Letters to the Editor

Stranger than [Science] Fiction


Given the interest in Caltech's association with sci-fi in the latest issue (“Subterranean Sci-Fi,” Summer 2018), I thought you might find this story interesting.    

Back in the mid ‘70s I was one of the Lloyd House social folk who set up events. I thought inviting some famous sci-fi authors to dinner would be nice and I discovered that Jerry Pournelle and Harlan Ellison were actually listed in the phone book, but Larry Niven wasn't.

I called Ellison and in spite of being offered free food he wasn't interested in coming to Lloyd.   

I really wanted Niven and I knew that he and Pournelle collaborated, so I called Pournelle and asked him for Niven's phone number. Pournelle was unwilling to give it to me until we'd had him over for dinner. So we had him over, which was nice, and he was satisfied with the food and the beer so he gave me Niven's phone number.

Niven agreed to come over. Another pleasant evening was had by all and Niven came up to my room and read my copy of Howard the Duck#1. He had wanted to read it but couldn't find a copy so I was glad to let him read mine. Sadly I didn't think to have him autograph it.

Apparently both of them would often come to Caltech to listen to physics talks, which makes sense since their work tended towards the more scientifically grounded part of the genre.

Tom Trinko (BS '76)


As one of the original officers of SPECTRE, I really enjoyed the article on the science-fiction library. SPECTRE is indeed named after James Bond's nemesis. We tried to turn it into an acronym (Science Phiction Enthusiasts at Cal Tech mumble mumble), but never really got one to work. But our science fiction book club membership was in the name of Ernst Stavro Blofeld [the villainous head of SPECTRE].

 Caltech graduate students were heavily involved in the starting of the club, most notably Mark Looper (PhD '93) who was the first president and the driving force for the first few years. I helped out where I could, and got permission to set up the library in the basement and got ASCIT to fund purchase of the original bookcases. Much of the starting collection was donated by Mark, myself, and others. We also had science fiction authors come and give talks, including David Brin [BS ’73] (a Caltech grad whom I still keep in touch with), Gentry Lee, Somtow Sucharitkul, and others.

 I am really glad that the library has been resurrected and hope that it continues to bring joy and relaxation to Caltech students for many more years. 

 Eric Christian (PhD ’89)


 Absolutely fabulous cover! (Summer 2018)

 With respect to the article on the science-fiction library, when I was there, what was in the basement of Fleming was a whole series of rooms full of discarded stuff—desks, supplies, you name it. We called it “the infinite storeroom.” And when I was a senior living in Fleming something down there caught fire. I remember waking up when my door burst open, and standing there was a Pasadena fireman, complete with oxygen mask.  After the fact, I thought, “why couldn’t this have happened at finals?”

 Bob Parker (BS ’67)


 Wait, what?

 I’m sorry to admit that sometime when I wasn’t paying attention, you completely redesigned the magazine!

 I was no longer able to ignore your feat when I picked up the Summer 2018 issue. The spectacular cover, the big and bright images everywhere, the SoCaltech section (especially Dr. E’s book), the personal profiles, the Feynman memories, and on and on. Even the straightforward feature “Fictional Caltech” is more beautiful than its content might require: stunning layout and design, plus excellent fonts and text darkness.

 I’m a physicist, not a designer, so I’m especially drawn to the content of the articles. However I must say that your design blows me away. Thanks for making the magazine appealing on so many levels!

 Art Chester (PhD ’65)


 Feynman fandom

 It was a magical time in 1965 on the Caltech campus when it was announced that Richard P. Feynman had won a Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on quantum electrodynamics. Professor Feynman was already a famous and well-respected figure around campus, and all the undergraduates started their Caltech experience with his Lectures on Physics. I was a lowly graduate student, and I would see him in the cafeteria, and look at him in awe.

One of my hobbies was to draw Snoopy cartoons with my own little captions. (Apologies to Charles M. Schulz.) They had philosophical thoughts or comments, or just a joke. I would post these on the door to my dorm room in David X. Marks House.  The campus was abuzz about Feynman and his prize, so I did a cartoon where Snoopy is lying on his doghouse and thinking, "I would have won the Nobel Prize for quantum electrodynamics, but nobody could understand dog notation."

One of the physics grad students loved it and asked if he could have it to put on Feynman's Office door. I said that I would make another for him, but being reticent about what kind of reaction Feynman would have, I decided not to sign it with my usual "Ryk" initials.

Off the cartoon went to be taped on Feynman's door. He loved it! He said that he would add it to his Nobel Prize scrapbook. And I was ever so regretful that I had not had the nerve to sign my artwork. I always sign my work now.

Ralph Y. Komai (MS '67)


 Millikan at Oberlin

I appreciated the mention of Robert Millikan's alma mater, Oberlin College (“A Sesquicentennial Salute,” Summer 2018), though athletic prowess was not his most significant experience there. 

Millikan was a classics major (class of 1891), but a professor's intuition turned his life to physics.

At the end of his sophomore year, his professor of Greek asked him to teach elementary physics in Oberlin's prep school the following school year. Millikan protested that he "did not know any physics at all," as he recounts in his 1950 autobiography. To which, the prof replied, "Anyone who can do well in my Greek can teach physics." Millikan agreed, bought Avery's Elements of Physics, studied on his own during the summer of 1889, then taught that course. 

"I was so intensely interested in keeping my knowledge ahead of that of the class that they may have caught some of my own interest and enthusiasm," he recalled (quoted in Wikipedia). The rest is history!

Anton Mikofsky (Oberlin '67, father of Becca Mikofsky (BS '20)


 Trust issues?

I let my magazines stack up and binge them, so I've just gone through the first three issues of Caltech magazine. I'm not impressed. The late E&S magazine had interesting technical content that flaunted Caltech's exceptionalism. Now, by contrast, you have struggled hard and produced something very ordinary. You do not trust your audience.

I do not have any biology training, but I was able to follow well enough the articles on gene research, psychology, clinical trials, and the like. These were comparable to items in Scientific American, or perhaps a bit more advanced. They were narrow but accessible.

Now look at the linguistics article starting on p.16 of the Spring 2018 issue. It talks about algebraic geometry, but without examples. I have no idea what the graphic is supposed to represent. In fairness, the redistricting article (p.14) is clear and specific enough.

I also see a lot of white space and big text. Save this style for “Endnotes,” otherwise you really have only half the content of the old magazine.

I think your variety of story types is good. You have interviews, construction updates, a bit of sports, and eye-catching photos in addition to the anemic coverage of research. And, everybody cares about the Engelmann oak.

David Berge (BS '81)


 Three Facts

I have three remarks about the Summer 2018 issue of Caltech magazine.

1. Mary Shelly (“Five Facts About Frankenstein”) and her party weren't forced inside by ordinary "bad weather." 1816 was the "Year Without a Summer," caused by the eruption of Tambora in Indonesia on April 10, 1815.

2. George Ellery Hale (“A Sesquicentennial Salute”) was my eighth cousin twice removed, our common ancestor being Thomas "The Miller" Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln was also a seventh cousin four times removed of Hale's, their common ancestor being Robert Lincoln, the great grandfather of Thomas.

3. The heroic JPL computer programmer in Lucifer's Hammer (“Fictional Caltech”) was based on a real person, Dan Alderson, who was also a good friend of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. I knew Dan, although not well. He was brilliant, profoundly depressed, diabetic, and an avid reader of science fiction. Toward the end of his life he lost his sight, then his feet, and finally he was done in by kidney failure.

Van Snyder, Mathematician and Software Engineer, JPL