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Oral History Transcript — Dr. Frank Oppenheimer

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Interview with Dr. Frank Oppenheimer
By Charles Weiner
In Sausalito, California
May 21, 1973

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Frank Oppenheimer; May 21, 1973

ABSTRACT: Childhood, early schooling, early trips, to New Mexico and Europe, and influences — parents —, brother and physics teacher; impressions, contacts with scientists, and experiences at various, schools and laboratories — Johns Hopkins, Cavendish, Florence, Stanford, Berkeley, Minnesota, and Colorado political involvements and subsequent blacklisting; ranch years (1949,4959); return to scientific career; and current involvement in science museums. Scattered throughout are discussions — on brother, J. Robert, influences, development, reactions to events, and changes.

Transcript

Session I | Session II

Weiner:

This is Charles Weiner talking to Dr. Frank Oppenheimer in his home in Sausalito, picking up at the same place where we left off a few months back.

Oppenheimer:

There will be some interweaving, in what we talk about now, with what was in there, I think, in the first session. It's hard just to leave out everything that was in there, in talking about that period.

Weiner:

Then we'll begin to pick up at the end of your Minnesota period, when it became clear that you were going to be fired from the university. You said that during that same period, you had these offers from other places, that started out with full commitment saying, "Everyone's behind you up to the top level of the administration," and then somehow the offers collapsed. There's something in the chronology here that's not clear to me. When was it apparent to you that you would be fired? When did you get notice that you would be?

Oppenheimer:

While I was at the hearing in Washington in the spring of 1949, I got a call asking me to resign, and then there was some conversation saying, "Couldn't that be avoided?" And when I got back, I talked with the president, and he was very adamant about it, and cited a number of things besides the hearing — the story of a few years before. He picked up a newspaper clipping that I think somebody had sent him, about my being at the Wallace campaign headquarters at Chicago. Actually we'd gone there for an entirely different reason, to meet somebody who — an old friend of mine who just happened to be there and we wanted to exchange things. While I was in the hall, Paul Robeson and Shapley and Kirtley Mather came by and said, "We're just going to talk on the air, why don't you join us?" Well, I didn't see why not, so I did join them. Then somebody had sent a clipping of this and the university president held that up as evidence that I really wasn't fit to be at the university.

Weiner:

Because you were in the company of those people?

Oppenheimer:

Yes, and talking about political things.

Weiner:

He was citing this, which someone sent him, as another reason?

Oppenheimer:

Yes, as evidence that my political interest in Wallace was considered pretty left wing since Wallace was supported by the left wing, but this was another piece of evidence that he should be careful of me.

Weiner:

But specific grounds, he said, were that you had lied to them?

Oppenheimer:

That was the reason given, yes. But the other part of that was that if I hadn't given them a story a few years before, corroborating my public statement — they said or implied that they couldn't keep me on. So it was a real sort of trap.

Weiner:

And it came from the top on down.

Oppenheimer:

Yes, from the president.

Weiner:

Was there implication that he was under specific pressure?

Oppenheimer:

Not that I know of. I don't think so.

Weiner:

Nothing in the state legislature that would influence his judgment?

Oppenheimer:

I don't think so, no. I think it was his doing.

Weiner:

So he called you in the spring. Was that April?

Oppenheimer:

I'd have to look it up, but I think it was the end of May. So when I went back I talked with him. I remember really being in tears when I left his office.

Weiner:

It was so apparent what his conclusions were.

Oppenheimer:

Yes, and there was nothing I or the chairman of the department or graduate students were able to do about it.

Weiner:

Did he say when it would be, fix a date?

Oppenheimer:

The end of the academic year. So it was then.

Weiner:

And you had been put up for tenure?

Oppenheimer:

Yes.

Weiner:

Which would have been in September.

Oppenheimer:

That's right, yes.

Weiner:

Did you seek any kind of redress at that time?

Oppenheimer:

Legal redress? No.

Weiner:

What about AAUP or anything like that?

Oppenheimer:

No, I didn't. I don't know what could have been done. I think the — I guess I decided nothing much could be done, possibly because they didn't have to say they were firing me for political reasons, although it obviously came up in their discussion. They could fire me because I'd told them a false story. And there wasn't much defense there. There might have been more, but I was pretty depressed and didn't look into it.

Weiner:

Then your expectations to get anything done on it were pretty low anyway, even if you'd had any enthusiasm for making a fight?

Oppenheimer:

I suppose so. Yes. I felt very badly at having gotten myself into that trap, because the one thing that I sort of really stood for was not telling false stories, and then to find myself in that trap sort of deflated me and made me feel that, even though it was understandable when you explained it to people, it wasn't something you could make a case on.

Weiner:

This was late in the academic year. When did the offers come through?

Oppenheimer:

They came through during the first year that I was at the ranch.

Weiner:

I see. How many people knew what was going on, other than people in the department? Did people outside the university know or people at other universities?

Oppenheimer:

That I'd been fired?

Weiner:

Yes, or that you were about to be.

Oppenheimer:

It was between the time — as I say, I was fired while I was still in Washington at the hearings, and it was known, and it was stated I think in the newspapers then, that I was asked to resign, so that there was no delay between the hearings and the time I was fired. But then I was asked shortly after that, I think it must have been about mid-June, I went to the Echo Lake conference and gave this paper on "sprays," and of course, then everybody who was there knew about it and was very sympathetic.

Weiner:

Well, they couldn't, I suppose, make an offer.

Oppenheimer:

No, they couldn't make an offer, but Rossi very shortly after that — I think we'd actually moved to the ranch — wrote and said why didn't I go to Echo Lake? I couldn't have any status there but I could work there and I could get paid. But that was the kind of thing that — it really wouldn't have helped any to have gone there, because I would have been back in the same position I think, very shortly afterwards, since there was this FBI wall against an academic job.

Weiner:

I'm not sure who runs Echo Lake.

Oppenheimer:

At that time MIT had a facility there.

Weiner:

Where is it?

Oppenheimer:

It's on the way up to Mt. Evans. Mt. Evans is 14,000, and I think it's 10 or 12 thousand feet up.

Weiner:

Your thought was that they would prevent you from working academically.

Oppenheimer:

Yes. I didn't know that at first, but as these various job offers developed, and then finally when the FBI came around over and over again and finally said, "Well, don't you want an academic job? You have to cooperate." Or, "If you want an academic job you have to —“Then I realized what the wall was.

Weiner:

You didn't feel it would be any good to go to civil liberties groups that were developing in the period in response to this kind of thing?

Oppenheimer:

I don't think so. I don't think they were able to help a lot of the other physicists either, even where it was much more cleared up.

Weiner:

You mean people like Bohm and so forth.

Oppenheimer:

Yes, and Lomanitz and God knows how many. Some of the others — Joe Weinberg took a job in an industrial concern. And that might have been an opening for me but I didn't want that.

Weiner:

I met Weinberg at Syracuse.

Oppenheimer:

Is he at Syracuse now?

Weiner:

Yes.

Oppenheimer:

Oh, I didn't know he'd gone there. I tried to find him in Cleveland when I was there a few weeks ago.

Weiner:

He went there a couple of years ago.

Oppenheimer:

OK, good. So anyway, I think it would have been a sort of hopeless fight, and would have taken full time, and not gotten any place.

Weiner:

Now, during this period, the specific university case — were you in the newspapers after the hearings, the HUAC hearings in Washington?

Oppenheimer:

There wasn't anything in the newspapers, after I'd gotten back to Minnesota. The day after the hearings — I think that's probably all.

Weiner:

Nothing locally, for example.

Oppenheimer:

No, in the newspapers, anyway. There were some editorials in my favor from small northern Minnesota papers.

Weiner:

What about using the hearings as a way of getting at your brother? Was there any editorial comment you recall?

