Frank Oppenheimer

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Frank Oppenheimer
Frank Oppenheimer.jpg
Frank Oppenheimer (1912–1985)
Born Frank Friedman Oppenheimer
(1912-08-14)August 14, 1912
New York City, New York, United States
Died February 3, 1985(1985-02-03) (aged 72)
Sausalito, California, United States
Residence Sausalito, California
Citizenship American
Nationality American
Fields Particle physics
Institutions Arcetri Observatory
Manhattan Project
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
University of Minnesota
University of Colorado
Alma mater Johns Hopkins University
California Institute of Technology
Known for Target of McCarthyism
Uranium enrichment
Influenced J. Robert Oppenheimer, K.C. Cole
Spouse Jaquenette Yvonne "Jackie" Quann (m. 1936)[1]

Frank Friedman Oppenheimer (August 14, 1912 – February 3, 1985) was an American particle physicist, professor of physics at the University of Colorado, and the founder of the Exploratorium in San Francisco. A younger brother of renowned physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, Frank Oppenheimer conducted research on aspects of nuclear physics during the time of the Manhattan Project, and made contributions to uranium enrichment. After the war, Oppenheimer's earlier involvement with the American Communist Party placed him under scrutiny, and he resigned from his physics position at the University of Minnesota.

Oppenheimer was a target of McCarthyism and was blacklisted from finding any physics teaching position in the United States until 1957, when he was allowed to teach science at a high school in Colorado. This rehabilitation allowed him to gain a position at the University of Colorado teaching physics. In 1969, Oppenheimer founded the Exploratorium in San Francisco, and he served as its first director. He lived in Sausalito, California, until his death in 1985.

Early life and education[edit]

Frank Friedman Oppenheimer was born in 1912 in New York City. During his childhood, he studied painting and then the flute under Barrera, becoming competent enough at the instrument to consider a career as a flautist.[2] Frank eventually followed his brother's encouragement and became a physicist as well. After graduating from Johns Hopkins University in 1933, he studied for a year and a half at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England. In 1935, he worked on the development of nuclear particle counters at the Institute di Arcetri in Florence, Italy.

While completing his PhD work at the California Institute of Technology, Oppenheimer became engaged to Jaquenette Quann, an economics student at the University of California, Berkeley, who was active in the Young Communist League. Robert recommended against it,[3] but despite this in 1936 Frank and Jackie were married, and soon had both joined the American Communist Party — also against Robert's recommendations.

Physics career[edit]

During World War II, Robert became scientific director of the Manhattan Project, the Allied effort to produce the first atomic weapons. From 1941 to 1945 Frank worked at the University of California Radiation Laboratory on the problem of uranium isotope separation under the direction of his brother's good friend, Ernest O. Lawrence.[4] In 1945 he was sent to the enrichment facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee to help monitor the equipment, and then later in the year arrived at the secret Los Alamos laboratory which his brother was running.

After the war, Oppenheimer returned to Berkeley, working with Luis Alvarez and Wolfgang Panofsky to develop the proton linear accelerator. In 1947 he took a position as Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of Minnesota,[5] where he participated in the discovery of heavy cosmic ray nuclei.

Political scrutiny and blacklisting[edit]

On July 12, 1947, the Washington Times Herald reported that Oppenheimer had been a member of the Communist Party during the years 1937–1939. At first, he denied these reports, but later admitted they were true.[6] In June 1949, as part of a larger investigation on the possible mishandling of "atomic secrets" during the war, he was called before the United States Congress House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Before the Committee, he testified that he and his wife had been members of the Communist Party for about three and a half years. In 1937 they had been involved in local attempts to desegregate the Pasadena public swimming pool, which was open to non-whites only on Wednesday, after which the pool was drained and the water replaced.[7] Oppenheimer said he and his wife had joined at a time when they sought answers to the high unemployment experienced in the United States during the later part of the Great Depression. He refused to name others he knew to be members. This caused a media sensation — that J. Robert Oppenheimer's brother was an admitted former member of the Communist Party — and led to Frank resigning from his post at the University of Minnesota.[8]

After being branded a Communist, Oppenheimer could no longer find work in physics. Frank and Jackie eventually sold one of the Van Gogh paintings he had inherited from his father, and with the money bought land in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and started life over again as cattle farmers, also briefly teaching science at Pagosa Springs High School. Under Oppenheimer's tutelage, several students from Pagosa Springs High School took first prize at the Colorado State Science Fair.[2]

In 1957, the Red Scare had lessened to the point that Oppenheimer was allowed to teach science at a local high school. In two years, supported by endorsements by Hans Bethe, George Gamow and Victor Weisskopf,[7] he was offered a position at the University of Colorado teaching physics, and it was there that he began to take an interest in developing improvements in science education. He was eventually awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop new pedagogical methods, which resulted in a "Library of Experiments" — nearly one hundred models of classical laboratory experiments which could be used in aiding the teaching of physics to elementary school children (Oppenheimer was the one who made the often-referenced quote "the best way to learn is to teach").[9]

Later life[edit]

In 1965, Oppenheimer was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to study the history of physics and conduct bubble chamber research at University College, London, where he was exposed to European science museums for the first time. Inspired, Frank devoted the next years of his life to creating a similar resource in the United States.

Four years later, the Exploratorium opened its doors for the first time — an interactive museum of art, science, and human perception based on the philosophy that science should be fun and accessible for people of all ages, set next to the stately Palace of Fine Arts of San Francisco. Until his death at his home in Sausalito, California, on February 3, 1985, Frank Oppenheimer served as director to the museum and was personally involved in almost every aspect of its operations.

Interviewed by director Jon Else, Frank Oppenheimer appears throughout The Day After Trinity (1980), an Academy Award-nominated documentary about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the building of the atomic bomb.


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b Cole, K. C. (May 1981). "Biography: Dr. Frank Oppenheimer". Vannevar Bush Award. 
  3. ^ Bird, Kai; Martin J. Sherwin (2005). American Prometheus. New York: Random House. p. 131. ISBN 978-0-375-72626-2. 
  4. ^ Unknown (28 September 2011). "Frank Oppenheimer". Atomic Heritage Foundation. 
  5. ^ Ira Flatow (2009-12-25). "Profiling Frank Oppenheimer". NPR. Retrieved 2011-09-28. 
  6. ^ Unknown (1949-06-27). "INVESTIGATIONS: The Brothers". Time Magazine. Retrieved 2011-09-28. 
  7. ^ a b Col, K. C. (2009). Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the World He Made Up. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-15-100822-3. 
  8. ^ Rhodes, Richard (1996). Dark Sun. Touchstone. p. 359. ISBN 978-0-684-82414-7. 
  9. ^ Yevgeniy Dodis (September 26, 2011). "Some of My Favorite Sayings". New York University, Department of Computer Science. 

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