The physicist Frank Oppenheimer is remembered today, insofar as he is remembered at all, as the younger brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer, leader of the Manhattan Project scientists who built the atomic bomb. Some also recall that Frank was drummed out of academic life for lying about whether he had belonged to the Communist Party yet went on to found the Exploratorium, San Francisco’s innovative science museum. But there is far more to his story, as K.C. Cole’s able biography makes clear.
The elegant and oracular Robert Oppenheimer was a theorist whose conspicuously cultivated mien played well among those who assume that intellectual progress is mainly a matter of great thinkers thinking great thoughts. Frank was an experimenter—plainspoken, handy at fixing things, and so unconcerned about appearances that he habitually erased blackboards with his necktie. Science owes at least as much to its experimenters as to its theorists but old habits of mind are slow to change, so experimental physicists are still often overlooked and underrated. For this and other reasons Frank was obscured by his older brother’s long shadow even before the Bomb made Robert world-famous. This elision Cole is at pains to repair.
The Oppenheimer brothers grew up in a well-off, cultured household on 88th Street and Riverside Drive where the windows looked out on the Hudson River and the walls were adorned with paintings by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Renoir, and Picasso. Their mother, Ella Friedman, had been a painter—she studied in Paris and taught at Columbia—but gave it up upon marrying Julius Oppenheimer, who had emigrated from Germany at age seventeen and made a fortune importing suit-lining fabrics. The family had a chauffeured limousine, a waterfront summer house in Bay Shore, Long Island, and a forty-foot yacht, the Lorelei.
Robert, who characterized himself as having been “an unctuous, repulsively good little boy,” became an intellectual athlete who read the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit and, when invited to speak in the Netherlands, elected to give his lectures in Dutch although he had never studied that language. Frank was another matter. He inherited his mother’s beauty—the physicist I.I. Rabi described the cherubic young Frank as something “out of an Italian painting”—and was sufficiently artistic to consider a career as a classical flutist, but he was happiest welding, taking things apart, and conducting electrical experiments. He liked to climb trees during lightning storms and once threw a bicycle across the third rail of a train track just to see the sparks fly. Dexterous and grubby, accustomed to using words literally rather than spinning glittering metaphors, Frank was not thought brilliant. When the brothers were at Caltech in 1939, a fellow student recalled, Robert was “always at the center of any group—smooth, articulate, captivating,” while Frank “stood at the fringe, shoulders hunched over, clothes mussed and frayed, fingers still dirty …