Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

3-Hour Tour

Science's Hall of Fame : To walk through Caltech is to revisit Einstein, Oppenheimer, Millikan and other 20th-Century lions of the field.

September 23, 1994|JEFF PRUGH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PASADENA — Caltech. The very name conjures headlines of seismology and Richter scales, of outer space and underwater exploration, of Einstein, Oppenheimer, Pauling and other marquee names in physics and chemistry.

As one of the world's premier research schools of science and engineering, the 103-year-old California Institute of Technology is a mouse that roars--only 900 undergraduates and 1,100 graduate students with dreams that reach not just for stars but whole galaxies.

This is where Albert Einstein served as a visiting scholar in the early 1930s, where J. Robert Oppenheimer consulted while siring the atomic bomb, where Linus Pauling determined how atoms form molecules, where Charles Richter helped give birth to the modern study of earthquakes.

It has produced 23 Nobel Prize winners ever since astronomer George Ellery Hale, the first director of the Mount Wilson Observatory, and others founded it. In 1920, they gave what had begun modestly in 1891 as Amos G. Throop University--a local arts and crafts school--a new name (California Institute of Technology), a fresh start in problem-solving and a vision that could see forever.

Once-per-weekday tours of the 124-acre campus are aimed mainly at prospective students (separate architectural tours require reservations and occur on the fourth Thursday of each month except July, August and December; because of Thanksgiving, November tours occur on the third Thursday).

A video that starts the tour celebrates Caltech's centennial and rekindles the first impressions in 1931 of a freshman named Willy Fowler, who would become one of the school's renowned physicists.

"I saw Robert Millikan and Albert Einstein in a heated discussion on the steps," Fowler recalls. "I said, 'Boy! This is the place to be!' "

1:45 p.m.: Tourists should report first to Caltech's public relations and visitors center at 315 S. Hill Ave. Here, the 15-minute video explores not just the school's history and pedigree but also its world-class reputation for student pranks.

Examples: Caltech insurgents reconfigured a UCLA card stunt at halftime of the 1984 Rose Bowl game to read: "GO CIT." And during the seniors' annual "Ditch Day" in 1987, others changed Los Angeles' famed hillside letters--from HOLLYWOOD to CALTECH. Says one faculty member: "A lot of us are here because we can't wait for the next prank."

2 p.m.: It's a sprawling campus of 100 buildings--grouped by scientific disciplines and arranged in some places to resemble Mediterranean plazas, with courtyards, arcades and handsome landscaping, eucalyptus trees and evergreens.

It's unhurried and uncrowded here--owing to Caltech's ratio of just three students for every faculty member.

Our student guide, a senior from Escondido, backpedals as she talks, leading a dozen visitors south on Hill Avenue past a mansion that serves as campus residence of Thomas E. Everhart, Caltech's president since 1987.

She looks back on four exhausting years of academic pressure among peers who ranked in the top 1% of their high school classes. "Around here," she says, "we tend to forget the real world."

Turning right on San Pasqual Street, we soon enter North House--one of seven on-campus residence halls patterned not so much after fraternities but Oxford University's family-style of housing. About 60% of Caltech's students live on campus.

North House is a remodeled 1960s-vintage dormitory with bunk beds designed by students to relieve overcrowding. On the main floor is a room lined with about 60 personal computers. Each house has such a facility, with all terminals linked to a central campus-wide network and free electronic mail anywhere--a perk to students who loathe writing letters.

2:15 p.m.: A few steps beyond North House sits an impressive Italian Renaissance-style building named the Athenaeum, which serves faculty and staff. "It's our version of an officers' club," the guide says.

With its archways, tile roof and courtyard, Athenaeum also has served as a location site for feature films such as "Beverly Hills Cop" (1984) and "The War of the Roses" (1989).

2:30 p.m.: We pass South House, a more elegant residence hall built in the 1930s, and the Winnett Student Center, a brick building that contains the bookstore, coffeehouse lounge, piano room and Caltech's YMCA chapter.

Along a nearby sidewalk, a turn-of-the-century cannon looms--a three-ton relic of the Franco-Prussian War on loan from Southwestern Academy in nearby San Marino (and sometimes pilfered by prankish students from Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, the guide says).

A cannon blast ("harmless--but noisy," school officials say) fires about six times a year to herald important events such as final-exams week and commencement.

2:45 p.m.: Farther along the walkway is a knot of buildings including the Firestone (applied mathematics and flight sciences) and Guggenheim (aeronautics and applied physics) laboratories.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|