Oppenheimer:

Joseph Alsop wrote a sympathetic piece. I didn't see everything that went on. It didn't all come to Pagosa Springs.

Weiner:

How was it then, once it was clear that you'd been fired from Minnesota and gone to the ranch? What were your long range expectations?

Oppenheimer:

Well, that was sort of gradual, as I say, because that whole first year we weren't really committed to staying on the ranch, and were looking for a job, and it was only when they all fell through that we finally decided to stay there, and we bought another section of land to add to the ranch we had, and bought more cattle. Just after we'd done that and made that commitment, one job or possible job did come up. Charlie Lauritsen wrote and said that they were looking for a research physicist at the City of Hope Hospital, but again that wasn't an academic job, although it might have led to one, but it was just after we'd bought the ranch and stocked it with cattle, and sort of gotten reconciled to being ranchers, so I didn't take it.

Weiner:

To get back to the decision to go to that ranch in the first place, even if at first seemingly for a one year period — was it the idea that you would sort of wait it out and see what happened? If so, why the decision for the ranch?

Oppenheimer:

The year before, that was the summer of 1948, Bob Wilson and Jane and Jackie and I had rented a house in Nambe, New Mexico and we spent the summer there. Bob and I took a horse trailer and went up to Colorado into the Blanco Basin, because my brother and a friend of mine and I had ridden up there in 1936 horseback from Santa Fe and gone through that basin, and I remembered how beautiful it was. And on the way out of there, Bob and I saw really this incredibly lovely place and stopped and asked whether it was for sale, and the owner said it might be. It turns out they did want to sell it because the guy had done something wrong about his income tax and needed some money. So that fall, after we'd all left Nambe, Jackie and I went by there, and they did want to sell it and we arranged to buy it. So in the fall of 1948 we had bought it, and I remember, it was much bigger than anything we really wanted. We just wanted a little place for the summer, and this was in two parts and had around 830 acres in it. But Jackie said it would be nice to have a place to live on someday — but the "someday" she meant was a little further off than the next year. But having gotten it, it was the only place we had to go to.

Weiner:

That's good.

Oppenheimer:

I don't know if it's good or not. Maybe we would have come to San Francisco and started an Exploratorium.

Weiner:

So when did you leave Minnesota?

Oppenheimer:

It must have been toward the end of June.

Weiner:

Just moved everything to the ranch.

Oppenheimer:

That's right, yes.

Weiner:

Then it became clear that the paths that would normally have been open to you —

Oppenheimer:

— yes, were really closed.

Weiner:

It was summer, just after June. Then after a period there you sort of gave up on the academic possibilities. When you say you took the decision to become a rancher, what did that involve, sort of giving up everything else you had hoped for? Was it something you approached with interest and enthusiasm, or was it one of despair?

Oppenheimer:

No, it wasn't one of despair. We enjoyed the ranching; compared to any other alternative it seemed the best one. It's the kind of thing you get — it's partly decision, and it's partly just that if you're doing something, other things pull you into it, like buying more land. If you run a ranch you have to have a certain number of cows. We never did have really enough — we should have had around two or three hundred, but our place, even after we'd bought the extra ranch, only ran 100 cows and 100 yearlings. That was just marginally enough. But that 830 acres wasn't enough. So if we were doing it, we had to have more land. Then when you decide that, you sort of get stuck with it. We even considered getting more land now and then, but we didn't.

Weiner:

Then the decision was not with the idea of waiting it out, but that this would be your life.

Oppenheimer:

Yes.

Weiner:

That this is what you'd do the rest of your life?

Oppenheimer:

Yes — I don't know whether we even thought as far along as the rest of our lives, but we did do it for ten years, which was a good chunk of a life.

Weiner:

How old were you when you went there?

Oppenheimer:

I was 37.

Weiner:

So when you got started in '49 —

Oppenheimer:

I had one employee most of the time, sometimes in the spring two, when there was a lot of fencing to do.

Weiner:

Well, you were doing much of the work yourself.

Oppenheimer:

Yes, I was doing it, Jackie was doing it, our children helped with the haying and everything.

Weiner:

How many children did you have?

Oppenheimer:

Two, a boy and a girl.

Weiner:

How old were they?

Oppenheimer:

Judy was born in 1940, Mike in 1943.

Weiner:

What was life like on the ranch, in terms of your routine?

Oppenheimer:

The first summer that we were there, when we really weren't committed to ranching, it was very relaxed. We read a lot and wrote some and we rode around the countryside, and knew nothing about what was involved in ranching. I remember one story in which we were sitting looking out over a meadow below our place, and the grass was waving in the wind, and a neighbor came along and said, "What are you going to do with your hay?" And I said, "What hay?" I thought hay was something you planted and not just any old grass. Then the next summer, we went in partnership with another neighbor and bought some cattle and ran them on our land, because I knew nothing about a cow or cattle and he helped pick them and buy them and sell them. Then the following year we started to buy some of our own. By then it got to be very, very busy, because one had cattle to take care of and fences to make and meadows to irrigate and hay to put up and cattle to feed and doctoring to do, and it was really very busy. We built a section onto our house. It was just really a shack when we moved in, and we built another couple of rooms on and a little separate building, and that building occupied us during the second summer.

Weiner:

Did you do that yourself?

Oppenheimer:

Yes. We bought the cement, but we went down to the river and got the gravel. We bought the lumber, but it was from the local lumber yard and we hauled it ourselves, so it was a very, very personal operation.

Weiner:

The kids were too little, or did they help?

Oppenheimer:

Yes, they helped some. And then the second winter, I guess, we worked on the inside of the house and finished it up.

Weiner:

How close were your neighbors?

Oppenheimer:

At least a mile apart. In the basin there were probably five other families, but only three of them stayed all year round, so most of the winter there were only three other families there. There was a school in the basin, a one-room school, and our kids went to that. They saddled up the horse in the morning and rode him down, and the school had a barn attached to it, on the opposite side of the road, and behind the school was a little living quarters called the teacherage where the teacher lived.

Weiner:

How did they fare in the school, considering they'd come from a different environment?

Oppenheimer:

I guess it was all right. It was all new enough, and — the first year, the teacher really was quite awful, and sick a lot, so it wasn't very good schooling. I think they went to that school till Judy went to high school, which must have been five or six years. One year they were the only two kids in the school, and the maximum number I think was eight or nine. So they got a lot of individual attention. But I think it was rather poor schooling, and my son especially, I think, suffered in the rest of his education from that. My daughter had an awful lot of drive. It may have set her back some but she did well in school and well in college, and went on to become an MD.

Weiner:

Where does she live now?

Oppenheimer:

Last year she lived at the City of Hope Hospital, as a pediatric hematologist. It's a dismal profession. Now she has a private general pediatric practice in San Jose.

Weiner:

And your son?

Oppenheimer:

He worked for a number of years — he did some college, and then worked for a number of years as an electronic technician, and quit that because it was so routine — he didn't like the kinds of environments or even the work. He was good at it, but he worked last at Vandenberg Air Force Base, and it was not something he liked. So he quit that, and then he didn't have anything else for a job, so the first year or so he helped set up the Exploratorium, and then decided that wasn't his thing, and now he's been going to school again and learning how to do writing. He's been going to Antioch West and is just about to graduate.

Weiner:

So neighbors were so far away and there were so few of them — most of your contacts were within your family, or did you have contact with people?

Oppenheimer:

Relatively little. The neighbors that were there, we did see them quite often. Then, especially after the first year, we hayed together, three of four families or five sometimes, and sort of pooled our equipment and hayed each other's places. That changed a little bit towards the end. Although it had started out as a very communal thing, the times had changed. Everybody was dependent on — it wasn't a subsistence thing, but we were all dependent on the market and we needed good hay, and if you take too long to hay, too much gets rained on, so everybody had more spoiled hay than they wanted, and gradually each person got his own equipment, during the time we were there. A real sociological change in the pattern of the community took place.

