Oppenheimer, Frank

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Frank Oppenheimer (1912–1985) was born in New York on August 14, the younger brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Like his brother he became a physicist, but with a focus on experimental work rather than theory. As a physicist he contributed to the development of the atomic bomb, and then in 1969 became a leader in science education by founding the interactive San Francisco Exploratorium. He died of lung cancer in Sausalito, California, on February 3.

After earning a B.S. in physics from Johns Hopkins University in 1933 he studied for a time in Europe before going to the California Institute of Technology where he earned his PhD in 1939. In 1941 he began work at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on separating Uranium–235, the fissile isotope, from the more common Uranium–238, then subsequently became special assistant to his older brother at the Los Alamos National Laboratory where the atomic bomb was being designed and constructed. Like many other scientists he was upset by the use made of the atomic bomb at the end of World War II, and became involved in efforts to educate the public about the new dangers of nuclear weapons.

Immediately after the war he held teaching appointments first at the University of California, Berkeley, then at the University of Minnesota. When the U.S. Congress House on Un–American Activities Committee exposed the fact that he and his wife had for a time during the 1930s been members of the Communist Party, he was forced to leave university teaching. For the next decade he became a cattle rancher in southern Colorado. Then in 1957 he took a job teaching high school science in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, where he became an enthusiastic and creative educator, moving shortly thereafter to the University of Colorado in Boulder. There he created the "Library of Experiments" to pioneer the kinds of interactive techniques that eventually became the hallmark of the Exploratorium.

The idea for the Exploratorium gestated during a 1965 Guggenheim fellowship in which Oppenheimer studied science museums in Europe, and became convinced of their need as a form of public science education. Although invited to work at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, he chose to start from scratch in San Francisco, where he proposed to create a new kind of science museum in the abandoned Palace of Fine Arts near the San Francisco marina. He served as its director until his death.


SEE ALSO Atomic Bomb;Education;Museums of Science and Technology;Oppenheimer, J. Robert.


Oppenheimer, Frank. (1972). "The Exploratorium: A Playful Museum Combines Perception and Art in Science Education," American Journal of Physics, vol. 40, no. 7 (July), pp. 978–984.


Oppenheimer, Frank. (1984). "Interview with Frank Oppenheimer," Oral History Project, California Institute of Technology Archives, Pasadena, California. Available from http://oralhistories.library.caltech.edu/69/.

Frank Oppenheimer web site at the San Francisco Exploratorium. Available from http://www.exploratorium.edu/frank/index.html.