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CollegeCollage3

Another year, another birthday: time to continue the ripping ^z autobiography, now moving on to his graduate school daze. (See BookhouseBoy, CollegeCollage1, and CollegeCollage2 for previous episodes in this not-soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture series; as always, the literal minded should note that plasticity of memory may have introduced historical errors in what follows.)

As ^z arrives, August 1974, Pasadena is smog-shrouded: not eye-stinging or throat-rasping smog, but merely a gray haze with optical depth significantly greater than one. Two weeks later our protagonist is riding in a car with new friends, heading up Lake Street on the way to snag some famous Foster's Donuts. Suddenly the mists thin and he gasps in amazement --- the San Gabriel mountains loom, totally unexpected, only a handful of miles north of campus but hitherto invisible through the late summer atmosphere.

The San Gabriels thrust to a climax more than 5,000 feet above the edge of the Los Angeles basin. They bear a spikey crest of transmitter towers plus the snow-white domes of Mount Wilson's 100 inch telescope and associated equipment. Over the next five years, ^z and fellow students take dozens of hikes in the mountains, including a few foolish races up the eight-mile winding Mt. Wilson trail. Sporadic brush fires later in the '70s paint tendrils of flame down the sides of the hills and replace the noon color palette with sunset hues of orange-red light; black ash sifts down and floats on the Caltech main library's decorative pond.

But that's all in the future. First come classes in nuclear astrophysics and general relativity, quantum mechanics and high-energy physics, mathematical methods and hydrodynamics, etc. and etc. The honor system works well: closed-book time-limited self-scheduled at-home exams are taken with honesty, not with proctoring. People trust one another. Students have master keys so they can get into their buildings at 3am to study and do lab work. The saying is that your wallet or calculator are perfectly safe from poachers, but watch out for your wife or girlfriend. Women make up less than 10% of the 'Tech population, and there are even fewer of them in the "hard sciences". Social life ranges from not-much to nonexistent.

So ^z lives happily on the northeast corner of campus in an all-male grad student dormitory, Mosher-Jorgensen House. He runs a magnet-wire antenna out of his window to a nearby tree for amateur radio transmissions and short-wave listening. With his callsign N6WX he uses the Caltech ham club's equipment to chat in Morse code with his brother Keith (K5WX) in Texas. His hair lengthens. (see http://www.his.com/~z/zStudentIDs.html )

Dorm comrades lend each other science-fiction books and classical music records, walk half a dozen blocks together to the Burger Continental for dinner, study, go to movies, and good-naturedly commiserate about the monastic environment. The steam tunnels are an underground maze of twisty passages to explore. A small shrine to Richard M. Nixon, yellowed newspaper clippings glued to the wall, occupies one cul de sac. Other corners bear mysterious graffiti from past adventurers.

Student shopping trips tend toward Fedco, a mega-discount membership store. Visiting Soviet scientists prefer the Santa Anita Fashion Mall, where they snap up skis, blue jeans, and phonograph records. ^z buys a 35mm camera (a Canon single-lens reflex) and commences shooting rolls of color slides: pictures of cliffs and valleys, ocean waves, girl's faces, flower displays at the nearby Huntington Gardens, and whatever else catches his eye. He acquires a small stereo system, major components of which are still in use a quarter century later. Advent speakers and Harman Kardon receivers were built to last.

^z joins the Caltech Chinese Students Association in order to find foreign films, food, and fellowship. He also attends evening classes to learn a bit of Mandarian at nearby Pasadena City College. (Fantasies of meeting nice, unattached lady friends there fail to materialize.) The scuba club takes him to the Pacific coast for dives, fortunately without disaster even though he's not quite strong enough as a swimmer to be fully safe underwater. Longer trips expose him and his photographic emulsion to Yosemite, Death Valley, Sequoia, Joshua Tree, Bryce, Zion, Arches, and other national parks and monuments. He doesn't get a car until after he turns 25 years old in 1977.

Stargazing remains a ^z hobby, though he's no astronomer. In spite of city lights he sees Nova Aquila and Comet West from the yard just outside the dorm. Under exceptionally dark skies during a Grand Canyon trip he spies, naked-eye, the Andromeda galaxy (M31) and the zodiacal light, a faint glow in the plane of the ecliptic. On top of the Caltech Astronomy building he uses the 20 inch telescope, a 1/10th semi-scale model of the Mount Palomar "big eye", to look at a variety of nebulæ as well as planets, double stars, globular clusters, and other celestial objects. The telescope mounting does not rotate low enough to observe more terrestrial heavenly bodies --- unlike a memorable 1973 session on the roof of the Space Science building at Rice University with roommates, where lines of sight were more favorable. (See SeeingStars3 for notes on a visit to the 200 inch mountaintop.)

Moving from the macro to the micro universe: 'Techers have free computer access to a timesharing PDP-10 system. Programming and problem-solving are the official uses, but a major time sink is an addictive, continuous, campus-wide tournament in a number-logic recreation called "Cows & Bulls" --- an ancestor to the commercial "Mastermind" game. The monthly first prize is a chili burger from Tommy's in Eagle Rock, a legendary late-night Mecca for starving students. Mathematician friend Eric Verheiden, in between his thesis search for projective planes, writes an unbeatable "Cows & Bulls" program and ends the competition by winning every time. Eric is also a famous figure in the world of Diplomacy (see ZarStory), a game which ^z dabbles in.

But life isn't all play. Expenses are paid for by a Schlumberger fellowship during the ^z freshman year, and thereafter via teaching and research assistantship work. He studies hard, learns a lot, and comes in #4 out of ~30 students in his class who take the comprehensive second-year written physics exams. He gets hooked up with Kip Thorne and commences working on projects in the relativistic astrophysics group.

^z also begins to glimpse the real business of doing research --- the personal side of creative discovery. He attends seminars, talks with visiting scholars, sees the underside of faculty politics, and eventually realizes that scientists are human beings, not godlike apparitions. Famous professors flirt with their students, gripe about writing grant proposals, and seek better office space. Junior faculty members compete for tenure. Postdocs scramble to get their names on papers, in hopes of attracting attention and getting a more permanent appointment.

But the petty behavior is far outweighed, overall, by collaboration, imagination, and the wonderful shared enterprise of uncovering Nature's secrets. Good scientists work together well. And they have fun. At lunch in the student cafeteria, Dick Feynman (a Nobel laureate) jokes that he missed a chance to make a lot of money yesterday: he was too late in calling his broker to sell short a company that had supposedly discovered how to extract free energy from water. (The Los Angeles Times had reported the story uncritically, without a thought for the laws of thermodynamics. The company collapsed within days.) Other big-name professors are similar in their self-deprecating humor --- and in their patient devotion to teaching the next generation of knowledge explorers.

And in 1977, ^z meets Paulette, his first, last, and best love ...

(For a variety of other anecdotal notes from the Caltech years of ^z, see AppropriateUnits, CaliforniaSherpa, CherishedBeliefs, EmbrosHerete, GreekEagles, JonMathews, KipTheDragon, LatePhysicists, NiAndMe, PulsarWaves, QuantumNondemolition, SeeingStars1, SeeingStars2, SeeingStars3, SillySeminarsOf75, SoftOutsideCrunchyCenter, and SpinningSources)

TopicPersonalHistory - TopicRecreation - Datetag20010929


(correlates: ColorChains, RebelliousHair, Extraordinary Gentlemen, ...)