Weiner:

What about the subsistence? Did you have resources?

Oppenheimer:

Yes, we had some independent income which helped a lot.

Weiner:

Trying to make ends meet —

Oppenheimer:

With the ranch, yes. And it was a bad time in the cattle business. Just as we were about to learn it, the price of cattle dropped by about a factor of 2 ½, so there was a time there when nobody was making it. And the very general thing in periods like that is that even though business is bad, land values increase, so quite a few people would sell their places and in that way come out well ahead.

Weiner:

But it didn't cross your mind, or did it — were you getting to the point where you — there might have been a way out?

Oppenheimer:

Yes, by the time we left, cattle prices had come up and we knew the business better, and so things were going much better.

Weiner:

During this period which started the summer of '49, ended exactly when I'm not sure —

Oppenheimer:

— in the spring of '59.

Weiner:

Were there times when you were trying to get away from there, you decided you'd had enough and wanted to try something else?

Oppenheimer:

No — I guess there were — in '58 I looked around at jobs in San Francisco State and a few other places. None developed there, though I heard later that by the time I'd gone to Boulder, San Francisco State was looking for me.

Weiner:

In '58 you felt that the overall situation had changed, you wouldn't be hounded or meet the FBI wall — was there any specific indication of that?

Oppenheimer:

I think the number of visits had petered off.

Weiner:

Was there a definite time when they petered off?

Oppenheimer:

No, it was sort of gradual.

Weiner:

During this period, who did you maintain contact with professionally? Did you keep up with anything going on in physics?

Oppenheimer:

I read the PHYSICAL REVIEW, and SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, and I had visitors quite often. My brother came by once in a while. Bob Wilson came by. A good many others came by. So I knew fairly well what was going on.

Weiner:

You weren't completely out of touch.

Oppenheimer:

Oh no, our summers were just full, of everybody — not everybody but an awful lot of people came to visit us and brought their kids, and our house was always full in the summer. It was the long winters that were very empty of people.

Weiner:

That would be difficult for an academic, to get there.

Oppenheimer:

That's right, difficult for us to get there, often — it was snowy.

Weiner:

How cold was it?

Oppenheimer:

It would get well below zero, 20 below zero occasionally. I think certainly every night was freezing, and usually well below that, around zero. But the days, if they were clear, would just warm right up and even in the shade it would be 40 degrees.

Weiner:

Did you get much snow?

Oppenheimer:

Yes, there would be snow on the ground from December through May. Often six feet, although the average was about four, on the level.

Weiner:

But in the wintertime also the amount of work you'd have to do would be less?

Oppenheimer:

It is less. One has to feed the cattle, which can take quite a while. We'd feed with a team and sled in some places, and a tractor in others. With that much snow, one's always digging oneself out and digging the cattle water hole out. So it wasn't as busy as the summer, but there was quite a lot to do always, and we worked on the barn.

Weiner:

It wasn't a question of going stir crazy.

Oppenheimer:

Oh no, not at all.

Weiner:

During the time you had no other special projects, physics projects —I assume you wrote up the work you had done.

Oppenheimer:

Yes, that's right. I didn't always write them up. Often somebody else did, but some of them, I've forgotten which ones. I think the paper on the linear accelerator came out —

Weiner:

— in '55 —

Oppenheimer:

Yes, and I didn't have anything to do with the writing of that.

Weiner:

But your name is on it, right. But then you wrote something for the Durango HERALD in '55, how did that come about?

Oppenheimer:

I gave a talk, and they wanted to publish it. It may have been at the college there, what was it called? Ft. Lewis, was in Durango, yes. It was a junior college.

Weiner:

The title of the paper was "The Sentimental Fruits of Science," May '59. This was towards the end — by this time you were getting more involved, more in public education?

Oppenheimer:

Yes, I guess so. I taught high school during the academic years '57-'58 and '58-'59 and then I had taught in the spring of '57 — no, '56. I sort of pinch hit, during the first spring, because the teacher they had left just before the spring semester. I thought I'd be hired for the next year (but at that time, because of the political thing, I think mostly due to the principal), there was enough worry so that I wasn't. Then I ran for the school board but I didn't get elected.

Weiner:

Was the political issue used in the campaign?

Oppenheimer:

Yes. I remember one of the ranchers went around saying, "It's a fine thing when they have to have a Communist on the school board." And not during the election, but afterwards, I saw him and I said I'd heard that he said that, I told him that I wasn't a Communist, and he said, "Oh, I'm sorry, I thought you were." That must have been in the summer or fall of '56.

Weiner:

What about the time of your brother's hearings?

Oppenheimer:

My brother came to visit us shortly before the hearings, and told me what was coming up, and sort of how he was going to handle it, in the sense that he was going to talk about himself and not treat it as a trial, which he didn't do. But I didn't have any particular advice for him, I don't think. I don't know if he came every summer, but he came quite often.

Weiner:

Were there any changes you saw in him at that time? We'd talked earlier about changes in wartime. Was there anything you perceived as change?

Oppenheimer:

I think he was very defeated by the hearings. I think, I don't quite know why — I think that he really wanted to make a difference, and right after the war, thought that he had a lot of influence on our policy, in the way of heading it towards international control of weapons or reduction of weapons, and that the fact that it was cut short and he was kicked out in this way really got him down. And it's hard to start over again. That is, he had so much fresh thought about it in the '45, '46 period, that I don't think he saw then — and he was just beginning to come out of that, I think, a couple of years before he died, new ways of looking at things.

Weiner:

By this time he was at Princeton. Was he somewhat changed in his outlook in any way? He was not involved in as much direct research as before.

Oppenheimer:

Well, his role had always been a great deal in working with students and other people, stimulating them, correcting them. And he had groups of people around him at Princeton in physics. From the very start, he invited people there. So I don't think that he really even noticed the fact that he wasn't doing physics, because in a sense he was, but always through other people, and I don't think he wrote any papers about physics with anybody then. But I think he felt very much part of the physics. So I don't think he perceived, and I didn't perceive, that he thought of himself less a physicist.

Weiner:

What about the political situation? This was the McCarthy period, and it also was fairly evident how violent the political situation could be, in terms of your situation. Was there any anxiety about that, any discussion about your own situation or the larger situation?

Oppenheimer:

No, I don't remember any. I don't remember any special talks we had about the McCarthy era and its general oppressiveness. I'm sure he was aware of it, but there wouldn't have been much point in talking about it. I've forgotten when he first got wind of the possibility of a hearing. It was some time before. And I think he imagined that there could be such a thing at any time, so he was not terribly secure in his feeling about it, and probably was very cautious. And I didn't ever talk with him about the kinds of things he had been involved in that bothered a lot of people, the Bernard Peters incident and things like that.

Weiner:

When some felt he had acted in a wrong way, you never discussed that with him.

Oppenheimer:

Not in great detail, no. I think he knew that — my feeling about it is that he was always a very eloquent and very persuasive guy, and I think his basic error was in misjudging the people that he could or might have some effect on, but other people felt that he was trying to save himself by doing all this talking. But I don't think he was. I think he just felt that if he made everything perfectly clear, nothing bad would happen.

Weiner:

Which meant a great deal of confidence in people who were making these decisions, which would mean military people, some of the AEC people, the investigatory —?

Oppenheimer:

I don't think he had confidence in them, no. I think he had confidence in his own ability to make such a good case that they couldn't make a case.

Weiner:

Anyway you say you didn't discuss this with him?

Oppenheimer:

I'm sure it came up in a variety of ways, but I don't remember anything definite about it.

Weiner:

Was there anything specific in relation to your own situation, from the time of firing on?

Oppenheimer:

We saw each other several times between the first TIMES HERALD story, and the time that I went to the Un-American Activities and talked about my situation, and about his, I suppose, too. We had a long drive out to Montauk Point together one time then. I think he felt during the 50's that my own situation was more artificial than I felt it was. I really felt like a rancher and was a rancher, and he didn't believe I could be a rancher, and was very anxious for me to get back into the academic world, although there wasn't anything he could do about it.

Weiner:

As far as his own situation goes, did — is that where the idea of being insecure in his own situation came from? Did he express this, that his situation was a shaky one?

Oppenheimer:

One didn't have to be very smart to know it was a shaky one. And he was very smart.

Weiner:

Just a question of waiting.

Oppenheimer:

Yes. And I don't think he knew what the outcome of the hearing would be. I think he handled it in a very dignified and gentle way, which he probably thought was good — I know he talked with many of his friends and lawyers about it, and I guess it seemed the only alternative to him. But when one now reads Philip Stern's book, one realizes that it was a trial, and that the Constitutional protection of normal trial proceedings might have been more than just the hearings — have you seen Philip Stern's book?

Weiner:

Yes, I've read some of it.

Oppenheimer:

Really the odds were much more against him than anyone could have realized ahead of time. So I don't think he knew what the outcome of that hearing would be when he went in.

Weiner:

You say he didn't know what the outcome might be.

Oppenheimer:

Or would be.

Weiner:

But that he was somewhat optimistic. Did you and he have any general discussions about the particular course of action that you had taken, or misgivings the way your situation had been handled?

Oppenheimer:

No, I don't think so.

Weiner:

What about the relationships, getting back to — did you ever leave the ranch, go to visit other places, during this whole period?

Oppenheimer:

Yes. We went to San Francisco twice during Christmas vacation, and New York once, and Denver once or twice, I think. That was it. Yes. The kids were going to school, so Christmas vacation was about the only time we could get away. The summers were much too busy, and also lots of people came to us then.

Weiner:

It was pretty much settled, not sedentary —

Oppenheimer:

Very much so. We didn't even sight-see the San Juan Basin very well. I realized something there, though, where the tradition of the Sabbath came from, because if you're in a rural agricultural situation, one's always dealing with living things, and the grass is burning up, or a calf is sick, or the river is flooding. These are things which demand one's attention, and they don't seem at all evil — just, to keep this from happening. But it's there all the time, it's just always fighting nature — the fence posts are rotting and so one just works all the time. And it really takes a higher authority to say that it's evil to work all the time. It's not reflective at all. And thus one has need for the Sabbath. We didn't take the Sabbath very muck. I've sort of regretted it.

Weiner:

I haven't heard that definition of the origin.

Oppenheimer:

I don't know if that is the origin, but —

Weiner:

It makes sense, in the human situation. In this period, which as you said was not a despair period, but when you were becoming ranchers, you maintained contact with family and some friends. At the same time, you were willing to look into ways of getting into other situations. You mentioned a few of them.

Oppenheimer:

Well, let's see. There was a local Cattlemen's Association. The Senate Agricultural Committee had subcommittee hearings in Albuquerque, and even though I'd only been in the cattle business about three years, I was elected as the spokesman for the local Cattlemen's Association. I went around the county and found out what people's troubles were, and most of the troubles were that they had to have so much equipment, which just sat there all year long, but took a big capital investment. It would be much better if there were equipment available in some sort of a pool which they could draw on. And I expressed this at the committee hearings in Albuquerque. Ellender, I guess, was the chairman and he said, "That's just what they do in Russia." I said to myself, "My God, I can't get away from it." Then I was on Archuleta County local Soil Conservation Board, in fact, chairman of it, which was a very nice outfit. It was a good piece of legislation. I enjoyed that.

Weiner:

State or —?

Oppenheimer:

It's a federal program with a lot of local autonomy and local decision-making, and one can even pick projects for the area which you think the area needs a great deal of, and one can — it's coupled with a payment program, under which the federal government will pay for certain practices, at least pay for half the costs. Each locality can obtain permission to add their particular needs to that federal payment program. It's a very interesting piece of legislation. In some localities it didn't work well, but it worked extremely well in our county.

Weiner:

Where was this Soil Conservation Board?

Oppenheimer:

It was a county board or district board, in this case, the district was geographically the same as the county.

Weiner:

How often were you involved in that?

Oppenheimer:

Most of the time I was there after the first three years, something like seven years.

Weiner:

Then you had the interest in the school board elections, that didn't work out, and other activities?

Oppenheimer:

A lot of work with the Four H. I ran a Four H electricity course for the Four H kids every summer, not a great many of them, but —

Weiner:

They would be from all over?

Oppenheimer:

From that part, from Pagosa Springs, the area of Archuleta County. It was a huge, huge county with 3000 people in it.

Weiner:

Mostly farmers, ranchers?

Oppenheimer:

Yes. The town had 1500 people in it.

Weiner:

How far were you from the town?

Oppenheimer:

20 miles.

Weiner:

Then how was the involvement in the local high school — Jefferson County High School?

Oppenheimer:

After I'd moved to Boulder, yes.

Weiner:

I thought that from Pagosa Springs you had high school teaching, '57.

Oppenheimer:

No, that started in Pagosa; in the summer of '59 I was asked to take part in a teachers' institute on the PSSC physics-course at Boulder, and so that's what I did during the summer of '59. Melba Phillips was also involved with that institute. It was quite good for me. I enjoyed it and the high school teachers liked it. And then that fall, there were a number of different things that came up. Either I could go back to Pagosa Springs or I could teach high school in Durango. Bob Wilson again asked me to come to Cornell, but it would have been a very difficult appointment because — the regents insisted that it just be for one year, and that nobody ask to have it renewed, and I didn't take that, although I struggled whether or not to take it. And then I conceived an experiment which never got funded or never came off, to look for neutrons from the sun using either balloons or rockets, probably balloons, and talked about it with George Gamow, and he got very interested in it and talked to Bill Rense in the physics department at Boulder. So I was given a research associateship at University of Colorado in the fall.

Weiner:

Who funded that?

Oppenheimer:

I've forgotten. I don't think it was NSF. Whether it was ONR or not, I'm not — I think it may have been ONR funding that.

Weiner:

There were no problems?

Oppenheimer:

There were problems, but they were overcome. And — but then I was also asked to teach this course at Jefferson County, so they collected a few kids from all the schools in Jefferson County who were good in science, and there was a class of about 25 or 30 that I taught, at one school, Wheatridge High School, at 9 o'clock every morning. I'd do that, and then I went back to the university.

Weiner:

You were in Boulder, the school was in Boulder?

Oppenheimer:

No, the high school was in Jefferson County. It's a county which is, let's see, just west of Denver, so it was about a 40 minute drive from Boulder. I lived in Boulder.

Weiner:

In your biography it shows you taught in public school '57-59.

Oppenheimer:

I mentioned a little while ago, I taught in Pagosa Springs High School for the academic year '57-'58 and '58-'59, and the spring semester of '56. That was a public school in Colorado.

Weiner:

What kind of thing did you do there?

Oppenheimer:

I was the science teacher for the school. I taught two sections of a general science course, biology course, and in alternate years, either a chemistry or a physics course.

Weiner:

Did you get your interest in science education from specific experience?

Oppenheimer:

No. I don't think my interest in science education ever really died.

Weiner:

When was it expressed before specifically?

Oppenheimer:

In teaching?

Weiner:

Well, in college, of course, you — taught.

Oppenheimer:

Yes. OK. That was the first time I had done less than college teaching.

