Profiling Frank Oppenheimer

Author K.C. Cole writes about physicist and Exploratorium-founder Frank Oppenheimer in Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens. Cole, a friend of Oppenheimer's, digs into FBI files and personal memories to describe the complex man also called the "Uncle of the Atomic Bomb." Originally broadcast Aug. 7, 2009.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

When you hear the name Oppenheimer, probably you think of Robert, the father of the atomic bomb. But there was also another physicist in the Oppenheimer family - Robert's younger brother, Frank. The younger, perhaps, less known Oppenheimer is the subject of a new book by science writer K.C. Cole. In its pages, the enigmatic Frank Oppenheimer comes to life.

The physicist and tinkerer, the chain smoker who kept a little bottle of whiskey in his desk, the pacifist who also worked on the atom bomb, but above all, you may know him best for his most lasting gift to society: the Exploratorium in San Francisco, that wonderful hands-on science center that he founded. Let me introduce my guest. She should be no stranger to you if you listen to our program.

K.C. Cole is a science writer and professor at the University of Southern California, Annenberg School of Journalism. Her new book is called "Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the World He Made Up." Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, K.C.

Professor K.C. COLE (Journalism, University of Southern California): Nice to be here.

FLATOW: You mention in your book that he was, sort of, your mentor.

Prof. COLE: Oh, yeah. I - writing this book actually told me as much about myself, I think, as it did about Frank. He had a way of opening your brain and putting himself in there. And there are so many ways in which he changed my life, you know, ideas that I really live by.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. You were not a science writer reporter.

Prof. COLE: No. I had no interest in science. I walked into this place. I was writing actually about education and politics, and I walked into this - on assignment - this vast, empty, weird place full of flickers and lights and people laughing and running around and saying, wow. Come here. Look at this. What's that? And I just played for about an hour and a half before I remembered that I was supposed to be working.

And then I went to find Frank and there he was in the machine shop just covered in this cloud of cigarette smoke and sawdust. And he took me on a tour around what he called the woods of natural phenomena. It was�

FLATOW: That was in the Exploratorium.

Prof. COLE: That was the Exploratorium in its very early years, yeah.

FLATOW: It was a long path to get there, wasn't it?

Prof. COLE: For Frank.

FLATOW: For Frank, yeah.

Prof. COLE: Yeah, it was. And I think the more I began to research this - at first he was just my wizard and, you know, Yoda - you realize that everything that had ever happened to him in his life went into the Exploratorium, from his childhood to his work on the atomic bomb to his being exiled from physics after the war. And his arguments with his brother as well on how, now that we have this horrible weapon, how do we keep from blowing each other up?

He never was reconciled. He wasn't the only physicist who has never reconciled. But he was never reconciled with the fact that he worked on the bomb. He had to. He never said, I wouldn't have done it. I mean, people were afraid Hitler was going to get a bomb. But to see that all those people were vaporized, basically.

FLATOW: How different - if you had the two brothers together, could you tell them apart immediately?

Prof. COLE: Oh, yeah. Everybody�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLE: You know, I never met Robert, so - and I make this very clear. Everything I have about Robert in the book is either from Frank, and he didn't talk about his brother much, or it's from research. And I was lucky because they were some excellent books just a few years ago. They came out on Robert Oppenheimer because it was his anniversary as well. But - boy, I forgot your question.

FLATOW: No. How different - yeah.

Prof. COLE: Oh yeah. Okay, they were different. Yeah, exactly. Well, Robert was very cerebral and intellectual and, you know, ethereal. As Frank said, he never learned to drive a car or chop wood. And Frank was from, you know, probably younger than four or five, melding wires with his household, you know, electric currents, climbing tops of trees to watch lightning storms, taking apart player pianos. He was very mischievous and very hands on. But he also would talk to enlighten everyone. I mean, he made friends with his FBI tail. So that was Frank.

FLATOW: Let's talk about that. I want to hear it. Why does he have a tail by the FBI? Why is he being followed?

Prof. COLE: Well, he was - he did join the Communist Party, which Robert did not in the 1930s. And, you know, a lot of this research was new to me. They were living in Pasadena. He was at Caltech, where he was getting a PhD candidate. And his brother was there as well. And it turned out that the Communist Party were the only people who were, for example, protesting the fact that the Pasadena public school was drained, I think, it was every Thursday after the blacks were allowed to swim there for their one day.

And he was outraged that no one else was addressing racism. And of course, the Spanish Civil War was the other thing that he thought nobody was addressing. So he and his new wife, Jackie, who was part of the - she was more associated than he was, they joined the party. And of course, they immediately thought it was ridiculous because, for one thing, they asked them to choose an alias, which he just thought was dumb. So he chose Folsom, which is, of course, the prison, Folsom Prison, as a joke. And in all the FBI files, they have him as alias Frank Folsom.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. COLE: It's very funny.

