed for humanity to flourish. He expressed worry over the the inadequacy of the education system where students and teachers are being spoonfed learnings and forced to compete for grades. A system that is categorizing people depending on ability to conform. Education for Frank is treating the general public as smart, able to understand things sciency as opposed to making them feel that some things are out of their reach. Education should encourage thinking things through, being curious about stuff, and experimenting with the real world more. The exploratorium Frank built is a attesting to that. A place where people of all ages and walks of life come to play around, ask questions, explore things together, and develop a better understanding of the real world.
4.5 I really love the Exploratorium as an idea and I loved reading about Frank. It's so interesting to read about who he was and what he cared about. I liked that I could see him as a whole person in the book and not as someone who was perfect and without flaws.
I was lucky enough to meet Frank Oppenheimer during the last three years of his life. The world lost a great teacher and scientist. We never had a formal introduction; we'd merely interact on a couple of my visits to the Exploratorium after moving to the SF Bay Area. I had to deal with Phil Morrison, who was also fun, but in his own separate way (he and his wife had a brief Scientific American column). I owe meeting Frank to my friend Ed, who is old California money: first, for bringing me to the Exploratorium, for which he was a member, and second, his money allowed him to own up to six VCRs (3 Beta and 3 VHS), which he showed me the Nova/BBC Horizon documentary of the development of 2 exhibits at the Exploratorium. See this documentary if you can find it.
I never met Frank's brother J. Robert Oppenheimer, but I had two quarters of history lectures and seminars by colleagues of the Manhattan Project to try to satisfy a general education history requirement by a guy named Lawrence Badash. It was wonderful. Met, heard, and in some cases had dinner with people like Laura Fermi(Enrico's wife), George Kistakowski, Richard Feynman, and a lot of other guys.
A lot was covered about Robert, almost nothing his brother Frank. Robert didn't take the step into Communism, but 8-year younger Frank did for 3 years, admitted it, and paid for it (even if he left it). Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the world he made up covers the Oppenheimer family life: a little of Robert and mostly Frank, and their parents. Robert was more urbane, and Frank would be closer to nature which would help him become a rancher. Look up where Pagosa Springs, CO is on a map. Frank spent less time as Los Alamos and more time at Oak Ridge.
Frank's life wasn't stellar. He did cheat on Jackie his wife, but she never left him. Frank's children were interviewed by Cole (I wonder if my friend Steve Roberts has met Michael in the Puget Sound?). Frank had a temper and smoked like a chimney. I'm looking for friends in the text. (I know a couple of people.)
Some people might be surprised how vilified Frank was. The fear of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) isn't as strong but it's advocates are still with us to this day. McCarthyism isn't over.
So Frank would succeed in renting the Palace of Fine Arts for $1 per year. Cole notes that Frank liked his exhibits raw and didn't like computers or hidden magic. Frank had subtle ideas about teaching that are likely lost on a lot of science teachers, but I appreciate K.C.'s attempt to describe Oppenheimer. This is a book where I've highlighted the text, dog eared pages, and will scan in quotes. I was never an Explainer, I never grew up in the Bay Area, but I've visited cleaner science museums (not as good), and I've now visited the Swiss copy, the Technorama (cleaner, but so are the Swiss) and in some ways better because its owner has more money (e.g., they get to play with hazardous chemicals).
I now have an even better appreciation for this place where I used the McBean Theater for professional society meetings where friend Larry worked, where my climbing partner Paul works, and where I had memories of these egg-headed guys or electric wheel chair guys were approachable.
I've written too much, go ahead, read the book; but more importantly visit and take kids to the Exploratorium and get a little dirty.
I had this book for awhile before I actually read it because although I got a recommendation for it from a science blogger I really admire, I found myself doubting it later on.
I'm glad I read it. This is a WONDERFUL accounting of the life of Frank Oppenheimer (little brother of Robert), who also worked on the atomic bomb, but most notably founded the Exploratorium in San Francisco.
I was lucky enough to grow up in the Bay Area and visit the Exploratorium a few times as a kid and recently about 10 years ago to play again. It is an amazing place and this book, written by a science writer who was friends with the late Oppenheimer, is baldly truthful, fascinating, and inspiring.
A great read about Frank Oppenheimer, the "uncle of the atomic bomb" (his brother Robert being the "father"), this book never slows as it covers the life of this great and inspiring and complicated man who struggled with science-and-politics and eventually created one of the greatest "museums" - The Exploratorium.
You can't escape wondering what happens after a strong and influential founder's passing - how the Exploratorium continues to make its way as its culture evolves and its industry matures.
Reading this book - hell, visiting the Exploratorium - will make you nervously check for signs that you haven't stopped being curious.
I feel that the fact that this is partly a memoir of the author's relationship with Oppenheimer detracts from the overall quality of the book. But Oppenheimer's life, philosophy and achievements after the debacle of the McCarthy/HUAC hearings is an amazing tale. I was not that familiar with all the atomic bomb background so that was of interest, but what was really compelling were Oppenheimer's ideas about teaching, about education, art and democracy. Lots of ideas worth putting into practice right this minute. Also have to say there were some glaring inconsistencies in the way the chapters were put together; a good editor was definitely needed.
I was interested in the philosophy of Frank Oppenheimer, which is why I liked parts of this book. What he did with his life is fascinating, but the book was hard to get through at times ..as other readers, I felt like the writer jumped all over the timeline instead of keeping things in sequence. I gave up about halfway through and skimmed through random pages after that. It just didn't keep my attention.
Frank Oppenheimer, the genius and man behind the Exploratorium, sparked curiosity in countless people of every age. He was brilliant, quirky, and weird too. His outlook on life and human capacity was incurable optimistic. Cole paints this portrait of Frank in a close up, personal fashion. What a privilege it must have been to have known him.
This is also a portrait of the exploratorium and the people that were part of it.
It is an inspiring read especially for the time we live in.
Listened to KC Cole interviewed on Science Friday podcast (August 2009). Sounded like an interesting life to know.
I really enjoyed the first half of this book, but Cole goes on and on in the second half, rhapsodizing about Oppenheimer's museum and other late work. Had to put it down without finishing. It needed some severe editing.
An important resource for anyone interested in 20th c. history and the history of museums, but especially wonderful for someone who just started at the Exploratorium. Even if the Exploratorium has catapulted forward from its earliest days, founder-based dilemma remain and the keys for the future also lie in the past. This is a gold mine.
Great biography about Frank Oppenheimer who was a physicist who later founded the Ex;loratorium. His physics career was destroyed by the Red Scare in the 1950s, became a rancher, then a teacher who was fascinated about how to teach science in an interesting way.
I actually paid full price for this book because once I had picked it up, I couldn't put it back down. I just knew I would love it. It is a moving tribute to an endlessly fascinating man. I am rather ashamed I never visited The Exploratorium on either of my two visits to San Francisco. Some day...