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Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the World He Made Up [Hardcover]

K. C. Cole
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 396 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) (4 Aug 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0151008221
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151008223
  • Product Dimensions: 23.1 x 15.5 x 3.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 892,873 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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HardCover. Pub Date: August. 2009 Pages: 416 Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade As a young man Frank Oppenheimer followed in his Famous other's Footsteps-growing up in HOUSEHOLD A PRIVILEGED Manhattan. Becoming a physicist. WORKING on the atomic Bomb. Tragically . Frank and Robert both had their careers destroyed by the Red Scare. But their paths diverged. While Robert died an almost ruined man. Frank came into his own. emerging from ten years of exile on a Colorado ranch to create not just a multimillion dollar institution but also a revolution that was felt all over the world. His Exploratorium was a museum of human awareness that combined art and science while it encouraged play. experimentation. and a sense of joy and wonder; its success inspired a transformation in museums around the globe. In many ways it was Frank's answer to the atom bomb. KC Cole-a friend an...

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars He made a difference... 2 Sep 2009
Format:Hardcover
This wonderful book has helped me shake off years of growing frustration, disillusionment and cynicism. First inspired by Frank Oppenheimer's glorious philosophy over twenty years ago, I increasingly despaired at the failure of our fast-growing international community of hands-on science centres to embrace and apply his core values. Ours is an information age, where explanation crushes exploration.

Read this book. Let's believe again that we can make a difference, unleash creativity and change the world.

Frank Oppenheimer did.
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  29 reviews
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent account of the person who began the Exploratorium. 24 Jun 2009
By Tom Brody - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
SOMETHING INCREDIBLY WONDERFUL HAPPENS by K.C. Cole is 380 pages long. The pages are good quality bright white paper, not beige newspaper-type paper. There are no photographs or diagrams, aside from photos of Mr. Oppenheimer on the front cover and the author (with reflection of Mr. Oppenheimer) on the back cover. Excellent source documentation is found, as the section on footnotes and bibliography is lengthy (pages 328-380).

The book is a biography of Frank Oppenheimer, younger brother of the reknowned Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb. The narrative begins with Frank's childhood in New York, where he found an interest in art and flute playing. We learn of his undergraduate years (1930-1933) at Johns Hopkins University, and graduate years at Cal Tech to study physics. We learn of Frank's interest in communism (pages 46-50) and consequent extended scrutiny by the FBI (pages 75-127, 139). In effect, this scrutiny came to an end when Frank finally succeeded in securing a full-time research position at the University of Colorado in 1959 and eventual promotion to full professor in 1964 and attainment of professor emeritus in 1979 (pages 128-147). We learn of Frank's contribution to the atomic bomb effort, where he supervised the refinement of U235 from U238, and calculations of radioactive clouds, which involved working in Pittsburgh, Oak Ridge, and Los Alamos (pages 51-65).

Frank easily obtained a faculty position at the University of Minnesota, where he made discoveries in particle physics with high-altitude experiments using balloons (pages 76-92). But Frank was eventually fired in 1949 and subjected to inquisitions from HUAC and the FBI. Frank went into exile as a rancher in rural Colorado, funded at least in part by selling his family's paintings by Van Gough and Picasso (page 103-116), and eventually gained the trust of his neighbors. Frank took a high school teaching job and acquired a reputation for producing high-quality students. As mentioned above, Frank eventually made his way back to the University (Univ. of Colorado) where this was aided by letters of recommendation from a number of physicists who continue to be "household words," e.g., Hans Bethe and George Gamow (page 130). As it turned out, Frank's interests turned to science teaching, and he received two Guggenheims for funding visits to science museums in Europe (page 141).

Thus, up to this point, the book conctains plenty of INTRIGUE, as the narrative concerns atomic bombs, communists, spies, high-altitude balloons landing in weird places around the world, Picasso and Van Gough paintings, and exile in a remote spot in Colorado.

