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Jack Smith

Dressing up the myth that Caltech's geniuses are really gods disguised in physicists' costumes

May 05, 1985|JACK SMITH

We went to a costume party the other night. I don't care much for costume parties. I usually feel ridiculous.

But life is a costume party. The clothes we wear today are merely the costumes of our era, and a century from now will look as silly as the wigs and pantaloons of Jefferson's day look now.

Besides, the invitation was from a man I don't know very well but greatly admire. He is Al Hibbs, the voice of the Jet Propulsion Lab, who has so brilliantly explained the lab's spacecraft missions to the press in recent years. Hibbs first came to my notice back in the late 1940s, when he and another of Caltech's bright young Turks raked in a small fortune and made themselves persona non grata in Las Vegas by devising a system for beating the blackjack tables. I have regarded him as a genius ever since.

The invitation had a picture of a winged bull on it. "Costume Party," it said. "Come dressed as a character from myth or legend." A handwritten note added: "This is our annual revelry with our friends."

Hibbs' friends, I supposed, would include some of the other Caltech geniuses. It would be interesting to see how they acted in their revels. I might even meet another of my heroes, Richard Feynman, the theoretical physicist who helped design the atom bomb and later won a Nobel Prize. I had been reading his book, "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman."

We had spent two uneasy weeks wondering what to wear. I had rejected going to Western Costuming. We had to do it by ourselves.

My wife decided to go as Ceres, the earth goddess; she made herself a tunic and wore a garland of dried grain stalks and carried a basket of fruit. I went as Mercury, messenger of the gods. She made a tunic for me with gold trim, and a helmet by covering a straw coolie's hat with aluminum foil. She cut wings out of red cardboard and put one on either side of the helmet and one on each of my tennies.

It occurred to me as we drove out the freeway and into Pasadena that I might be stopped by a policeman. What if he made me get out to take a sobriety test? Wouldn't I look silly?

Then I began to worry that we'd be the only ones in costume. Everyone else would be wearing slacks and tweed jackets and old school neckties. It would turn out to be a test of character. We were being initiated into some kind of club, and they wanted to see if we were good sports. That made me angry. How sophomoric, I thought.

Al and Marka Hibbs live in a wonderful old two-story Craftsman house between Orange Grove Boulevard and the Rose Bowl. The door was opened by Mrs. Hibbs. She was wearing a laurel wreath and a filmy dress the color of autumn leaves.

"I'm Mercury," I said tentatively.

"I'm Daphne," she said. "Come in."

Not many had arrived yet, but I felt better. A jazz combo was playing in the living room and the Pope was dancing with a virgin bride in white. I found myself staring with some apprehension into the dark eyes of a young woman whose hair was a mess of rubber snakes.

"You're Medusa," I said.

She showed me a large stone in one hand. "This is my date," she said. "He said something I didn't like."

"Where's Al?" I asked our hostess.

"Oh, he usually makes an appearance," she said, "about 9 o'clock--in full costume."

I was sitting in the living room in a window box talking to Icarus when Hibbs came slowly down the stairs. He was wearing a large, elaborate animal head. It was black, with gold trim, evidently of papier-mache, with an elongated dog-like snout. It was obviously Egyptian, and very prepossessing. Hibbs carried a long gold staff in one hand and in the other some kind of religious symbol. He moved trance-like through the house, not navigating very well.

Icarus was wearing a very real-looking wing--about three feet long--which he said was part of a pterodactyl he is building to fly around the Washington Monument. (Pterodactyls were flying lizards that existed about 160 million years ago and flew better than Icarus.)

Hibbs walked by again, took off his head and revealed himself.

"Who were you supposed to be?" I asked him.

"Anubis," he said. "God of the Dead."

It had taken him four weeks to make the jackal mask, which he'd copied from a book.

There were three more Medusas. I wondered if Medusa's ability to turn men to stone had anything to do with her popularity.

The Devil showed up, but he didn't get anywhere with the virgin, who spent the evening dancing with the Pope.

"That's Feynman over there," my wife told me. "He's Moses."

Feynman was in a pure white cotton robe and wore a long gray beard.

I walked over to introduce myself. "You're Feynman," I said.

He shook his head: "I'm God."

Later I told Hibbs: "Feynman's God."

He nodded. "We've known that all along," he said.

Rather late in the evening a man in World War I aviator's garb, with helmet and scarf, arrived with an aviatrix. The Red Baron and Amelia Earhart.

I didn't get to meet them, but my wife told me the rumor was that they were Marvin Goldberger, president of Caltech, and Mildred Goldberger.

Even our geniuses have to play.

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