March 21, 2003  


Exploratorium to Honor Pief Panofsky

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:


The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center is managed by Stanford University for the US Department of Energy

Last update Thursday March 20, 2003 by Kathy B