Weiner:

What I'm getting at is, your interest in education at that level.

Oppenheimer:

It had never occurred to me to do it at that level before. But that was the only level available. But that got me interested in it, and then while I was at Boulder I went back to Zacharias's group several times, one to work on the PSSC, the high school physics course, and two summers to work on the elementary science course and some of the junior high. So I guess that got me interested in that particular level, in broadening the level of science teaching. But I had been a tutor and the organizer of a physics club even while I was in high school.

Weiner:

Did you find the situation satisfying? It's a little unusual, in a small remote high school, that they have a fully professional research physicist teaching science. Did this make an interesting development in the school itself?

Oppenheimer:

It was very nice in the school. I think because in a little far-off place like that, they very often get teachers that are even worse prepared than usual, they were grateful for my experience. It was interesting to observe the community. In general, there's a feeling that people are awfully anti-intellectual, anti-school, but for one reason or another, partly because I worked very hard at it and partly because of all the degrees, they felt they were really getting their money's worth, and there was none of this feeling of scorn or anti-school, anti-intellectualism. It was a very grateful community.

Weiner:

This was also in the first wave of reaction to Sputnik.

Oppenheimer:

Yes, that's right, yes.

Weiner:

This may have influenced the local reaction.

Oppenheimer:

Yes. It may have, but I do not think Sputnik was too important there.

Weiner:

Do you think that influenced you in getting into the school itself?

Oppenheimer:

No, I don't think so. I think it started because I was there that spring, because I was the only one available, and then because it seemed good, then other people kept pushing the school administration to ask me to come back. I don't think it had much directly to do with Sputnik. I enjoyed the teaching there very much, and enjoyed many aspects of it, because it was a rural community and the kids, of course, were very interested in biology, and would bring all kinds of specimens in. In hunting season they'd bring a piece of a bear in. They'd dissect a claw. I remember a lot of quite nice things about it. Some awfully good students, who later on did awfully well, especially one in biology, another one in math. It's the only place that I felt that the science fair did some good. They were so isolated, had such an inferiority complex, that to do something for a science fair in Durango or even at the state level, was a great boost for them. I remember one of the parents whose kid won something at the Denver Science Fair said, "Now we don't need a football team."

Weiner:

What happened to your ranch duties? If you were really fully occupied on the ranch how did you manage to do the teaching? While keeping up the ranch?

Oppenheimer:

We had one hired hand, and Jackie, my wife, really worked like hell. She would go out every day with him and feed the cattle. It was lonesome and hard for her. And then I had weekends.

Weiner:

By this time you still had the 100 cattle and the 100 yearlings?

Oppenheimer:

Yes, we had about 200 head altogether.

Weiner:

Then you'd sell a certain amount?

Oppenheimer:

There are many possible patterns, but we had 100 cows and kept the calves. We had a calf crop, which was never 100 percent, but it was almost so, sometimes. They'd be born in the spring. Then we'd keep them through the next winter and summer, and sell them as about 700 pound, year and a half old animals. Some people there didn't keep cows over the winter, and it was hard to because there was lots of snow, even snow while they were calving. But they'd buy yearlings in the spring and sell them in the fall. But that was a very speculative business, and I didn't want to try it or think I knew enough to do so.

Weiner:

You mentioned contact with Gamow. Had you had contact earlier with people from University of Colorado? I don't know when Condon went there, was he there yet?

Oppenheimer:

No, I think he came slightly after.

Weiner:

Gamow was one that you mentioned. Had you had much contact with him prior to the time you were brought in, in research?

Oppenheimer:

Not while he was there. I knew him from seeing him here and there over a number of years, starting from way back in Cambridge. Then that summer that I was there, of course, I met all the people in the physics department. The summer when I was teaching the teacher training course in PSSC. There was one man that I'd known there because he'd been a student of mine in Minnesota, Walter Tantila. But most of the people there, I'd never met.

Weiner:

How soon was it you took a research associateship there — did you give up the ranch?

Oppenheimer:

No, we went when that became clear that we were doing that, we went down and sold our cows, just closed the place up, kept all our horses and things, sold — kept the place closed for the winter, but kept our hired man to take care. Then, I'm not sure — yes, then shortly after that, in 1961 or something, we did sell, not all of the ranch, but that part which needed a lot of attention and irrigating.

Weiner:

What was the period of the research associateship?

Oppenheimer:

I'm not absolutely certain, but if I remember rightly, the research associateship lasted one year, and then I became an associate professor.

Weiner:

I have it down, from '59 to '61, you were research associate, then '61 you were associate professor until '64.

Oppenheimer:

Yes. And each time any of these things happened, there were always arguments at the regents level. But not severe ones, I knew one of the regents and he was very helpful, Phil Danielson.

Weiner:

From the area, you mean?

Oppenheimer:

Yes. And it was really strange. There was a president of the university who left there, I don't know, '63 or '64, something like that, Quig Newton, partly because one of the more reactionary regents was elected by campaigning that Newton had done two terrible things. One, he'd fired the football coach, and the other, he'd hired me. It's — these damn undertones just go on and on and on.

Weiner:

When was it that you really made the permanent move to the University of Colorado, I guess when you took the research associateship?

Oppenheimer:

Yes, we bought a house in Boulder.

Weiner:

Then toward the end of the research associateship it was clear you were going to be offered a faculty position?

Oppenheimer:

I guess so. I don't remember.

Weiner:

How did these experiments work out?

Oppenheimer:

The neutrons from the sun thing never got funded. That may be just as well. It was a very hard experiment and whether my scheme would have worked or not, I don't know. I had invented a directional telescope that could also enable one to determine whether the neutrons were coming from above or below, because there's such an albedo of neutrons. Rense had worked with devices that were sun-seeking, so one could move it back and forth across the sun and decide what was background and what wasn't. We applied for an additional grant but we didn't get funded. So I did some work on the reflectivity of metals in the far ultraviolet.

Weiner:

One for the JOURNAL OF THE OPTICAL SOCIETY.

Oppenheimer:

Yes.

Weiner:

Then I guess — the JOURNAL OF THE OPTICAL SOCIETY — these were '62 — during the research associateship. How did you get involved in the high energy work?

Oppenheimer:

That was very conscious discussion — I'd just started to do experiments on the 184-inch just before I left Berkeley. I did only one experiment there, but it was a field that I was interested in, but knew little about it. It had moved very rapidly. And there were other experiments involving rockets, including the neutrons from the sun thing, which I could have pursued longer. But I'd watched what happened with graduate students that were attached to rocket experiments, and really was, I thought at the time, a very poor training. There is an awful lot of technical work beyond just the technique of doing an experiment; much time is spent on the special techniques needed to make apparatus that will go in a rocket. Then there are usually a lot of aborted flights. There is very little that a student can do in the way of devising and interpreting an experiment. And I thought this wasn't a good field for a school. Then I got the idea, I had been to one of the accelerator conferences in Berkeley, that it would be useful to set up a users' group for the bubble chamber film that was being developed, generated at the large accelerator sites. There were no such groups at the time, but we got some cloud chamber film from Wilson Powell which we looked at, but there wasn't quite enough data. I think there would have been enough film if we'd known what to look for, to find rho meson, because almost anything shows that up, but we didn't think of that. However, this work was a much better thing to have students working on, because there was a constant interaction with data. It turned out that it also had a drawback. It takes so long to do an experiment that although one has a lot of interaction with data, the interaction between the experimentalists and the theorists is pretty desultory, because you ask a question and two years later, you get some sort of answer. By then the theorist is doing something else.

Weiner:

In this case the theorists and experimentalists were on hand at the university?

