In a deeply personal and moving narrative, science writer K.C. Cole tells the story of the younger, less famous brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Cole chronicles the life of her friend and mentor Frank Oppenheimer during his transition from newly minted physicist, to atomic-bomb researcher whose career was destroyed by McCarthyism, and then to cattle rancher and teacher.
Cole’s conversational tone sweeps readers through the events that led Oppenheimer to ultimately create a world of his own: the Exploratorium, a revolutionary science museum in San Francisco dedicated to thinking, tinkering and rumpuses of all sorts.
To Oppenheimer, play was serious business. Cole describes how this philosophy formed the bedrock of the untamed museum. In it, exhibits on springs and bathroom-window optics came with instructions such as, “Mess around with the brass controls to see if you can make this thing do something.”
Cole captures Oppenheimer’s inquisitive spirit with vivid anecdotes, such as the time he stayed up past midnight with his young son to dissect a pig’s head on the kitchen floor, and the time he took his high school students to the junkyard just to take things apart.
Cole uses the Exploratorium to show Oppenheimer’s views on exploration. She recounts a favorite Frank-ism: “If we stop trying to understand things, we’ll all be sunk.” The book leaves an impression of a man whose ideas about science and life continue to inspire inquisitive tinkerers, deep thinkers and explorers of mysteries.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade, 2009, 416 p., $27