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Caltech Mines a Rich Trove of Voices From the Past

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.

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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.)

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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.”

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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!”

There’s also a smidgen of apparent fiction in another Einstein story. L. Winchester Jones, a Caltech English professor and administrator, talked about driving Einstein and several others out to the desert for a day trip, but accidentally leaving Einstein behind when they started back to town.

When they returned to look for him, Jones said, “There was Einstein, happy as a clam. He was arguing with a barrel cactus.” According to Jones, Einstein’s nearsightedness caused him to mistake the cactus for fellow physicist Paul Epstein. “A barrel cactus looks very much like Epstein,” Jones said. “It’s about the same shape.”

(Epstein died before Jones related that story, and Epstein’s recorded memoirs mention no day trip to the desert with Einstein.)

Erwin and Caltech’s university archivist, Judith Goodstein, say they believe that the “What earthquake?” story is at least roughly accurate. But they acknowledge that the cactus episode is a tall tale.

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Erwin said oral history based on fuzzy or embellished memories “is just the nature of the beast.” Even the occasionally made-up story, Erwin said, can reflect a legitimate point.

For that reason, archivists edit the oral histories only lightly. They may insert a date or a name in brackets when an interviewee provides wrong or incomplete information. Still, the interviewees have final authority; their oral histories aren’t made available to the public until they give approval.

“It’s their story,” Goodstein said. “It’s a historical document. No one is saying it’s the truth with a capital T.”

Goodstein, a historian of science, plumbed the oral histories for a 1991 book she wrote on Caltech, “Millikan’s School.” She has overseen the project ever since she launched it nearly three decades ago, a time when interest in oral history was surging nationally.

An anonymous donor provided $300 to get the work started. That initial check was used to interview Henry Borsook, a longtime Caltech biochemist who developed a low-cost food supplement used to combat malnutrition in impoverished countries.

These days, each history typically is compiled from three to five interview sessions, often totaling five hours per subject. The bound volumes vary in length, running from around 40 to 140 pages. Each history costs the university about $5,000 for transcription and other expenses.

At times, interviewees will withhold some information -- often the name of an antagonist -- until they or their target dies.

That happened with the May 2004 interview of Victor Wouk, an electrical engineer, entrepreneur and Caltech graduate. Wouk, who died this May, was the brother of novelist Herman Wouk. Victor Wouk recounted how he had helped design a prototype hybrid auto in 1975 -- three decades before the environmentally friendly Toyota Prius began to dot the nation’s roads. But when Wouk sought support from the Federal Clean Car Incentive Program, a 1970s initiative, the government turned him down.

He said he was disappointed but not surprised. Insiders at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tipped Wouk off that “we were sunk from the very beginning,” he said. Wouk said his contacts at the agency alerted him that a senior official “had come in and said, ‘Under no circumstances is the hybrid to be accepted.’ ” Soon after that, Wouk dropped the effort.

The senior EPA official was identified only as "[X]” in the initial transcript because the ailing Wouk did not want the name released until his own death. After Wouk died this spring, archivists added X’s name: Eric Stork, an EPA deputy assistant administrator from 1970 to 1978.

Stork, now 78, retired and living in northern Virginia, said via e-mail recently that Wouk’s “assertion that I directed anyone to turn down his concept is total nonsense.... Had someone come up with a viable concept for building a clean car, we’d have used that information to beat the auto industry over the head.”

But Stork said he didn’t see any point in complaining to Caltech. “It’s utterly irrelevant,” he said.

The oral histories contain passages, in language an art major could understand, on how scientific advances have occurred. One such account is from the late natural scientist Heinz A. Lowenstam, who discovered that animals can manufacture magnetite, a magnetic mineral. That finding helped explain how migratory creatures develop internal compasses that use Earth’s magnetic field for navigation.

Lowenstam’s research began when he was resting beside a tide pool in Bermuda. He noticed that a chiton, a type of mollusk, was making a marking in the pool’s limestone bottom. Surprised at how hard the animal’s teeth must be, he began investigating what a chiton’s teeth were made of. Then he found the magnetite.

Scientific records of discoveries, however, often are available elsewhere. So when biographers and other writers tap into the oral histories, it’s usually to add personal details or context.

In his Benzer biography, Weiner sprinkled details from the biologist’s 139-page oral history about his Brooklyn upbringing. One anecdote Weiner used was about the reaction of Benzer’s Polish immigrant mother upon learning that her son was researching how flies’ brains work: “From this you can make a living?”

In his sometimes self-effacing oral history, Benzer downplayed the many awards he has won. (“My mother always regarded me as a failure,” he joked. “Because I didn’t get the Nobel Prize.”) The biologist also explained that he changed his research fields often because he liked “being very stupid” in his new pursuits. (“Ask stupid questions, and you often get amazing answers.”)

Reached by phone in his Caltech lab, Benzer, 83, and still an active professor, wryly explained why the university’s project was worthwhile. Scientists, Benzer said, “once they’re dead, they can’t talk anymore.”


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