17 June 2013
An atomic idea: The Exploratorium
San Francisco’s Exploratorium—arguably the most well-
What most people don’t know is that the Exploratorium was created by physicist Frank Oppenheimer as a direct response to the atomic bomb.
On July 16, 1945, Frank Oppenheimer lay face down in the dirt alongside his famous
older brother Robert—so-
The younger Oppenheimer had been a safety inspector at the test site, in charge of
plotting escape routes. But the only escape route that could lead to a semblance
of safety in a nuclear world, he thought, was a radical retooling of how people thought
about each other, their place in nature, culture, and war. Oppenheimer, like many
of those who saw first-
A museum may not seem like much of a match for the Bomb, but Oppenheimer believed
the only possible defense against the collective insanity of nuclear proliferation
was the engagement of everyday people. As he wrote in a 1968 journal article, “The
fruits of science and the products of technology continue to shape the nature of
our society and to influence events which have a world-
With the aim of bridging that gulf, in 1968 he talked San Francisco into handing
him the keys to the Palace of Fine Arts, a pseudo-
“He could have talked Tom Sawyer into whitewashing his fence,” former Stanford president Donald Kennedy said in an interview.
Oppenheimer’s buddies from the first plutonium bomb test helped, too. Physicist Robert
Wilson—who had the terrifying job of making final adjustments to the weapon as it
perched on its 100-
A unique philosophy. The place Oppenheimer created wasn’t like any other museum; rather, it was an immense playground crammed with cool toys, a wild assortment of mirrors, lenses, microscopes, resonators, gyroscopes, pendulums, cosmic rays, rainbows, wave machines, soap bubbles, cows’ eyeballs, and lots of illusions. He only called it a museum because, he said, “no one flunks a museum,” and he wanted people to feel welcome and comfortable.
Specifically, he wanted people to go “sightseeing” around the Exploratorium, which he thought of as a “woods of natural phenomena” where people could experience the thrill of real discovery. The floor staff of “Explainers” were mostly local teenagers, often from the inner city, and unschooled in science, until they were taken on at the museum. There were no rules, no guards, not even an entrance fee.
It’s hard to pin down what made Oppenheimer’s unlikely experiment workable, but a lot rests on its fundamental philosophy, which has remained mostly unchanged even after 43 years. (Though Oppenheimer died in 1985, more than a dozen staff members who worked with him are still there.)
A critical part of that philosophy was the focus on perception and awareness. People
don’t understand anything if they don’t understand how their minds work, Oppenheimer
believed. It’s important to see how easily people jump to incorrect conclusions,
and how common cognitive blunders are behind so much self-
A big part of Oppenheimer’s philosophy, too, grew out of his refusal to accept the
popular notion that the public is incapable, irresponsible, uninterested, or unreachable.
He thought the oft-
Oppenheimer also made art an equal partner with science, a revolutionary idea at the time. He often said that both artists and scientists were society’s “noticers,” observing things that others missed. He believed fervently that the discoveries of artists were as valid as those of scientists. Art, he said, reminds us of what it means to be human. So from the beginning, as many exhibits were created by artists as by scientists. When the architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller stopped by, a woman accompanying him sniffed, “I thought this was an art museum. Where’s the art?” Fuller waved his arm expansively and said, “It’s all around you.”
In today’s everything-
Like all small start-
Oppenheimer’s hope was that new kinds of thinking could help the general public see
nuclear weapons in new ways and some day come up with entirely new approaches to
controlling them. When faced with problems large and small, he often talked about
how you couldn’t let yourself by stopped by so-
K.C. Cole is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, a professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.