Frank Oppenheimer, the Man Who Made Science Fun

The brother of Robert Oppenheimer marched to the beat of his own drummer

Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the World He Made Up
By K.C. Cole; Foreword by Murray Gell-Mann; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009; 396 pp.; US $27.00; ISBN: 978-0-15-100822-3

Sometimes a biographer can love her subject too much. In the case of a new biography of physicist Frank Oppenheimer, by the respected science writer K.C. Cole, it turns out to be mostly a good thing for all concerned. Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens tells the story, from the perspective of a longtime confidante, of the younger brother of the man who led the American effort to create the atomic bomb.

Frank Oppenheimer (1912–1985) was far less famous than his brother, Robert, but he carved out a career in science that was no less fascinating, pioneering the investigation of cosmic rays and championing technology. In 1969, he founded San Francisco’s Exploratorium, a science museum that invented a new way to introduce nonscientists to the profession. Stocked with whiz-bang experiments demonstrating the underpinnings of fields such as optics and electricity, the hands-on gallery has been educating visitors ever since.

The younger Oppenheimer did not set out to become an educator. He initially followed in the footsteps of his brother, studying physics at the University of Cambridge and Caltech. While still at Caltech in 1936, Oppenheimer brashly joined the American Communist Party; his participation in its antifascist activities would haunt him years later.

Soon after war broke out in Europe in 1939, Oppenheimer gave up his Communist ties and went to work at the University of California Radiation Laboratory on the problem of refining uranium. He became an aide to his older sibling—by then the director of the secretive Manhattan Project—who had Frank monitor the production of enriched uranium for the atomic bomb used on Hiroshima. After the war, he worked on an early particle-beam accelerator for fundamental research.

In 1947, however, Oppenheimer’s earlier involvement with Communism collided with his classified work on the secrets of the atom. He was called before a U.S. congressional committee in 1949 and grilled for the names of other Communists in the nuclear research field. He refused to comply, triggering a firestorm that eventually engulfed his older brother. By the standards of the McCarthy era, there was enough guilt by association with Frank to burn the careers of both men to cinders.

Both retreated into private life. While Robert never did truly recover, Frank eventually found a new calling as a high school instructor and then a university lecturer before establishing his innovative museum.

Cole, who worked at the Exploratorium at one point, delivers a detail-rich account of this remarkable journey that largely absolves Oppenheimer from sin. Of his early Communist flirtation, for example, she concludes he was merely young and foolish, certainly an idealist but never a subversive. Indeed, she turns it into something of a virtue. ”Robert’s magnetism emanated from his brain, Frank’s from his soul,” Cole writes. The younger Oppenheimer comes alive on the page in her account of his long quest to reconcile mind and heart.

Indeed, Cole goes on at such length that a bit of editorial restraint would have gone a long way. That said, if you like biography as much as you do science, Cole’s book on the other Oppenheimer is a lot like its subject: thoughtful, fun, and full of virtues.

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