Oppenheimer:

No, there were no other high energy experimentalists. Bert Downs was interested in nuclear physics and there was a nuclear physics group. During the first year I worked with some graduate students all by myself. Then, looking for somebody else, I talked to Leona Marshall at NYU — I asked her to come. And she had a lot of equipment which she brought with her. So the group grew by a big jump — they remained somewhat separate groups, but it really brought high energy physics to the department. And then because of that, other people came, Dreitline and Iddings and others in theory joined the department. I guess Saltzman was there the first year and was interested and helped think of things to do.

Weiner:

How did the department and the whole physics enterprise compare with what you'd seen earlier, after an almost 10 year gap, at Minnesota and Berkeley? Was there something that could be attributed to change in time in that 10 years had gone by?

Oppenheimer:

I think — I don't know. I haven't really thought about it. I think for me it was a lot harder, and that the general sense of difficulty of doing something significant must have been hard on a lot of people in high energy physics. In nuclear physics, the group there I think was awfully good, with Dave Lind and Jack Kraushar. They kept thinking of interesting things to do. I guess they were building the cyclotron when I first got there. It was good — but they didn't feel as much in the forefront, of course, as those in high energy physics. There was a lot of solid state work going on there. Tantilla and the theorists Miller and Bill Love — but again, it seemed to me that a lot of the solid state work was not really answering fundamental questions, but just thinking of some very odd property of a transition or a band structure, and trying to get at the details of it. It didn't have any of the sort of excitement, that part of it, that I'm used to, although people worked hard at it. But it was a very different sort of field in which it was very far away from the higher level of pattern recognition, of really putting a lot of new things together.

Weiner:

Like nuclear physics at a certain stage.

Oppenheimer:

Probably, yes. Except there was more of a sense of hope always in nuclear physics that something was about to break, just as there is now — the Batavia thing. It isn't just that one's making a lot of detailed measurements, but one has the sense of a lot that isn't understood at all, and that one of these measurements may really help put that together.

Weiner:

That something new will be discovered.

Oppenheimer:

That's right, yes.

Weiner:

I read in the morning papers that somebody found anti-tritium.

Oppenheimer:

Oh, really?

Weiner:

Yes, yesterday's announcement, SF CHRONICLE had it this morning. You want to take a break? We're resuming now after a little refreshment. You were talking about research and I'd like to explore a little more, about high energy. One thing wasn't clear to me — when you said a users' group, you were referring to Berkeley?

Oppenheimer:

I don't think there were too many of them at the time, but it occurred to me and it must have occurred to other people about that time that there was a lot of bubble chamber film that had more in it than (was found) by the people who first analyzed it, and that this film was just sitting around, and that it would take relatively little equipment for a place like Boulder in order to be able to use it. So I guess eventually these places got to be called users' groups in the sense that they were separate university entities or research groups that used the output of the accelerators, and —

Weiner:

Which ones in particular did you use?

Oppenheimer:

Well, the first experiments we did were really not high energy. They involved stopping K-mesons in propane. So that they were a combination of nuclear physics and strange particle physics. One studied the interaction of K's with different particles. But one also could get some idea of what the surface of the nucleus was like, since the K's normally were captured from circular orbits, so that they were just close to the surface. There were some indications that there were more neutrons on the surface of heavy elements than we expected. One also could get some idea of the absorption of sigmas in nuclear matter and so on, so it was a rather interesting low energy physics experiment, but with strange particles that could only be made with high energy accelerators. That was part of the work.

Weiner:

Was anyone else doing that, any other groups involved in it?

Oppenheimer:

Well, yes, I think Martin Block was doing some of that, primarily the K'-capture in helium, and then the group in London was doing it, also Wilson Powell himself, he made the film that we used.

Weiner:

You say Wilson Powell, not C. F. Powell.

Oppenheimer:

Yes. And then when I went to London, on half-Guggenheim and half research appointment at the University College and worked with Burhop and others, on just the same problem. And then also, the other part of it, although it might have been sensible just to stay with that same problem, there really wasn't enough different film involved and it was hard to get a run with the kind of questions that came up, so some of the graduate students got involved with looking at elastic scattering, and especially inelastic rho meson production. So those were the two main things we worked on at Boulder.

Weiner:

What kind of a budget did this require? The film?

Oppenheimer:

The film, we didn't have a run of our own, so we didn't have to get film. Some of it we had copied but relatively little. Most of it was just loaned to us. So our budget was around $120,000 a year for our group, and then Leona and that larger group had a budget of $250,000 a year.

Weiner:

And she got her money from —

Oppenheimer:

She got money from the AEC. Our grant was from the NSF.

Weiner:

How large a group, yours?

Oppenheimer:

A physicist and a post-doc. And about four graduate students at the time, six, I think, part of the time. Her group was somewhat larger.

Weiner:

Do you know how many people got their PhD's under your direction during that period?

Oppenheimer:

Not very many. Four or five. That was, what, from '63 or '64 to '68.

Weiner:

Your first bubble chamber paper then comes out about '64. I remember John Wilson was a co-author —

Oppenheimer:

— he was a graduate student.

Weiner:

The elastic cross sections and so forth, this is all the '64 period. All these other names on the papers I assume are students, Davis —

Oppenheimer:

Yes, those were graduate students.

Weiner:

Bussion — J. R. Wilson, that's another Wilson — During the same period, a number of papers were coming out in two major categories, some in education, for example, with Correll — Library of Experiments — then others on the broader aspects of education, also on social issues, for example, "The Character of the University." An editorial in SATURDAY REVIEW, "The Mathematics of Destruction." Let's take the educational ones first. The PSCC.

Oppenheimer:

Yes, when I first — the PSCC was the high school physics course developed under the direction of Gerald Zacharias and Francis Friedman. I did teach it at teacher training institutes, I think three summers, in which we were supported by NSF, and we sort of centered around the PSSC course, although they were really physics courses for the high school teachers. Then I ran what was called an in-service institute for some of the teachers of Jefferson County, and I did that for twelve teachers for two years. We met once a week in the evening for two or three hours. It was interesting to see what happened there, because the teachers at the outset came in the hope of acquiring some sort of jewels that they could use for their students, and acted as though they were just transmitters from me — through them —to their students, without any involvement in the material themselves. And it took almost a year before the kinds of questions they asked showed that they were genuinely interested in the subject and became more interested in learning for themselves than just as robots for their students. I think this is one of the difficulties with a lot of in-service institutes and teacher training. The teachers are only preoccupied with learning how they can transmit standard bits of knowledge to their students, rather than in learning something for themselves and then selecting from all of this some parts that they want to tell their students. Then also I got interested in developing a new laboratory. When I gave lectures in the general physics course, I started working on new laboratory experiments, rather than the traditional ones. Dave Lind and Kraushaar and others had done some of that at Boulder before I got there. I got very interested in it and got other people going on it, and so worked up a new but very haywire experiment for the students each week. But by the end of the year, all of those had been taken down one by one and put in an attic. They were so haywire that nobody else could have put them together again, and it occurred to me that it would be good to have this great variety of experiments set up more or less permanently. And one day when I was walking through the field house, the track field house, it occurred to me that was what I should do: Find a large space and set up 80 to 100 experiments permanently. This, it seems to me, was almost the beginning of the Museum idea. I did get a grant from NSF to set up this library of experiments, in which we eventually had 80 different demonstrations, with usually two copies of each set out on tables. All the experiments for the year in several courses were out there, and you could see and play with them even if you weren't working with them. Not all the students did the same experiments. I got the university to find a space, which turned out to be the attic of the chemistry building, and they remodeled that. We eventually had about 4000 square feet that we set up with these experiments. They're still using the lab, and adding to it a little bit, remodeling it. And it had a very nice feel to it. The one thing that didn't happen as I had expected — it wasn't used as a browsing laboratory. That is, students came there to do their courseware, but very few students came in between times just because they were interested — in particular things and wanted to do some measurements or look at the phenomena. There was some of that, but much less than I'd thought there would be. So it was in a sense a resource library, reference library, it wasn't a browsing library. But I suppose in that were some of the seeds of the Museum. The laboratory development had a nice secondary effect. Because its success then got a lot of other faculty to find that — (and I think perhaps this was largely due to the chairman, Wesley Brittin) — that there were some rewards in developing new curriculum materials, and several physics faculty then developed new laboratories. There was renewed emphasis on the modern physics laboratory and electrical measurements and electronics. So most of the faculty people got involved in this kind of thing, which I thought was rather good.

