Thursday, March 4, 2010

Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens by K C Cole *****

Hippie creates atomic bomb, or is it atomic bomb creates hippie? In Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens, K C Cole traces Frank Oppenheimer's life from the Manhattan Project to exile on a Colorado Ranch to the world famous Exploratorium. After working as an atomic physicist during World War II and helping to create the atomic bomb, Frank Oppenheimer falls prey to McCarthyism and the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC). The FBI tailed him for years and his was blackballed from all university, military and government research. Not easily discouraged, he moved to Colorado, ran a ranch and taught science in a rural high school.

But the real story is the San Francisco Exploratorium, the original science museum and still the inspiration for all those hands-on science and technology museums around the world. Much like a science fiction story, when the Exploratorium was founded in 1969 it was a window on the future. Frank Oppenheimer's management style, seemingly reflecting hippie culture, though more respectably credited to research labs, was egalitarian and chaotic. Later much of his approach was popularized by Hewlitt-Packard and called MBWA (Management by Walking Around).
In the 21st century both business and fiction see the future as being user-generated content - the next new thing. However, when the Exploratorium opened in the 1970s (pre-Internet), this science museum encouraged exhibits brought in by museum patrons. Anyone with a good idea could bring it to the Exploratorium and users were even encouraged to modify existing exhibits, not unlike Cory Doctorow's imaginings in Maker.

I recommend this book highly to anyone with an interest the 50s and 60s. The view into the culture of these important decades is both unique and enlightening.

My only complaint is that the author, K C Cole, is too much in the story. Her life is a dull detail in the life of Frank Oppenheimer and many of the slow sections focus on K C Cole instead the main character. In my mind, an even more egregious faut pas is when K C Cole pads the story with her old columns on the philosophy of science. However, the story of Frank Oppenheimer is so interesting, I gladly plowed through the boring parts to read the life of one of the great people of my lifetime.

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