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Caltech Mines a Rich Trove of Voices From the Past

An oral history project offers insights into the lives of top U.S. scientists with ties to the campus.

September 19, 2005|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

Ever heard the story about Albert Einstein and the Long Beach earthquake of 1933?

Einstein, a visiting professor at Caltech at the time, was walking across campus with an earthquake expert, Beno Gutenberg. They even were talking about seismic research. But when the magnitude-6.4 temblor struck, the absent-minded scientists were so engrossed in conversation that neither noticed the shaking.

"There was an earthquake someplace?" Gutenberg, a partner with Charles Richter in developing the Richter scale, supposedly replied when a passerby mentioned the tremor. Einstein piped in, "What earthquake?"

That story is found in the Caltech Archives Oral History Project, a rare storehouse of interviews filled with anecdotes about giants of American scientific and engineering history. Drawn from the memories of more than 200 retired professors and others with long ties to Caltech, the oral histories provide glimpses of the interviewees' lives as well as their recollections -- albeit sometimes fuzzy or embellished -- of other pioneering researchers.

Seymour Benzer, one of the fathers of microbiology, recalls a boyhood trick of sneak-reading a physics book at Jewish high holiday services. Frank Malina, an early rocket scientist and a founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, relates how a Caltech physics professor of his once said that "I was a bloody fool, that I was trying to do something that was impossible, because rockets couldn't work in space."

Another account tells how two-time Nobel Prize-winner Linus Pauling joined an afternoon protest outside the White House supporting a ban on nuclear weapons testing and then headed inside that evening for a formal dinner with President John F. Kennedy.

The oral histories also include reminiscences of prominent researchers who clashed with government regulators and some whose careers were damaged, or even derailed, because of their leftist political activities.

One of those leftists was Frank Oppenheimer, the younger brother of atomic bomb developer J. Robert Oppenheimer. In his oral history, the younger Oppenheimer described his efforts, while working on a doctorate in physics in the 1930s, to set up a Communist Party group at Caltech and to fight racial segregation in Pasadena. (Oppenheimer lost his faculty job at the University of Minnesota after revealing his communist involvement to congressional investigators in 1949. He didn't get another university post in the U.S. for a decade.)

Historians and other experts say few oral history collections rival Caltech's array of leading scientific figures.

Launched in 1978, the Caltech project has slowly grown to 227 bound volumes, one per subject, tucked away in the subbasement of the campus' Beckman Institute. Several more volumes, compiled from taped interviews, are in the works. So far, 53 of the histories also are online.

Biographers regularly glean details from the collection. For example, Jonathan Weiner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, found nuggets for his 1999 biography on Benzer, "Time, Love, Memory."

"For the kind of book that I write, which is as much character-driven as it is science-driven, they're just gold mines," Weiner said, referring to Caltech's materials and oral histories in general.

But there aren't tabloid-style revelations of scientists' romantic liaisons in the Caltech interviews.

"We just don't go there," said Shelley Erwin, Caltech's associate archivist who supervises the compilation of the interviews.

Occasionally, though, the tales either have been stretched over years of retellings or are inside jokes that strain believability.

"Oral history is never the last word on a subject," cautioned Daniel J. Kevles, a Caltech history professor for more than 35 years and now chairman of Yale University's history of science and medicine program. "People's memories are fallible, and you often find that what they remember when matched against contemporary documents is wrong."

Still, Kevles -- also the subject of an archive interview -- said Caltech's histories are precious partly because of the school's deep involvement in cutting-edge science and engineering since it emerged as a major research center in the 1920s.

Einstein, who spent three winters at Caltech in the early 1930s, is mentioned often, both in serious and lighthearted ways.

The fullest version of the earthquake tale is from Gutenberg's widow, Hertha, who died in 1990. In her interviews in the early 1980s, Hertha Gutenberg said she had gone shopping the morning after the big quake with Einstein's wife, who asked her, "What do you say about our two dumbbells?"

Hertha Gutenberg added that the Einsteins "were in Japan the year before, and he had always had [sic] hoped there would be an earthquake that he could feel, and there wasn't any. And here was the big Long Beach earthquake, and they didn't feel it!"

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