FLATOW: So he gets tagged then by the FBI and he�

Prof. COLE: But he�

FLATOW: And now he's connected to the Communist Party and life gets rough for him.

Prof. COLE: Right. It only lasted for a year. And then, of course, the war came. So that changed everything because now you have different people in charge. And Frank played a really important part in uranium isotope separation and figuring out how to get the right kind of uranium you needed to build a bomb. And then during the trinity test of the first atomic bomb, he was assistant safety inspector...

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. COLE: ...a title he liked a lot. You know, really in charge of calculating whether the mushroom cloud, for example, would have a long stem, or what their escape routes were and things like that. But the minute the war was over and he was back to physics, he was delighted. You know, he made some important discoveries about cosmic rays at University of Minnesota. But he did not have very long because at that point things really started to clamp down.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

And the HUAC hearings, and you know, to make a long story short, as you know from the book, it's a little bit complicated how exactly he got in trouble. But the interesting thing was he did get fired. He did it when he was a communist. He did not testify against anybody else, which was something that other people didn't do. They actually didn't name names but did not plead the Fifth either. He and Jackie both - his wife Jackie both talked completely openly about their experience but refused to�

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. COLE: �talk. So they were in contempt of court and actually Clifford Dewar(ph), which I didn't know, was the only attorney who would take them on.

FLATOW: And so, following all this, to make a long story short, because it was a great book and there's a lot to read there. You know, that whole incident leads to him starting a whole new way of life out in Colorado, becoming a rancher, right?

Prof. COLE: He goes to become a cattle rancher. He doesn't even know what hay is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. COLE: Which one of the best - one of the neighbors comes up and says, hey, you know, you can just, Admiring the beautiful grass? Then the neighbor said, what are you going to do about your hay? And he says, what hay? So they he learned from books, really, and from neighbors, you know, how to raise cattle. And the neighbors were great because the FBI was up there all the time visiting them, and he got to know them pretty well.

But the neighbors in Blanco Basin up there in Colorado, they were very independent minded and really didn't pay much attention, but - so yeah, so that was very hard times. Ten years.

FLATOW: Ten years, out there.

Prof. COLE: Ten years. And he was a high school teacher toward the end of that time. And just some remarkable people I have met who had him as a teacher won a Nobel Laureate now in Economics, James Heckman at University of Chicago. He could tell me everything about Frank. And I said, well, when was the last time you saw him? He said, I was 17. He just said he changed his life. He still had books that Frank read and music that he listened to. So he had a phenomenal impact on those students.

And then he went back into academia and, you know, physics was not the same. He was fairly disappointed it wasn't the philosophical world that he thought he'd left. But more important, he felt the tremendous responsibility that now having given the world this bomb, we had to figure out a way to stop people from clobbering each other because it was not longer acceptable.

FLATOW: Right. Right. Your book, I'm talking with K.C. Cole, author of "Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the World he Made Up." How did you come up with that title? "Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens."

Prof. COLE: I actually didn't. An assistant at my publisher did. But I can tell you where it comes from. Frank is talking about the importance of being playful, messing around with no particular aim in mind, as being very important and very difficult for most adults because it involves risk-taking and it's the only time you actually really invent anything new. So in the process, you waste a lot of time. But sometimes, something incredibly wonderful happens.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. The a-ha moment. Something, yeah.

Prof. COLE: Yeah, exactly. It's that amazing moment where you finally understand things. And that was really the whole point of what he was trying to do at the Exploratorium was give people the confidence that they could understand so they just didn't have to give up and listen to the biggest lie that someone was telling them.

FLATOW: Yeah. How does he get involved with it? Where does the idea come from and how does he get it going?

Prof. COLE: He started at the University of Colorado. When he was teaching there, he started a library of experiments because he thought that the experiments that students do should be out all the time so they can do them in whatever order they want, and they should be there permanently. So he built that, but then he decided you really needed to go outside academia. He really wanted to reach a larger world. So he goes to San Francisco and this huge, you know, pseudo-Roman ruin, the Palace of Fine Arts, just happens to be open...

FLATOW: Hmm.

Prof. COLE: ...and empty, 90,000 square feet of empty space. It took a lot of guts. He didn't know anyone in San Francisco. He was pretty much unconnected, and he just charmed his way into it.

FLATOW: Raised the money for it?

Prof. COLE: He raised only $50,000. It was all volunteer. He and his wife, Jackie(ph) and son, Michael(ph), swept the place out - cobwebs - started building stuff and getting stuff, and then the word got out around town. All the artists found out about it. It was a big center for art, and he'd hire people by saying, can you come over and play?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. COLE: And there were Nobel laureates involved, I mean very much so. There were people like Luis Alvarez.