Weiner:

You described that in your article, and also in UP you described the experiment and the development.

Oppenheimer:

Yes, as part of the same thing.

Weiner:

But at the same time, you had a series of articles — well, the "Sentimental Fruits of Science," we didn't really discuss that — I want to get back to that. I don't know that you told me the content of that, or what those words mean? It would be nice to get a copy of it.

Oppenheimer:

I think I have a copy of it I can show you. It dealt with the effects, more or less the intellectual pleasures one got out of science, rather than the practical fruits of science.

Weiner:

What about something more political, "Science and Fear" — 1961 —

Oppenheimer:

That had somewhat the same kind of tone. It used some of the same examples of the sentimental fruits, but much less from the idea of pure intellectual enjoyment — the sense of putting things together, the importance of —

Weiner:

You were talking about the other one, "Science and Fear" — (off tape) You say you have a reprint of the article.

Oppenheimer:

I have reprints of quite a few of the things that I wrote of a general nature.

Weiner:

So, the one in the SATURDAY REVIEW on Mathematics of Destruction, an editorial in 1955, is quite different — you probably have a copy of that, too. How did that come about? An editorial is generally not something one volunteers, somehow it comes about —

Oppenheimer:

I think I sent another article to Norman Cousins, and he didn't want to publish it, but asked me to write a guest editorial at some point. Then I wrote another little piece, quite independently of that request, which I called "A Factor of a Thousand" and he changed to "The Mathematics of Destruction." And it was about the difficulty of appreciating what a factor of a thousand meant, in terms of weaponry, and the fact that nuclear weapons really increased the damage done by easily a factor of a thousand, whereas very few other things had changed by such a big factor. The difference, for example, between the energy used per capita in Burma in 1946 and the energy used in the United States per capita at the same time was only a factor of 30.

Weiner:

Were you taking your examples from social phenomena rather than nature or using natural things?

Oppenheimer:

No, I didn't, I used mostly social phenomena, some of them like the fact that the jet commercial airplane at that time only went 100 times faster than a man could walk.

Weiner:

What would it be now, very much more?

Oppenheimer:

Not very much more, maybe 200 times. But it's still not 1000, and actually 1000 is sort of a minimum number for what a nuclear weapon can do, compared to a conventional one.

Weiner:

Did you get any response to the editorial?

Oppenheimer:

I didn't. I think I got a couple of letters. But a little journal in Japan picked it up and published it in an English language magazine that was connected with the SATURDAY REVIEW. I think it was called THE BEST FROM THE SATURDAY REVIEW. It was published in English, in Japan, by an independent outfit.

Weiner:

I'm not quite clear about the end of the period at Colorado, or when it was that you began the switch —

Oppenheimer:

Well, a little more on these other things. That is, the subject matter of these other papers I was writing was really not something new for me, because I'd been giving talks on similar subjects even before I went to the ranch. Well, in 1965, I had a Guggenheim Fellowship, and while I was there, I got really intrigued by the Science Museum in South Kensington, London. I realized how terribly few of them there were in America and what a good role they played. I visited quite a few others in Europe and a few when I got back, and started talking about it, and was invited to a conference on museum education in Burlington, Vermont. Dave Hawkins had told somebody that I was interested. And I wrote a little paper there on the role of science museums.

Weiner:

Conference on museums — when? '68?

Oppenheimer:

'66, wasn't it? The Conference was sponsored by The Smithsonian and Office of Education.

Weiner:

It was published in '68.

Oppenheimer:

OK. Then, in '67, I thought maybe I would do something about it, and came here (SF). I went to the Lawrence Hall of Science and there didn't seem to be much opportunity there to do anything.

Weiner:

Why? They'd decided?

Oppenheimer:

I think they'd decided (Lawrence Hall) and they weren't involving anybody else in it and so on. I looked around for a place to do it. I thought we'd have to start by building a new building, but then the Palace of Fine Arts was empty and had just been reconstructed, and I got some people interested in that, and wasn't then sure what would happen. During the winter of 1967-68 I kept in touch with the people in SF, and it began to look promising. So in the summer of '68 Jackie and I moved here, sold our house and decided to make a go of it one way or another, and it did go.

Weiner:

Was there a position here?

Oppenheimer:

No position at all for about a year.

Weiner:

Did you resign?

Oppenheimer:

I took a leave from the university, so I could have gone back. I'm still on leave.

Weiner:

The same position.

Oppenheimer:

Yes. The first few years, there was every likelihood I might go back, because this was a very uncertain thing, and we're not that solid yet but it certainly seems good enough, so I stayed here. But I like being associated with the University of Colorado and they're willing to give me a continuing leave. I'm not using up any of their budget.

Weiner:

In connection with people here who got interested, at the Palace of Fine Arts building — that would involve contact with some influence in the city?

Oppenheimer:

Yes, it was helped enormously by Scott Newhall, who was then Executive Editor of the CHRONICLE, and he and his wife had helped start up the Maritime Museum. They were interested, and Ruth Newhall especially did get terribly interested in this, and then unfortunately moved away about the year we started. We had help from other people on the board, Panofsky and Ed McMillan were willing to go on the board, and I knew Lew Goldblatt who was the Secretary-Treasurer of the ILWU, and he knew lots of people here.

Weiner:

You say people were helpful, Panofsky and others — what did they do?

Oppenheimer:

Well, the first thing to do was get the city Department of Recreation Commission and the supervisors to agree to let that building be used for our museum rather than for something else. There were a number of other schemes, including making it into tennis courts, which some people looked at with great favor because it would be somewhat revenue producing. And there were other groups who wanted to make it a series of art workshops for performing arts, so it took influence. And I suppose the fact that they were associated with it also helped give confidence to the first granting agency, which was the San Francisco Foundation, $50,000 four years ago, for a year.

Weiner:

'69, you spent three years —

Oppenheimer:

One, just about one year, because I took my first leave of absence for the fall, for the '68-'69 academic year.

Weiner:

Talking about the contrast, when you saw and experienced science education in Colorado, at that level, and then your visit in '65 to various science museums in Europe, what emerged out of this? I understand you saw the need for science museums, how important they are.

Oppenheimer:

Yes.

Weiner:

So how did you get the idea for a different type of museum?

Oppenheimer:

Well, it differs in a number of respects. One is that it doesn't try to glorify anything, and I think a lot of science museums do. My experience with the high school course and with development of laboratories, influenced the kind of thing that I thought would be appropriate, and which I had some confidence one could build for the public. Another factor was my thinking about the role of perception, as the core which would be available to all kinds of people, and which would not be considered unadulterated science. I don't know how that idea started. It probably started when I was working with some of the Elementary Science Study programs, and discovered some things about perception for myself. I did some investigating on stereoscopic vision, and made some models. When I talked at the 1966 conference, it was really much more in terms of the conventional science museum but a little more out in the open. But then when the perception theme occurred to me, I think that really began to change the character of the place and made it a much more interdisciplinary and coherent sort of a thing. Because in the first proposal that I wrote, the perception thing was included — the piece that was published in CURATOR as "The Rationale for a Science Museum" was the introduction to that proposal. When I showed that proposal to Albert Parr at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, he said he'd like to publish that part.

