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The Other Oppenheimer....

Given the nature of this blog, I'm sure many people reading this have been to see Oppenheimer over the summer. I found it both interesting and enjoyable myself, and hardly noticed the three hours passing by. Though I did wonder if it really needed to be that long.

I'm sure, for example, that Robert Oppenheimer's brother Frank was very important to him and the rest of his family - but was he really important to the movie? We could have shaved fifteen minutes off just by leaving that bit out. But I'm pleased that they left it in, because it led me to do a quick search for 'Frank Oppenheimer' when I got back home - and I found out that he was an interesting character in his own right, and an important figure in physics education.

Like his brother, Frank had a BSc in Physics and, also like his brother, he had spent time studying in Cambridge, in the Cavendish Laboratory during the thirties. He later worked in Berkeley either side of a short stint in Los Alamos working on the Manhattan Project.

In 1947 he became entangled with the House on Un-American Activities Committee in the US Congress and acknowledged that he had been a member of the communist party during the thirties. He refused to name anybody else from that organisation and it quickly became impossible for him to continue working in academia either in America or elsewhere (as he was denied a passport). So instead he became a cattle rancher in Colorado. (The Oppenheimers seem to have had a bit of money)

After ten years there, an improving atmosphere allowed him to return to physics, initially as a teacher of high school physics where he spent another decade. The backing of several high profile figures later allowed him to return to work in the University of Colorado. But his years in second level education clearly left a mark, because he then sought a grant from the National Science Foundation to set up a library of 100 experiments which could be used in teaching high school physics (and science in general).

Later, in the 60s, he conducted research in London and came across science museums there and elsewhere in Europe. On his return to the US he was offered a job setting up a science wing to the Smithsonian institution in Washington, but instead set about opening the Exploratorium in San Francisco - an interactive museum of science and art, founded on the principle that science should be fun and accessible to all. In time, the ideas behind that institution spread around the world, leading to places such as W5 in Belfast and the Explorium in Sandyford in Dublin.

There's a really good video about him here from Alom Shaha:

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