My favourite scientist

I’m not really someone who does “favourites”. When people ask my favourite colour, favourite t-shirt, or favourite food I tend to roll my eyes and point out that I’m not seven. But I do have a favourite scientist. His name is Frank Oppenheimer.

This is a bit embarrassing because, as a trained historian of science, I really should be above a “great man” view of our past. I know science doesn’t progress genius by genius. I know any greatness of science is (a) up for debate and (b) tends to come from long, iterative work done by largely anonymous groups, not starry individuals. I have to admit to finding the veneration of Darwin last year a bit weird. But I’ve thought Frank Oppenheimer was amazing ever since, as an undergraduate, I stumbled across a dusty book about him at the edge of the Science Museum library.

Really short version: Frank was J. Robert Oppenheimer‘s little brother. Like his brother, Frank was also a physicist and also worked on the Manhattan Project. Post-war, he was blackballed as a communist so went off to run a cattle ranch, later becoming a teacher before re-joining academia. After a brief sabbatical at UCL he dropped university life again and moved to San Fransisco to found the Exploratorium (now a model for science museums all over the world).

Short version: Go read my second piece for the Guardian science blog festival.

Medium-long version: Have a play at the Exploratorium’s history site.

Long version: Get hold of a copy of  KC Cole’s biography.

Let’s not build heroes here. Frank Oppenheimer didn’t save the world. In fact, we might even say that as someone involved in the Manhattan Project, he played a small part in the closest we’ve come to destroying it. It’s also worth emphasising that the guy wasn’t a saint, and that it’s not like the Exploratorium is the definitive word on how to do science education (personally, I love it, but I appreciate I’m a kinesthetic learner who likes physics). Plus, let’s not forget, he was a rich, white man of the 20th century who’s Dad left him a Van Gough. Still, I think he’s a fascinating chap.

Every now and again I pop into the Science Museum’s mini-Exploratorium, Launch Pad. I build an arch bridge. I mess about with some bubble mix. I remember all the similar exhibits I’ve played with in similar museums all over the world. And I remember that I have a favourite scientist. His name was Frank Oppenheimer.

6 thoughts on “My favourite scientist

  1. gavalon

    I understand that this isn’t a call for a long list of comments espousing the various virtues of peoples science heroes, but I’ll go ahead and do so anyway, uninvited like.

    No matter our background, it’s hard not to develop a warm fuzzy feeling for some of the characters we come across in science, and for me, I have to say, it’d be one of Oppenheimer’s peers. Richard Feynman*.

    Leaving aside his rather, err, eccentric personal life, if I could articulate even a fraction of the enthusiasm and excitement for science (and life) you can hear in his voice I’d consider myself a success as a science communicator.

    Still, early days, eh..?


    *and I’m a biochemist

  2. bsci

    I haven’t read KC Cole’s biography yet, but I’ve also been impressed with Frank Oppenheimer. The one question in my mind is why the Exploratorium is so rarely replicated and never as good. After visiting the Exploratorium, I’ve actually been depressed by trips to the other “top” science museums in the nation. While it’s hard to make such good displays, the simple concepts of allowing experimentation and exploration in science museum seems to get lost along the way or sequestered to small corners of other museums.

    1. alicerosebell Post author

      I haven’t been to many science museums in the USA other than the Exploratorium, but I have been to ones inspired by the Exploratorium in the UK, Australia and much of continental Europe. Trust me, it’s been replicated. A lot. Never to the same scale or, I’d argue, success of the Exploratorium, but still replicated.

      If anything this is a criticism I have of the field – that they stick to Exploratorium Cookbooks and philosophy rather than inventing their own. As I say above, I actually really like the Exploratorium, but I’m all for variety too. The Exploratorium itself was inspired by museums in Paris, London and Munich, but also added ideas all of its own.

      That said, a fair number of the Exploratorium have closed or been redeveloped in the last 10 years, and in many ways I’d say that was a loss. Explore at Bristol, for example, is no where near as good as the Exploratory (esp. in respects to the exploration issue to mention above). The new Launch Pad in London is, I’d say, better than the one 15 years ago, but it went through a really bad phase after the re-development in 2000.

      Do read the Cole biography – it’s a lovely book.


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