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Exploratorium to honor Pief Panofsky

W. K. H. "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-sixties with an idea for a hands-on science museum, Panofsky did what he could to help. As then-director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, he aided Oppenheimer in selecting the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco as the museum's home, facilitated loans of equipment and guest speakers from SLAC and helped with exhibit design.

The Exploratorium, founded in 1969, is now one of the most famous science museums in the world. On April 30, the museum will thank Panofsky with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

"Pief's achievements have been exemplary as a scientist in the field of high-energy physics and as a humanitarian," Exploratorium Director Goéry Delacôte said of Panofsky, who helped found SLAC, served as its first director from 1962 to 1984 and advised U.S. Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter on nuclear weapons policy. "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, while Oppenheimer was forced to resign from his university post after being harassed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He became a rancher and teacher in Colorado. Oppenheimer's teaching experience convinced him that hands-on exploration was the best way to learn science, and he returned to California to start a museum based on this idea.

"Frank was a very humble, soft-spoken fellow, and a capable experimental physicist, but public education was really his bag," Panofsky recalled. "It was his mission."

Oppenheimer's goal for the museum was to bring visitors' perceptions closer to scientific reality, Panofsky explained. "Originally he was going to call it the Perceptorium, but then he got convinced that nobody could figure out what that means."

Oppenheimer died in 1985, but his dream lives on, and its success is tangible in more than 650 science, art and human perception exhibits.

"At most other science museums, the exhibits are sort of under glass," Panofsky said. "[By that] I mean, here's the exhibit and here's the visitor and you push a button and something happens. At the Exploratorium, there's much more immediacy between what you experience and what really goes on."


Shawna Williams is a science writing intern at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.


By Shawna Williams

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