1968 marked a big turning point for Frank, as he formed a board of directors for initiating a science museum in San Francisco, later called the Exploratorium (page 151). The rest is history. The rest of the book concerns the development and funding of the Exploratorium (page 151-321).

The following concerns the literary style. The reader is provided with amusing or perceptive details that place you right at the side of Mr.Oppenheimer. These details include the "burns from forgotten cigarettes" in Frank's desk (page 9), Frank's habit of "bobbing his head back and forth like Howdy Doody" (page 10), and the notion that "he was like Tom Sawyer in a business suit." (page 10). We learn of Frank's philosophy for setting up the Exploratorium, e.g., "no one flunks a museum" (page 17), and that "He hated how science education promoted the myth of the collective right answer." (page 170). We learn an amusing fact about Frank's graduate years where, eager to make new discoveries, believed that he'd discovered new spectral lines, but that it was actually an artifact due to his eyes failing to focus properly in the dark (page 41). We learn of a difference between Frank (stood at the fringe) and Robert (center of any group) (page 44). The following is still another fun fact that transports the reader to the very moment in history--this is the story that management at Los Alamos placed actors in taverns in Santa Fe to engage in dialogues about "electric rockets" in order to initiate rumors, thereby preventing the townsfolk from suspecting that the project was actually about bombs (page 56).

This book will be of especial interest to: (1) Folks who live in the San Francisco Bay area and have been to the Exploratorium; (2) People interested in older brother Robert Oppenheimer, and wanting a better-rounded view of the Oppenheimer family; and (3) Science museum directors and dedicated science teachers.

If there is any criticism to make, I would have liked to see a reproduction of the Acheson-Lilienthal plan (page 70), perhaps in an Appendix. Also, Chapter Four uses the literary technique of starting out with a reproduction of a letter, perhaps a couple of other chapters should start with the same technique. FIVE STARS.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brother Frank Oppenheimer left a wonderful legacy 16 July 2009
By Michael Birman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Robert Oppenheimer was an extremely controversial figure following his stewardship of the Manhattan Project. His work as head of the effort to build the first atomic bomb lasted some three years. Years in which many of the world's most talented physicists worked in secret while the most expensive engineering project in human history was built from scratch around them. Oppenheimer stroked their egos, assuaged their guilt and acted as a liason between the unruly scientists and the strait-laced, infinitely more rigid military men and government agents who constituted the security apparatus. It was their job to crack the whip and to keep a distrustful eye on them. Oppenheimer had pre-war left-wing sympathies but kept aloof from joining any organizations. He was never a Communist. Unfortunately for him, his mistress, his brother Frank and Frank's wife all were. Too valuable to remove, he was tolerated until after the war when fear of the Russians and the drive to build the 'super' or hydrogen bomb spurred the government to revoke his security clearance after several infamous hearings behind closed doors. Frank Oppenheimer, also a physicist, had worked on the atomic bomb as well. He was caught in the crossfire, outed as having been a communist in the 1930s and his career as a scientist shattered. He felt as if his life had ended.

Frank spent ten years in exile working on a Colorado ranch. Eventually he found his way back to an academic career teaching physics at the University of Colorado. Devising increasingly more sophisticated and visually arresting physics experiments for the students, he housed them in a laboratory that was open most days from 8:30 to 5. He called it his 'library of experiments'. The success of this method of teaching by scientific showmanship gave Frank the idea for a museum of science in which these wonderful experiments and fascinating demonstrations could be open and available to all. The idea for the Exploratorium had been born.

