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Frank Oppenheimer: Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens

From Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and His Astonishing Exploratorium

by K. C. Cole


Speech to the 1960 graduating class of Pagosa Springs High School

by Frank Oppenheimer

I am grateful for the life I have lived. It has certainly not been as full as the lives of some people, and yet it has probably been richer in experience and in a sense of accomplishment than the lives of many.

I think that part of the sense of having lived a full and a rich life comes from an inability to continually take things seriously—but not too personally. Of a willingness, even a determination, to become deeply involved in what you are doing, but not obsessed by it.

What have you taken seriously? What has involved a lot of your attention, your time and worry: I can mention a tremendous variety of things: your school work, ball games, county fairs, science fairs, plays, concerts, talent shows, to name some of the obvious ones. But also some of you have been involved with a job or with the putting up of hay or doctoring sick animals. you have been concerned with events in your family, your relations with your friends and with things that you have made or bought. You have had to make decisions about what to do in the summer—and about what to do next. These form merely a suggestion of the kind of things that most of you have had some occasion to take seriously. What do you do when you take them seriously? You learn, you work, you worry and plan. It makes a difference to you whether one thing happens or another. Whether you get an A or a D, a kiss or a sneer, a victory or a loss.

I want to put a little more meaning to into the phrase “taking things seriously.” Perhaps I can best explain what I mean by talking about myself. I would say, for example, that I took my teaching in this school seriously. First of all, I thought it was an important job. I felt that if you learned some science, you would be able to lead better lives and that by trying to do a good job of teaching, I might have some effect not only on you individually but also on the school and the community. The teaching involved a lot of work and planning and I had to learn new things, not only about the subject matter, such as the names of various geologic epochs, but also about how to present ideas that I was, at first, not able to get across. I stopped thinking of myself as a rancher or a nuclear physicist and thought of myself primarily as a high school teacher and wanted to be thought of as a good teacher. I wanted you to understand the things I enjoyed understanding, such as why a star got hot and stayed hot. I wanted you to get satisfaction from being able to do some of the things I found pleasure in doing, whether blowing glass or solving a problem. I felt an enthusiasm for the whole process of teaching.

. . . .

In thinking about my life, I arrived at some ideas about what was necessary for a fruitful life. First, you become involved in projects that you can put your heart into. They seem important. What happens, the outcome of your efforts, must make a difference to you.

Second, the outcome must have, directly or indirectly, a wanted effect not only on you but on something outside you, on other people or on science or on a ranch or on a business.

Third, your project must involve some effort in doing, and especially in learning and experimenting.

Fourth, you have to really commit yourself by being willing to stand for something and to represent the kind of person to yourself and to other that is not inconsistent with what you are involved in. . . .

It is not easy to explain why people take things seriously. If one thinks deeply and objectively about anything, even life itself, it can appear trivial and one can argue that it makes a negligible difference to a universe that is billions of years old and a billion light years in diameter. But such thinking is somehow irrelevant to the way humans act. I am aware of the immensity of the cosmos and yet I can take things seriously. So can you.

I do not really want to imply that I have no sense of values and that everything is of equal importance to me. Some kinds of pursuits and exploits that I could have at one time put my heart into now seem unimportant to me; but other, perhaps somewhat more channeled interests have appeared in their place. I find it increasingly hard to think that I am an expert in anything and yet I have taken very seriously the opportunity to talk and give advice to you tonight. I do not know what will capture my devotion in the future, but from past experience I have some confidence that it will be caught.

For you, I hope that there is another domain that will attract you. Throughout one’s life one sees the perpetration of innumerable injustices and inhuman acts both at home and abroad. Usually one feels powerless to do anything about them, but I recommend to you that when an opportunity to intervene for justice arises, either for you alone or in concert with others, you take these opportunities seriously, and consider them important.

I have gone a little astray from my main purpose tonight, which was merely to remind you that you have a long life ahead of you and to say that I hope it will be a good one. I have talked about just one small aspect of how you life your life, but I think it is an aspect over which you have some measure of control and also one that you might not have been aware of. I recommend that you be willing to become deeply involved in lots and lots of things and that you let yourself, perhaps even force yourself, to do the things that you think are important and that you can take seriously.

I make this recommendation to you because I believe that if you do, then even in the face of considerable adversity you will feel, as I do now, grateful for having lived and always looking forward with eagerness to more of the same.