Weiner:

Did you get suggestions from people who were running conventional museums? You mentioned Parr at that point.

Oppenheimer:

Let's stop this for a minute.... [Pause]

Weiner:

Parr's reaction obviously was friendly.

Oppenheimer:

Yes, and a number of other people. Mike Spock came through and I talked to him about it, and even Hoving. I then went to the Academy of Sciences, because I didn't want to compete with them, but they weren't interested in the physical sciences and certainly not in technology so they felt relaxed about it. Then I knew how Harvey White felt. I think he felt mostly that it was impossible to do. He'd struggled to get Lawrence Hall going.

Weiner:

Didn't he feel somewhat of a competition, because here the Lawrence Hall of Science was brand new, trying to get established, to play a special role in science education for people in the area. Was there any discussion of this, as a competitive thing, or maybe we have potential for both?

Oppenheimer:

I don't know how Harvey felt about it, but none of the other people — by the time we'd started, Alan Portis was head of the Lawrence Hall of Science, and other people working there, and their mission was different enough and their situation was different enough that people saw right away that we weren't doing the same thing. That is, the really exhibit-centered emphasis at the Exploratorium and the Science Curriculum Development emphasis of Lawrence Hall were different enough, so that I don't think anybody felt that we were doing something they should do or vice versa. Whether there were any other undercurrents or not, I don't know. There probably were, but nothing very serious.

Weiner:

Did you find you were able to attract people to work with you who understood the concept and agreed with it?

Oppenheimer:

Yes, there were a lot of young people working with us who did very well, and they're still there, although I don't know that they'll stay forever. The second summer that we were working and actually the first summer that we were really open, Phil and Phyllis Morrison came and helped a lot. And many of the people around the area contributed ideas. Some of them even made things. We had a little committee set up, especially in areas with which I was unfamiliar, like some of the things in visual perception, where I learned a lot and where some of the people then brought in their own exhibits. Somebody at SRI made something, and some faculty over in Berkeley did, and so on.

Weiner:

How did these people, not these people themselves but a lot of young people, how did they get paid?

Oppenheimer:

Well, the staff people, who are more in their twenties, get paid from the grants, from the general purpose grant mostly, but some of them, when we get an exhibit development grant, some of them are involved entirely in that. Then the other people, the high school students that work there, we usually get special grants for that program, and they're paid from those. The Rosenberg Foundation helped us to start with. Then the Sloan Foundation. And now we have a grant from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. The latter supports this so-called high school explainer program.

Weiner:

What were your expectations when you went into it, in terms of what you hoped to see? Did you have in mind a particular goal over a certain time period?

Oppenheimer:

Yes, and I think we're running about half speed. I thought we'd be able to get much larger sums of money to start with, several hundred thousand dollar grants, rather than several tens of thousands dollar grants. Maybe somebody else like Zacharias would have gotten the larger grants, but I didn't.

Weiner:

There was never any thought of the need of affiliating your programs with somebody else's Zacharias' program?

Oppenheimer:

No. It might have helped, been part of the California Academy, but I don't think they wanted it there, it was too different. It would have been very good to have been a branch of a university like Stanford University, but there was no interest there. That may come in time, given additional stability and additional staff. But there were a lot of individuals in stability and additional staff. But there were a lot of individuals in universities and research outfits and even companies that volunteered to do things, and that seemed to me one of the virtues of a museum, that people who wanted to be part of the educational process, but who couldn't do it in a school because there were curricula to follow and deadlines and you had to give classes. In museums there aren't very many deadlines. And it's worked out to some extent, not to the extent that I'd hoped, but I think partly because in order to make it work, I'd have to go around more and more as I did in the beginning to other people, whereas what happens is — as the place gets going, your time gets consumed by the place, and you don't wander around as much. But it immediately gives the impression, I think, that it's a very honest place. We don't have mock-ups of phenomena and things, we show the real thing.

Weiner:

Yes, it's almost a shock when you walk in, compared to what people expect.

Oppenheimer:

Yes. And it's having an impact. A lot of other places are trying to do some of the things, some new places starting up, even in little towns. I don't know if they'll be successful or not. I hope we can get to help them more, but places like Aspen, Eureka, a little town in Pennsylvania, and then other larger museums trying to make sections like this, place in Miami, the San Diego Museum sent a big contingent of their staff up for planning the new science museum and planetarium. It has a small exhibit place that they thought they could do something. I think it's affected Dennis Flanagan and his ideas. So it's doing some of what I hoped it would do, in making it seem possible to do more science education.

Weiner:

Because of the informal aspect of the thing.

Oppenheimer:

Yes. And it really has something of a curricula. It isn't just a collection of anything that anybody's willing to hand you, or a lot of traveling shows.

Weiner:

Well, how long — you said you were going half speed and mentioned specifically the numbers, half the numbers you wanted — if you had a goal, it would really be fully operational, effective, influential — is it a five year plan?

Oppenheimer:

Well, it is that, already, but as far as the content goes and the completeness of the curricula, I'd have thought we would have gotten done quite a long ways in five years, and I think after four years, we're about half way to where I thought we would be in the time. It's going all right. It's rich enough in content now so that people don't see it all in one visit, and they come back over and over again. There are many problems associated with it — the fact that it's so hard to be reflective while you're doing busy working exhibits, or to be at all analytical, means that we have to find some way of supplementing the museum visit with other kinds of material, either written material or little films or television broadcasts that pertain directly to it. Something I want to get done in the next year or so.

Weiner:

Well, I think that would mean getting people to write pamphlets and so forth.

Oppenheimer:

Yes. I think that's one approach. We are writing a catalog that talks in more depth about many of the things. And we are developing little mini-courses using exhibits of interlocking curricula, and they will help.

Weiner:

What does this mean in terms of what you want over a period of time, what people can get out of it?

Oppenheimer:

Well, I think there are a lot of different kinds of things. A sense that nature's very rich and understandable and interconnected, would be one thing — that they can get interested in looking, observing more carefully and fiddling around on their own with it. And I remember setting up one exhibit, asking somebody what they saw, and the person backed away and said, "No — what am I supposed to see?" And if we could get rid of this feeling that you can't see something unless you know what you're supposed to see, it would be very good. (Get a feeling that you can see something without knowing what you're supposed to see.)

Weiner:

But the aim is not to make them scientists.

Oppenheimer:

No. There's a conviction that some people may start being scientists because they've been there. That does happen to some extent at all science museums. I've had people tell me how they got started in science at the Chicago Museum. So I think it may help in that way. It may determine, I may shape people's lives, but that's certainly not the primary aim. It's a nice outcome when that happens.

Weiner:

Your primary aim's the one of interesting people in the subject.

Oppenheimer:

Yes, and enabling them to feel that things are understandable, and not with the idea that people will necessarily vote better because they know science, but they might vote better if they thought that things were understandable.

Weiner:

I don't know if that makes it easier —

Oppenheimer:

I don't know either. I don't think even "better" is the right word. They might take a more thoughtful part in the whole process. But a lot of guff has been written about how democracy needs an informed citizenry, as if this were all by itself going to make everything work well, and I don't believe that, and I don't think the point of it is quite —

Weiner:

People can more easily be manipulated — Well, I think that as far as the historical side is concerned, your interest in this brings us to the things I wanted to probe with you today. Is there anything I can keep up with, read what you've written recently which addresses this? So unless there's something that you feel we should go over, things in your life history of significance that I did not ask about, did not know about to ask —?

Oppenheimer:

No, I can't think of anything now. I mean, I think a lot of it isn't of significance, but I can't think of anything more at the moment. If I do, I'll write it down for you.

Weiner:

OK, well, this is fine.

Session I | Session II