The Exploratorium in San Francisco has been a great success and is now the model for museums all over the world. Frank Oppenheimer wound up changing the world for the better. In many ways it was his answer to the atomic bomb. This wonderfully informative and often quite moving book is Frank's story. It is a story whose delay in being told is mitigated by the expert way that author K. C. Cole, a science writer and friend of Frank Oppenheimer's for many years, has told it in simple unadorned prose. The book is candid, unflinching and wide-ranging in its scope. The Oppenheimer brothers lived brilliant, privileged lives that might have ended in tragedy. Due to Frank Oppenheimer's perserverance, integrity and imagination, their legacy is more than that terrible flash and vast explosion that roiled the desert on that long ago July evening in 1945. This is an inspirational book in many ways.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Pretty good book, even if it is a little too long 31 July 2009
By J. GARRATT - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
On more that one occasion, K.C. Cole's biography of Frank Oppenheimer comes rather close to reading like fan girl praise with lots and lots of adulation for its subject. But she checks herself before she wrecks herself: "Still, I think it's fair to say that while the unpleasant side of Frank's nature is part of his legacy - mostly affecting his family - even those who saw his dark side tend to remember him with admiration and affection." (Page 22)

As "Something Incredibly..." rolled along, I easily got caught up in the praises and stories of Robert Oppenheimer, a man whom I knew nothing about prior to reading this book. His life was definitely interesting and his stature as physicist-for-the-everyman could probably rival Feynman. So if you really enjoyed "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman," then you will likely really get into Frank Oppenheimer.

The story starts from his Manhattan childhood, through his formal schooling, lightly dipping its toe into the Communist party, explains his role in the development of the atomic bomb, getting kicked to the curb by his country during the McCarthy-era red scare, up to the stories behind his legendary museum known as the Exploratorium. The fact that he once cheated on his wife is briefly mentioned.

Two gripes keep me from rating this book a 4, and one is the lack of any visual aides. A good half of the book is dedicated to unfolding the inner workings of the Exploratorium. The museum, so I'm told, is filled with gadgets, toys, and illusionary art. Even though K.C. Cole tries to explain it all in writing, I get the nagging feelings that I'm never going to "get it" unless I see it. Or maybe I'll get part of it if I see some photographs and/or diagrams. Alas, the flattering portrayal of a wondrous illusionary piece of artwork known as the Sun Painting is reduced to black ink on white paper. When it comes to writing about interactive physics, I don't think it's too much to ask for a few visual aides.

Other complaint; it was around page 200 that I felt that the oh-wasn't-Frank-just-an-eccentric-yet-brilliant-man-without-limits horse had been beaten a few hundred times too many. Although it is important to remember that Frank Oppenheimer did most certainly march to the beat of his own drummer, the constant reminder of his uncompromising character through anecdotes (all of a similar nature) felt like this secondary point was being jack hammered into my head - not to mix metaphors. In other words, I get it. Frank was weird and smart, a good educator, enthusiastic, idealistic and maybe a touch cynical. The second half of the book just takes too much time to bask in Frankness, though that is entirely my opinion.

At the end of the day, I'm glad I read this book. Good stories, an interesting life, lots of conflict, all that good stuff. I just wish the author would have trimmed the fat here and there as well as given us some things to look at.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Incredibly Wonderful Creation, So-So Book 18 Oct 2009
By Jonah Cohen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I work in the science center field, and have been to dozens of science centers. Definitely my favorite is San Francisco's Exploratorium. It's every bit as amazing as KC Cole's book makes it out to be (and the book will make a lot more sense if you've been there).

This book is a biography of Exploratorium founder Frank Oppenheimer, whom the author worked for and was good friends with. His story is indeed an interesting one, from his wealthy childhood, his career in physics, work (along with more famous brother Robert) on the Manhattan Project, his post war fears of nuclear proliferation, victim of McCarhtyism, rebirth as a teacher, and creation of a museum that really did revolutionize science education. Cole has no shortage of personal accounts from herself and other associates, and many parts of the book are inspiring, and very thought provoking.

The downside, and it's a big one, is that Cole could have used a little more journalistic distance from her subject. The tone of much of the book often goes into gushing, verging on worshipful.

