Frank Oppenheimer and the world he built (Blogging from the AAPT)

by Stephanie Chasteen on July 29, 2009

This morning’s plenary was by KC Cole on her new book Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the world he made up
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As anyone who knows one whit about me recognizes, this talk about Frank Oppenheimer and his creation of the Exploratorium was deeply significant to me.  I was a postdoc under Paul Doherty in the Teacher Institute for two years (and am tracing Frank back in time, as I’m now in the physics department at CU Boulder).  I never knew Frank Oppenheimer, but in a way I do, as the Exploratorium embodies his vision and spirit of play and exporation.  I was deeply affected by my time at the Exploratorium — it changed the way that I see the world and science.  My brain was buzzing for the two years I was at the museum, I felt constantly stimulated by the creativity and curiosity of the people around me.

I remember one day, it was a Monday, when the museum was closed.  Mondays were when the people in charge of exhibits could do stuff on the museum floor that are hard to do when there are 400 kids actively demonstrating Brownian motion.  We got an all-call email, “Come to the atrium to see something really cool.”  I’ll bite, so I wandered over to the museum, and saw a small crowd forming in front of something large.  It turned out to be an *immense* spherical mirror.  It was maybe 10 feet tall and 15 feet wide, and created a flawless real image… a ghostly “you” floating in air about 5 feet in front of the mirror.  It was a huge version of one of those “grab the coin” toys, where the coin appears to float above the surface.  We proceeded to play.  We’d walk towards the mirror, and the image would go through a transition, smearing out and flipping sickeningly upside-down, becoming a more familiar “virtual” image.  My favorite was when we realized that the mirror was reflecting sound waves in the same way as it did light waves. Standing on the left hand side of the mirror, I would see a perfect image of my colleague (who was standing on the right side), directly in front of me.  I whispered into the image of their ear.  An image of my *voice* was created next to their ear, and it sounded to them as if I was whispering directly into their ear, even though I was maybe 5 feet away.

Everyone has their stories like this from the Exploratorium, and KC Cole’s talk showed me how much this spirit of creative and social exploratory play emodies the spirit of the man behind the place.  Even though he died 20 years ago, he came up in conversation at the Exploratorium all the time.  People were always making sure that his philosophy still matched what they were doing.  An entire community of people inspired and dedicated to the vision of this man.  KC Cole had numerous stories of her time with him, when she was in her 20’s, and how he influenced her life.  After the talk, one man came up to tell her, “I was an Explainer at the Exploratorium.  That’s why I’m a physicist today.”  How charming.  I went up to my collleague Mike Dubson and said, “I want to go back to the Exploratorium!”  He told me that he feels a special connection to Frank, because he currently holds the “senior instructor” position that Frank vacated when he went to build the Exploratorium.

I miss the Exploratorium like a lover.  An appropriate metaphor, as one of the stories that KC told, if I’m remembering correctly, is that “Curiosity is like sex.  It has a practical purpose, but that’s almost never why anybody does it.”  I made the decision to leave San Francisco to come to Boulder, but if I’d wanted to stay in the Bay Area, I would have tried to stick to the Exploratorium like glue.  That postdoc was one of the happiest times of my life.  If only I could manage to work with them in some capacity, but the economy is so tough.

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