An atomic idea: The Exploratorium

By K.C. Cole | June 17, 2013

San Francisco’s Exploratorium—arguably the most well-known, widely copied, and deeply studied art-science mash-up in the world—is celebrated as an often-wacky blend of serious content and creative chaos. This “museum of awareness,” as it was called by its founder, has inspired neuroscientists (Oliver Sacks, V.S. Ramachandron), musicians (Laurie Anderson, John Cage), and poets (Muriel Rukeyser); it counts among its fans Tibetan monks, schools in 48 US states, and corporations including Sony and IBM. Its influence is apparent in museums in dozens of countries. Most recently, the Exploratorium was in the news for its grand reopening in April, on Pier 15 on the San Francisco waterfront.

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-called father of the atomic bomb—at the Trinity test site. They felt the blast from the first plutonium bomb as it vaporized a New Mexico dessert and grew into a roiling, glowing, green-and-purple mushroom cloud, its thunder echoing off the mountains. Similar bombs would soon vaporize the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Frank Oppenheimer, along with many of his colleagues, never got over “all those flattened people,” as he called them.

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-hand the monstrous destructive power of atomic bombs, in general agreed with Einstein, who said, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

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-wide significance. Yet the gulf between the daily lives and experience of most people and the complexity of science and technology is widening.”

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-Roman 1915 World’s Fair relic that for years had been used to store phone books and army trucks. He talked physics labs, art institutions, and universities into helping him, along with local musicians, artists, and a gang of passionate young people sometimes called “Frank’s hippies.”

“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-foot tower during a lightning storm—created a miniature replica of a particle accelerator for the museum. (Wilson went on to build what is still the United States’ premier particle physics facility, Fermilab.) MIT physics professor Philip Morrison, who drove the bomb’s plutonium core to the test site in the front seat of an Army sedan, created dozens of exhibits. Wolfgang Panofsky, whose task it was to fly over the glowing, purple-and-green radioactive cloud in a B-20 aircraft, contributed pieces of the newly created Stanford Linear Accelerator, where he was lab director, to the Exploratorium.

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-destructive behavior.

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-cited short attention spans of ordinary citizens were a result of the thin gruel to which people were typically expected to pay attention, and that supposedly “smart” and “stupid” people really weren’t that different: The ability to solve a differential equation, he thought, was an infinitesimal advance over the ability to talk and write. The ability to read Hamlet was unimpressive, compared to the ability to recognize one’s mother. “The ability to dance gracefully,” he wrote, “is rare and a delight to find, yet it is only a slight improvement on the ability to walk.” It took everyone to win the war, he said, and it would take everyone to win the peace.

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.”

Hands-on experience. The Exploratorium took (and takes) play very seriously, encouraging people to take risks, make mistakes, do things because they “feel” right, and rely on aesthetics. The goal is to help visitors develop intuition about science and ask questions based on real experiences. In a world where people don’t often climb trees, fix cars, swim in water holes, collect minerals, or take apart bikes and watches, there is a real need for a place to interact with natural phenomena, and to learn the consequences of failing.

In today’s everything-digital world, it might seem surprising that people still flock to tinker with in-your-face, old-fashioned, physical playthings. Some of the Exploratorium’s major backers, however, are companies that made millions on virtual worlds, with Intel, Adobe, and Google among the museum’s corporate donors. Their participation makes a certain amount of sense, though. The creative forces behind successful digital start-ups are much the same as those behind the Exploratorium: Misfits are sincerely and explicitly welcome; the breaking of rules is encouraged; boundaries are fuzzy at best; and chaos is considered an opportunity rather than a threat.

Like all small start-ups that grow into multimillion-dollar success stories, the Exploratorium has had to change. Today it has entrance fees and more bureaucracy, and even some rules and guards. But Director Dennis Bartels has no office and doesn’t want one. The walls around one staff area are plywood, so passersby will feel free to pound nails into them. The machine shop remains central, with a low railing, so museum visitors can lean over and chat with the exhibit builders, like neighbors over a backyard fence. From the beginning, Oppenheimer thought the shop should be open and accessible; he wanted people to smell the dust from the saws and the oil from the lathes.

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-called real-world obstacles. “It’s not the real world,” he’d grumble when people pointed out practical obstacles to his wilder ideas. “It’s a world we made up, so we can remake it anyway we like.”

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