By Shawna Williams
Pief Panofsky doesn’t know much about museums, he claims,
but he knows what he likes. So when his friend Frank Oppenheimer came to
his office in the mid-60’s with an idea for a hands-on science museum,
Panofsky did what he could to help him. Now one of the most famous science
museums in the world, Oppenheimer’s Exploratorium in San Francisco will
thank Panofsky later this month with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Pief Panofsky, Director Emeritus
(Photo by Peter Ginter)
"Pief’s achievements have been exemplary as a scientist in
the field of high energy physics and as a humanitarian," says Dr. Goéry
Delacôte, the Exploratorium’s Director since Oppenheimer’s death in 1985.
"As a lifetime Exploratorium Board member, Pief has also played a
leadership role in this institution since its founding."
Physicists Oppenheimer and Panofsky met soon after World
War II when they worked together on a linear accelerator in Berkeley.
Panofsky later moved to SLAC, and Oppenheimer became a rancher and teacher
in Colorado after being blacklisted by the House un-American Activities
Committee. "Frank was a very humble, soft-spoken fellow, and a capable
experimental physicist, but public education was really his bag, it was
his mission," Panofsky remembers.
His teaching experience convinced Oppenheimer that
hands-on exploration was the best way to learn science, and he returned to
California to start a museum based on this idea. Panofsky supported
Oppenheimer, helping choose the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco as
the location. SLAC sometimes loaned equipment or guest speakers to the
museum, and helped with exhibit design.
Oppenheimer’s goal for the museum was to bring visitors’
perceptions closer to scientific reality, Panofsky explains. "So
originally he was going to call it the Perceptorium, but then he got
convinced that nobody could figure out what that means."
"At most other science museums the exhibits are sort of
under glass. I mean, here’s the exhibit and here’s the visitor and you
push a button and something happens," Panofsky says. "At the Exploratorium
there’s much more immediacy between what you experience and what really
goes on. There’s no glass wall between you and the exhibits."
Panofsky will receive his award at the Exploratorium’s
26th Annual Awards Dinner on Wednesday, April 30. For more information,
call (415) 561-0322.
For more information on the Exploratorium, see:
For more information on Panofsky, see: