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In Praise of Our Technopolis

This Region Has Long Been A Magnet for Thinkers and Tinkerers. What's the Draw?

July 25, 1999|GREGORY BENFORD | Gregory Benford is the author of two novels set on UC campuses, "Timescape" (at his alma mater, UC San Diego) and "Cosm" (at UC Irvine, where he is a professor of physics)

Noting how easy it is to build aircraft outdoors and fly them in clear skies, businessman E.J. Clapp wrote: "There is going to be a Detroit of the aircraft industry. Why not here in Los Angeles?"

That was in 1926. Soon airplane manufacturing businesses sprouted alongside the citrus groves, then blossomed into a full-fledged aerospace industry. Other technology-driven industries cropped up, followed by facilities for the sort of scientific research that makes engineering creativity thrive. Now science and technology are far more deeply rooted in this semiarid landscape than the few remaining orange trees. Why?

For one thing, the weather promises sunny beaches and mild breezes, not the chilly intellectual ambience of an MIT or Harvard. Even eggheads ain't stupid. Many a rocket scientist presumably landed here simply because she saw the same bikini-in-January advantages snowbound Cheeseheads notice at sunny Rose Bowl games.

But weather is not just a comfort--it shapes. Our air is clear for jet testing and stargazing. Mt. Wilson and then Mt. Palomar drew the Andrew Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations, respectively, to build big optical telescopes because they offered the best astronomical "seeing" conditions in North America. This same clarity and dependable sunlight led to Hollywood's filmmaking dominance over New York. Being able to train troops out-of-doors drew the Marines to Camp Pendleton and the Army Air Force to Edwards and other bases.

In the end, though, weather was less determining than determination itself. As Allen J. Scott suggests in his 1993 study, "Technopolis," immigrants here had already crossed many horizons; they were willing to venture forth conceptually, as well. Key to this culture was a new idea: tools open us to fresh possibilities faster than theories do. Edwin Hubble peered through Mt. Wilson's clear air and discovered that the universe was expanding. Einstein came to Caltech to confer with Hubble, who had directly shown what Mr. Relativity had not dared propose: a universe growing larger, not static. A famous picture of the shaggy-haired genius lurching around Caltech on a bicycle caught the flavor: Machinery sends us in new directions.

California has always been about movement, travel, speed. The eager boosterism of men such as Clapp flowed into crosscutting riptides, as imported technical skills blended. Optical tricks could make better movies and bomb sights alike. Machinists at lathes could turn out better oil drills or tank barrels or airplane exhausts. Switching talent from one field to another enabled skilled workers to steer their careers past industrial dead ends.

Building our paradise, we shamelessly mirrored the best of the Other Coast. Stanford was like Harvard, Caltech (CIT) like MIT, Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla like Woods Hole on Massachusetts' Cape. If San Francisco was like Boston, though, L.A. was like nothing in the East. For a while, it seemed more like brawling Chicago, its cultural currents making for tricky navigation. L.A.'s Old Money scarcely dated back more than a few generations, and usually kept its cash in real estate. Newcomers brought a sense of open horizons. Here, position was not everything. The race for insight and new products alike came from antsy intellectual resources, not from highly fixed natural resources, the old form of wealth.

Quick minds gathered in close clusters were the crucial elements, realized early by a state that built a new kind of bridging institution: the University of California system, the greatest of public universities. Few now realize how revolutionary its close concert of academic abstraction and business practicality was at the start of this century. From the beginning, the system helped drive the economy. At UC Davis, the system enshrined viniculture as a legitimate intellectual pursuit, fostering the nation's leading wine industry. Oceanographers at UC San Diego invented the wet suit, only to have a UC committee recommend not bothering to patent it, because only scientists would use it. Medical radiation therapy got its momentum from high-energy physics at UC Berkeley, where Ernest O. Laurence's cyclotron provided the particles. Orange grove yields grew using secrets discovered at an agricultural field station in Riverside, later the kernel of UC Riverside. Caltech, USC and the UCs made engineering central; even during the Depression, out here there were jobs.

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