BOOK REVIEW : Caltech’s Story and the Science Business : MILLIKAN’S SCHOOL, A History of the California Institute of Technology <i> by Judith R. Goodstein</i> , Norton $25, 288 pages
What started out 100 years ago as Throop University--a trade school on the second floor of a Pasadena warehouse--is today the preeminent center for the study of science, technology and the cosmos itself: California Institute of Technology.
In “Millikan’s School,” the story of Throop’s transformation into Caltech is told with precision, although without much fireworks. At the same time, Judith Goodstein’s history offers a quick tour of the landmarks of science in the mid-20th Century and a glance at how pure science puts itself at the service of government, commerce and the military.
The story begins with Amos Throop, the “frontiersman, businessman and philanthropist” who bestowed his largess (and, at first, his name) on the school. But the real hero of the tale, and the man who literally invented Caltech as a world-class academic institution, is Robert A. Millikan, an accomplished physicist who turned into an academic empire builder.
Millikan was lured away from the University of Chicago by George Ellery Hale, a self-made astronomer and a true visionary who understood how to find both personnel and money necessary to build a distinguished university in provincial Southern California. Significantly, Hale was among the first to forge the links between the laboratory and the arsenal--a set of linkages now familiar to us.
“To Hale, World War I was the best thing that could have happened to Throop,” Goodstein observes. “He lobbied not only for science to play a role in national affairs but also for Throop to play a larger role in American science. In fact, Hale used the war shamelessly to promote the transformation of Throop College of Technology into the California Institute of Technology.”
Among the first into the fray was Millikan, who turned his genius in advanced physics to the here-and-now task of submarine detection. “If the science men of the country are going to be of any use,” he declared, “it is now or never.”
Millikan’s early efforts earned him the rank of colonel and, not much later, the presidency of the school that became Caltech. He won the Nobel Prize in 1923 for his work in physics--and the collecting of Nobel prizes (and Nobel laureates) turned into a tradition.
Above all, Millikan seemed to understand how to plug into the urgent concerns of the tumultuous world around the quiet campus in Pasadena. Under his leadership, Caltech poured its genius into research that had thoroughly practical implications. The work of Charles Richter in seismology, Theodore Von Karman in aerospace, Charles Lauritsen in rocketry, George Hale in astronomy and Linus Pauling in biology intruded on our destinies and our daily lives.
“Millikan’s School” is a sedate institutional chronicle, much concerned with the comings and goings of faculty and administration. You know you have entered the realm of Official History when you encounter two forewords and two afterwords, each written by a current or former administrator.
Still, Goodstein, as the archivist of Caltech, “knows where the papers and the tapes (if not the bodies) are buried,” according to former Caltech president Harold Brown, and she approaches her subject with a healthy sense of humor and an acute sense of academic politics. She tells a wonderful story about how Caltech lost to Princeton in a bidding war over the services of Albert Einstein, for example, and she explains why a debate over a piece of letterhead stationery figured importantly in seismological research at Caltech.
Nor does Goodstein overlook some of the dimmer moments. In the search for “well-trained foreign brains” during the ‘30s, for example, one Caltech biologist-turned-headhunter set about “combing England and the Scandinavian countries to find one who is not Jewish, if possible.”
To her credit, Goodstein asks the hard question: “What is the best way to do science?” She never gets around to answering the question for herself, but “Millikan’s School” offers enough hard data to enable us to come to our own conclusions.
Next: Richard Eder reviews “Sarah Canary” by Karen Joy Fowler (Holt).