One example: Treating every utterance of Frank's as received wisdom doesn't help the book. When Frank angrily lambastes a worker for using glue to seal together part of an exhibit, Cole treats this as yet another example of what a wonderful visionary Frank was. Oppenheimer's reason for the rant was that he wanted all the functions of how exhibits worked to be visible and understandable to visitors - no black boxes, no hidden devices making this function, and he deemed glue too mysterious. That's a good m.o. that serves the Exploratorium well, ergo he wanted screwss, "no glue!". But I couldn't help but think that this could have been the genesis of another educational Exploratorium set of exhibits: how the heck DO things get held together? Screws, nails, velcro, glue, tape... all use different methods, and it seems like these topics would have nicely complement other Exploratorium exhibits that involve electromagnetism or water (which use their own ways to attract).

A promising avenue for exploration? Maybe. But my main point is: the idea apparently never occurred to Oppenheimer because of dogmatic thinking, the kind he normally opposed. And pointing out that this (or anything) might have been a shortcoming of his never occurs to Cole. Everything, down to his extramarital affairs, is yet another example of how wonderful Frank was.

And overall, he certainly was. It's just that Cole's attempts to ignore anything to the contrary - even if it doesn't change the overall conclusion - takes away from the book. Especially a book focused on science, where such evidence cherry-picking is not supposed to occur.

It's a decent book, though if you want a somewhat drier but more objective one, try finding Hilda Heine's "Exploratorium".

Or better yet, take some advice from Oppenheimer himself. "Learning science without stuff", he said, "is like learning how to swim without going into the water." No book can make you appreciate him like checking out the Exploratorium itself.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This stunning biography about the gentle man from Manhattan McCarthyism almost destroyed will leave you wanting to know more! 30 Aug 2009
By D. Fowler - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Frank and Robert were incredibly close brothers in their younger days, but Robert was not supportive when Mccarthyism spelled the end of his brother's career in physics. Frank blatantly lied to his dean at the University of Minnesota claiming the pat: "I am not now and I never have been a member of the communist party." He had, he was and it signaled the end of his career. It was later conjectured that he lied to protect his brother, but Robert's illustrious career went up in smoke not long after, despite his efforts to help. He couldn't get a job in physics if he tried. Blackballed was the word of the day and Frank didn't wear it well. He didn't need "a tie for haying." Frank Oppenheimer, "the gentle Jewish intellectual from Manhattan," landed in Pagosa Springs in a primitive cabin without electricity.

It was a long, difficult fall into obscurity, but he and his wife Jackie settled in with their two children and were determined to learn to ranch. Later, Frank's daughter claimed that she "had two very depressed parents." As the years went by the ranch began to succeed and take hold and later Frank obtained a teaching job at a local high school. In the meantime, "Robert Oppenheimer was effectively obliterated." The glorious days of the Oppenheimer brothers were a thing of the past. Frank struggled to reach his students and tried by any means he could to interest them. At first they balked and then they flocked to his side with enthusiasm and excitement to dabble in physics. Later, when the Exploratorium was in full swing, they recognized many of the experiments they themselves had embraced.

Years later, the timing was right and Frank was able to finagle San Francisco into seeing his dream. For a one dollar-a-year lease of the "Palace" in May 1969 his dream of a museum, or the Exploratorium as it was so named, was going to be a reality. Frank "imagined it as a place where both art and science could be used as vehicles for understanding." It was a place of discovery and wonder where people could come in off the streets, explore, wonder, discover and even break things at their leisure. It started off small, but began to grow and thrive and brought the gentle man from Manhattan, Frank Oppenheimer, back to life.

I was utterly enthralled by this biography and after I read it, it was one of those books I thought about for a long time. Not about the writing per se, but about the man that almost disappeared after the onslaught of the shameful Mccarthyism era. I liked the way the author, who knew Frank well, was able to impart to the reader his dedication to his work at the Exploratorium. I would have preferred to hear more about what made Frank tick, instead of how he could make things tick. This is, on one level, more of a biography of the Exploratorium than of Frank because they really were one and the same. This wonderful biography is one of those books I usually tuck away to reread when I want to rediscover the magic in it all over again.
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