Jean-Lou Chameau: Cooking up ideas

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I hope Jean-Lou Chameau gets to sleep late this morning. Friday, at his third graduation ceremony as president of Caltech, he also announced $30 million in gifts to that singular institution, where Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman worked their mighty brains. Caltech has raked in oodles of Nobel Prizes. Its operation of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has sent its renown beyond Earth. And its students have pulled off both brilliant research and inspired pranks. The long-ago dismantling of a Model T and the reassembling of it in a student's room, where it was discovered with the motor running, is so well known that President George H.W. Bush kidded around in his 1991 Caltech commencement speech about students reassembling Air Force One in the lobby of his hotel. The school's eighth president is a civil engineer with an interest in earthquakes from a village in Normandy. It had fewer residents than Caltech's undergraduate population of about 900. Now he works at the roll-top desk that belonged to Caltech's first president, the Nobel-winning physicist Robert A. Millikan. It is, says Chameau, "humbling."

I read that you wanted to be either the world's greatest mathematician or president of France.

My hero was a French mathematician named Evariste Galois. He died in a duel at age 20, and before he died, he produced a major work in mathematics. He died because of a conflict with another man regarding a young lady. So my goal was to be like Galois -- the most brilliant mathematician who died in a duel for love. I was not good enough to be the most brilliant mathematician, so it was not worth it to die in a duel.

How did you get from engineering to education and administration?

When I finished my PhD at Stanford, I took a position at Purdue, in a very good research program. I was in a research group of very senior faculty members, very good in their field, but they could not get along. One day, the department chair said, "You know, your colleagues -- I'm tired of them. They're like children. There's only one thing they agree upon, and that is that they seem to be able to work with you. I'm making you in charge of the group." Since I was still young and foolish and didn't know better, I agreed to it. That's the beginning of this career in administration. I enjoy doing my own work, but also I realized that I am more and more rewarded personally by seeing the successes of others.

How did you end up at Stanford?

I was finishing my undergraduate degree in France. One day, a speaker gave a very interesting lecture -- he was in fact a graduate of Caltech -- and after the lecture we asked how [he] came to study at Caltech. That's when I found out it was possible to do graduate studies in the U.S. This was the mid-'70s; California was really the place where the action was. One year became two, two became three -- life happens. And I'm here. Being president of Caltech -- it's like winning the lottery of presidencies.

Caltech students have a reputation for pulling stunts. Have they pulled one on you?

There is a tradition at Caltech, the "ponding" of the freshmen -- throwing them in a pond. Usually it's done in the swimming pool. And since I was a "freshman" my first year at Caltech, they asked my wife if they could, and she allowed it. So they picked me up, and I got ponded.

America generates some of the most important science in the world, and yet many Americans don't believe in evolution, are skeptical of science. How do you explain this paradox?

I do not know -- I don't have a background in sociology. But if you look at the major universities and research, there is no doubt that we have the greatest work. On the other hand, we have a K-through-12 system where, for some reason, either science is not valued enough or it is not well communicated to the students. So you have a significant majority of the public that has a relatively limited knowledge of science, and it may also be afraid of it because it was not really a major part of the education. And we are always afraid of the unknown. The issues that are facing us -- energy, global change, health, water -- science and technology are key to all those solutions. But when we need it most, we have a large segment of the population with limited knowledge of them.

Every institution worries about funding. How can Caltech improve its own? Hey, what about selling "Caltech thinking caps" online?

[He laughs the kind of laugh that means "I don't think so."] Global economic conditions are affecting everything. We have had some losses in the endowment of Caltech. We expect that many of our students are going to require more financial aid, and we are taking some actions toward reducing our budget. This being said, great institutions find ways to survive and even sometimes to better themselves during difficult times. That's something that we want Caltech to do better. We are one of the greatest, if not the greatest, scientific institution in the world. However, sometimes we feel that we are a well-kept secret. We need to be marketing Caltech and the brand more than we have in the past.

Tell me about the olive oil legend.

On the campus we have quite a lot of old olive trees, and my first year here, my wife and I saw a group of students shaking a tree and trying to gather some olives. I told them they should make olive oil and I will cook for [them]. The fact is, I love olive oil, and I am a good cook. A couple of weeks later, one of the students showed up, and he has the first small container of olive oil. I think they had used a window screen and then used a centrifuge in a chemistry lab to filter the oil. So my wife and I cooked for them, and we also did an olive oil tasting. Then the story took on a life of its own. Several members of our staff decided to harvest a tree. They contacted a Santa Barbara olive oil company to press the olives for us. Since then, we have had a harvest festival. At the end, we have dinner outdoors. The last two years, I think 2,000 people have had dinner together. The olive oil is being sold through the bookstore, and we use it as gifts -- it is one of the best gifts I have found for friends of Caltech, alumni and trustees.

You cook -- cooking is chemistry!

I always enjoyed watching my mother cook. I was even considering opening a restaurant when I finished my PhD. I didn't do it -- but I came close. [Now] I have no time, but I still enjoy cooking. My best dish would be lobster.

With calvados and cream?

Yes -- but I won't give you my recipe.

patt.morrison@latimes.comThis interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews is online at latimes.com/pattasks.

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