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Frank Oppenheimer: Wikis


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Frank Friedman Oppenheimer (August 14, 1912 – February 3, 1985) was an American physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, was a target of McCarthyism, as an actual Communist, and was later the founder of the Exploratorium in San Francisco. He was the younger brother of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the first director of Los Alamos National Laboratory.


Early life and education

Frank Oppenheimer

Growing up eight years Robert's junior, Frank was constantly in the shadow of his brilliant brother. At one point considering a career as a flautist, 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 Ph.D. 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 Youth Communist League. Robert recommended against it,[1] 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

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. 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. There he assisted in supervising security at the first weapons test at the Trinity site.

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.

Oppenheimer and McCarthyism

On July 12, 1947 the Washington Times Herald reported that Dr. Frank Oppenheimer had been a member of the Communist Party during the years 1937-1939. He denied these reports at the time. 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. Frank further stated that 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 (a period now known as the Recession of 1937). He refused to name others he knew to be members. This caused a media sensation — that 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.[2]

After being branded a Communist, Oppenheimer could no longer find work in physics. He would later learn that the FBI would send threatening letters to institutions after he had submitted employment applications. Furthermore, he was denied a passport by the U.S. government, so travelling abroad to work was out of the question as well. 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.

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, he was offered a position at the University of Colorado teaching physics, and it was there that Frank 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.")

Later life

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. ^ Bird, Kai, Martin J. Sherwin. American Prometheus. New York: Random House, 2005. 131.
  2. ^ Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun. New York: Touchstone, 1996. 359.

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