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'Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens' by K.C. Cole

The story of Frank Oppenheimer, physicist and founder of the Exploratorium.

December 27, 2009|By Jesse Cohen
  • Frank Oppenheimer worked on the Manhattan Project.
Frank Oppenheimer worked on the Manhattan Project. (? / Houghton…)

Something Incredibly

Wonderful Happens

Frank Oppenheimer and

the World He Made Up

K.C. Cole

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 416 pp., $27

Skills or content? This is an age-old question in education, currently taking the form of "21st Century Skills" versus "Cultural Literacy." Simply put, should children be taught how to do things, or to know stuff?

Both arguments have merit, but the problem with the skills-content dichotomy is that it leaves out an essential ingredient: the sense of curiosity, exploration and discovery, without which no learning can truly happen. For that you need the right kind of teacher, one who doesn't inculcate but inspires.

Frank Oppenheimer -- physicist, younger brother of J. Robert and founder of San Francisco's Exploratorium -- was this kind of teacher. A fearless (perhaps reckless) experiencer of the world, he was a man of enormous intellect and appetite: in short, a natural-born explorer who used his skills to ignite the spark of curiosity in his students. In her celebration of the man, "Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the World He Made Up," redoubtable science writer K.C. Cole quotes his teaching strategy: "If I can succeed in making understanding seem like fun," Oppenheimer once said, "then I believe that the student will want to understand many things, that is, he will become curious. If I can [accomplish that], then perhaps the course I am teaching will have the effect of enriching his whole life."

Cole -- a former science reporter for The Times -- was fortunate to count Oppenheimer as a mentor in the 1970s; she worked for a year at the Exploratorium and remained close to him until his death in 1985. His outlook had a transformative effect on her (as it did on many others), turning her focus as a journalist to science; as she eloquently puts it in her book:

"Most of all, people who knew Frank -- even those who met him for the briefest encounters, or merely encountered his writings and creations (including human creations) -- feel profoundly changed. They find themselves infected with a passion for sightseeing [a privileged term for Oppenheimer, meant to imply close observation, not casual tourism], serious play, and breaking rules; they display a sometimes obnoxious insistence on transparency, respect for ordinary people, and tolerance for chaos; they have a taste for big questions and believe in the power of individuals to effect change."

For Oppenheimer, such an impulse took full shape during the McCarthy era, which he sat out in a small Colorado town (where, somewhat "Green Acres"-like, this one-time physics professor and Manhattan Project scientist became a cattle rancher). Eventually, he started teaching science at the local high school; seeking to engage his classes, he turned to his penchant for tinkering. One of his unorthodox strategies was to equip his students with tools, lead them to the local junkyard and let them take things apart, just as he had done as a youth. Shortly after his arrival, students started winning state science fairs. Teaching was rewarding but tougher even than ranching or building the first atomic bomb: "I never have had to work so hard, so intensively, as to get ready for those high school kids," he said.

After moving to the University of Colorado in Boulder, he reinvented the physics labs, creating a "library of experiments" available to students every day. It was in a similar spirit that he went on to create the Exploratorium, "the most influential museum in the world," as the director of the New York Hall of Science has called it.

As conceived by Oppenheimer, the Exploratorium was more like an anti-museum. It had no rules. Not only could you touch the exhibits, you were encouraged to use them in any way you liked. You could even break them. The point was to observe, to play, to unleash the brain's powers of observation and inference.

It's no wonder that the Exploratorium became so popular that even kids playing hooky from school would hang out there: True to Oppenheimer's fundamental philosophy, it treated everyone who entered with respect and as a fellow explorer. Oppenheimer never lost faith in the capacity of each individual to discover, with just the right kind of guidance, the wonders of the world around us.

There are countless testimonies in "Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens" to what might be called the Oppenheimer effect. After a visit to the Exploratorium, people started to develop new insights and new ways of looking at the world; one woman, with no previously evinced skills in this area, was inspired to go straight home and fix the broken plug of a lamp.

Employees were no different. Many teenagers, some of them runaways, were employed by the museum as "Explainers" -- sharing with visitors not only their knowledge of the exhibits but their enthusiasm as well. Artisans, artists and scientists credit Oppenheimer's influence on decisive insights that redefined their careers.

Cole's book is part biography, part essay. It's not always a satisfying mix, and she uses her privilege as close friend to deal charitably with some of her mentor's excesses, most notably his philandering. But Oppenheimer's charisma, on full display in anecdotes, reminiscences and bon mots, wins us over, just as it did Cole and countless others. Like one of Oppenheimer's science classes or a visit to the Exploratorium, this joyful and loving portrait has the potential to change minds and make explorers of us all.

Cohen is the series editor of "The Best American Science Writing."

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