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. COLE: There were - you know, Phil Morrison, Bob Wilson, who built Fermilab.

FLATOW: Was it hard knowing him so well, as you do, I mean, him being your mentor, you're his mentee, then to write a book about it?

Prof. COLE: Yes. Well, it only took me since the early 1980s to write the book. Yeah, it went through many different forms. I really just wanted to collect his papers and publish them. That was my idea. So, it took people a long time to talk me into doing a biography, which I've never done, doing archival research. And especially putting myself into it, I really didn't want to do.

But when I started doing research, a friend of mine had pointed out how to just look at the archives online. And I noticed at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, there are these folders with letters to Frank Hans Bethe, of course, famous physicist, on the other side, George Gamow, same thing, and in the middle, three or four folders of K.C. Cole. And so, it was like, there were letters from me going back to when I was 27, just learning physics. And so in a way it was a record of this whole entry into this world I knew nothing about...

FLATOW: Hmm.

Prof. COLE: ...and cared nothing about it. But in that sense, it turned out to be part memoir.

FLATOW: Were you able to get his FBI file?

Prof. COLE: That was easy.

FLATOW: That was easy?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. COLE: Yeah, I mean, most of it is still blacked out, which is so funny, you know. So it's - we're playing communist songs at blank's house and stuff like that, you know. They're very amusing, I mean, how Jackie had flowers on her hat and Frank's pants were too short and - but a little scary because a lot of it's based on informants.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. COLE: Informed sources tell us.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. COLE: So clearly, people were talking.

FLATOW: You mentioned the exhibits he had. Art was important to Frank, as science was, in his museum, right?

Prof. COLE: Yeah, and probably he taught me more about art than he did about science. He said discoveries of artists were as valid and as important as those of scientists, that it's through art and science - you know, art and science, he used to say, artists and scientists are the official noticers of society. They notice things other people either have never seen or have learned to ignore.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. COLE: And artists discover things about people and about human nature that allow us to see things better.

FLATOW: You know, it sounds very much like something Richard Feynman would have said, you know, that kind of art and science being connected.

Prof. COLE: They - yeah, and they were pretty close friends. I mean, Feynman was much more wise-cracking kind of guy.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. COLE: Frank was so sincere that it's one of the things that made him the most charming. So they both made a quote - people sometimes quote Feynman saying - I'll quote Frank's. It was, understanding is a lot like sex. It has a practical purpose, but that's not why people do it normally. And Frank's point was very broad.

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. COLE: And Feynman had a similar - you know, who knows who told what to whom, but it was much narrower and a little bit sharper.

FLATOW: Hmm-umm.

Prof. COLE: So, yeah - go ahead.

FLATOW: No, I was just going to bring a caller in. David(ph) in Tulsa. Hi, David.

DAVID (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

DAVID: Yes, I was a student in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, where Frank Oppenheimer taught. I was in second grade at the time, and right now I'm a professional musician, and I say that because one of my earliest musical experiences was going to a church concert where my mother was singing in the choir and seeing Frank Oppenheimer play the flute.

Prof. COLE: That's wonderful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVID: He was a remarkable flute player.

Prof. COLE: Yeah.

DAVID: There was a whole community of people there who were exiles from the McCarthy hearings, people from Boston and other places like that, and they were teaching in the high school there. So it was quite an interesting time.

FLATOW: All right, thanks for calling.

DAVID: Yeah, thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Judith Oppenheimer(ph) in California. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

JUDITH (Caller): Hello, K.C.

Prof. COLE: Hello, Judy.

JUDITH: How are you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. COLE: I'm great.

FLATOW: I guess you know each other.

Prof. COLE: We do, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Judith, what can you tell us about your father?

JUDITH: What can I tell you about my father?

FLATOW: Yes, in 25 words or less.

JUDITH: In 25 words or less. It took me 320 pages to write my memoir.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, that's certainly more than 25 words.

JUDITH: He was a very interesting man but very hard man to live with as a father. But I really appreciate his playfulness and his intellect. And he made the time on the ranch really a learning experience for all of us.

FLATOW: Hmm.

JUDITH: He was really, as I've gotten over my feelings - bad feelings about him, he really was a pretty remarkable guy.

FLATOW: Hmm-umm.

Prof. COLE: I was going to jump in with this story...

FLATOW: Go ahead, K.C., go ahead.

Prof. COLE: ...that Mike told me that I thought was wonderful about the day that Frank came in with a pig's head, and they spent all night carefully dissecting the pig's head.

JUDITH: Right. I had forgotten that until Michael told me.

Prof. COLE: Yeah, and he wired your dollhouse up with electric lights at age six, as I...

JUDITH: Michael...

Prof. COLE: Michael did, yeah, because Frank had taught him how to do that.

JUDITH: Yes, yes, yes.

FLATOW: Well, it was nice of you to call in and reminisce with us.

