Stuart Silverstein: Caltech Oral History Project Catalogues Scientists' Lives

Roundup: Talking About History

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.

[Editor's note: The original piece is much longer, and available on the LA Times website.]

comments powered by Disqus