Caltech Archives Publishes Jerry Pine Oral History

In his interview, recorded in 2001, Pine describes his path to Caltech

 Jerry Pine at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, circa 1965.  Photo: Caltech Archives

Jerry Pine at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, circa 1965. Photo: Caltech Archives

The Caltech Archives' oral history program, which preserves personal memoirs and in-depth interviews conducted with key members of the Caltech community, recently published an extensive interview with Jerome "Jerry" Pine, a neuroscientist and physics professor who died in 2017.

In the interview, recorded in 2001, Pine described his upbringing in New York in the 1930s and '40s, and his eventual matriculation at Princeton, where he found himself to be a bit of an outsider, being a self-described "nerd" as well as one of a very small number of Jewish students.

At graduate school at Cornell, Pine viewed himself as an engineer masquerading as a physicist. "The physics I did was always engineering. I was never a longhaired [theoretical] physicist," he said. He had avoided engineering as an official vocation, however, "because I found out that physics majors and physicists could work on whatever they wanted [but] engineers had to do what they were told."

Pine described becoming a cloud chamber expert at Cornell, which landed him a position at the Stanford Linear Accelerator doing "big-time physics" and then taking on a physics position at Caltech, which he left when his growing interest in neuroscience led him to the Washington University Medical School in St. Louis, where he studied mammalian cell cultures and neurons using data-recording electrodes.

Returning to Caltech in 1979, Pine said he found himself in the unenviable position of teaching freshman physics as a successor to Richard Feynman, which was "a terrible challenge."

"I had to give the Feynman lectures—but I wasn't Feynman," he said. "There were things [in the lectures] I did not understand at all, and occasionally I felt that I really should understand it if I was going to give a lecture. So, I would call Dick. Most of the time when I called, he said, 'You know, I didn't understand that, either.'"

In the 1980s, Pine's longstanding interest in science education began to grow and led to his involvement in several initiatives to study and improve education in schools across the Pasadena Unified School District as well as to the establishment of the Caltech Precollege Science Initiative (CAPSI), which links professional scientists and engineers with educators, teachers, and school administrators to improve science education.

He said his impetus for this work was in part spurred by a friend's disappointment in his child's experiences in school. Pine recalled that his friend "came to me and said, 'We have to solve this terrible problem—there's no elementary school science education.' ... [He] said we have to save the world" by remedying that.

Concluding the interview, Pine described his satisfaction in being involved in promoting science education while still doing research in physics and biology. "I'm not attracted by the idea of a single job. I guess I've had three jobs for so long that I'm used to it," he said. "... I've got everything going at once. It's very enjoyable, in kind of a stressful way."

The oral history program has conducted interviews with 246 individuals and published 175 interviews with Caltech community members starting in 1978.

Read more of the Jerry Pine interview here.

—Jon Nalick