JUDITH: Right.

FLATOW: Was there one event in your life, with your interaction with your father, that stands out? Give us one little tidbit?

JUDITH: Well, I think that he was always going on wild roads and doing things that he wasn't supposed to do...

Prof. COLE: Yes.

JUDITH: ...and thought that this was okay.

Prof. COLE: Yes.

JUDITH: One time I - when I was around six, he had bought me a portable phonograph, and we went to the Berkeley hills, and he - we went into a farmer's land to have our picnic and play my records. And the farmer came and was really upset. So he just went right - we moved just right outside of his fence. That kind of thing he did all the time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, thank you, Judith, for taking time to be with us to talk about your father.

JUDITH: Okay, thank you.

FLATOW: Have a good weekend.

JUDITH: Bye-bye.

FLATOW: We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back to lots more about Frank Oppenheimer with my guest K.C. Cole. Her new book is called �Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens.� So stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow with K.C. Cole author of �Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the World He Made Up.�

Prof. COLE: You know, we were talking about art before. I remember one time I went to the Whitney Museum in New York with Frank. There was an exhibit of Duane Hanson work. You know, he does those...

FLATOW: Hmm.

Prof. COLE: ...very lifelike sculptures of people. I thought museums were places you had to take seriously. Well, I lost Frank, and I realized he was posing as a sculpture to see if anyone would poke him because he had poked a guard who, it turned out, was very much alive.

FLATOW: Wow.

Prof. COLE: So he wanted to - so he was that way with everything.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. COLE: Extremely playful and - but very serious, as well. I mean...

FLATOW: Serious about being funny, serious about being educational.

Prof. COLE: Serious about really - it sounds crazy but really about the fact that you cannot give the world a weapon like this and just leave it.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Prof. COLE: You have to come up with radically new kinds of ways of thinking and solutions and that a lot of those come straight out of science.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Prof. COLE: So that's where he thought the connection was. There are ideas, you know, like symmetry, which is extremely important even in string theory or every place in physics. But it's also a way of saying the Golden Rule, right? Do unto others as you would have others do unto you, these very deep ideas that come from - or just evolution, you know...

FLATOW: Yes.

Prof. COLE: ...the fact that we're all related to each other in some way. Maybe that's a way to change the way people...

FLATOW: Hmm.

Prof. COLE: But then, of course, you have really bad people like the Taliban, so in addition to that, you have to figure out, okay, how do we deal with people who really have to be stopped? And he considered everything, from seriously dropping Jell-O on your enemies just to paralyze them so they can't do anything bad, but you won't kill too many people.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Prof. COLE: But he thought you really had to think outrageously or we were never going to solve this problem.

FLATOW: Interesting. Barbara(ph) in Cape Cod. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

BARBARA (Caller): Yes. I just wanted - I'm the education director for the new Chatham Marconi Maritime Center in North Chatham, in the old Marconi buildings. And in 1981, I went to a National Science Teachers Association and he was the speaker. And here was this - I don't know if you mentioned it - but he was really crippled.

Prof. COLE: Mm-hmm.

BARBARA: This very crippled, sort of hunched-over old man got up, and then he started speaking, and I believe he grew in front of my eyes as he spoke. He was so inspirational for a new museum director. At that time, I was just going to be the director of the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, and I found out there was a Kellogg Foundation grant for young, starting-up museum directors. I applied for it and I spent a week with him in the Exploratorium, learning all about it. And then we had a lot of support afterwards to do some of the exhibits that were...

FLATOW: Yeah.

BARBARA: ...at the Exploratorium. And he just really influenced my whole idea of what a museum exhibit should be and how you should teach science, and I just wanted to pass that on.

FLATOW: Thank you for calling, Barbara. It looked like, you know, he did start paying back what he thought he owed.

Prof. COLE: Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, there were people who just met him for seconds, almost. One of the people I talked to was at Schlossberg, you know, Caroline Kennedy's husband who does wonderful, really, museum exhibitions. And he said he only talked to Frank for a few minutes and he was just inspired for the rest of his life by it.

He somehow had that effect on an enormous number of people, I think because he was just such an unfiltered soul, that everything - the playfulness, the sadness, the anger, the deep thinking, it was all always right there.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Prof. COLE: No B.S. was ever allowed.

FLATOW: In fact, he didn't even want to have a computer in the Exploratorium because you couldn't look at the inside, right?

Prof. COLE: That's right. Exactly.

FLATOW: He believed in open - really openness.

Prof. COLE: Everything got opened and looked at, including you, if you were working with him.

FLATOW: Well, K.C., thank you very much. You've done it again. You've written a really excellent book, as always.

Prof. COLE: Thank you. Thank you so much.

FLATOW: You're welcome. K.C. Cole, author of �Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the World He Made Up.�

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