Millikan’s School: A History of the California Institute of Technology

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Plunkett Lake Press, Oct 19, 2020 - Science

In November 1891, wealthy former abolitionist and Chicago politician Amos Throop founded a thoroughly undistinguished small college in Pasadena, California, which he named after himself. Millikan’s School is the history of this institution that stands today at the pinnacle of world academics, with 300 full-time faculty, nearly 1,000 undergraduate, 1,250 graduate students and 39 Caltech and alumni Nobel Prize recipients.


Although Amos Throop — the name of the college was changed to Caltech in 1920 — could not have realized the importance of geography, the fact that Pasadena lay at the foot of Mount Wilson, was central to its success: astronomer George Ellery Hale built his telescope there in 1902, the finest at that time in the world. Later Hale joined the board of trustees of the struggling school and persuaded Arthur Amos Noyes, former president of MIT and the nation’s leading physical chemist, to join him in Pasadena. The third member of Caltech’s founding troika was renowned physicist Robert A. Millikan from the University of Chicago.


The dedication of Caltech in 1920 and the proclamation of what it stood for in science and education set the stage for Millikan, who functioned as the school’s president, to bring the best and the brightest from all over the world — Theodore von Kármán in aeronautics, Thomas Hunt Morgan in biology, Paul Sophus Epstein in physics, Beno Gutenberg in seismology, Linus Pauling in chemistry — to Pasadena to work in an ever larger number of areas in science and technology. The book also covers the funding, planning and construction of the 200-inch telescope on Palomar Mountain, Willy Fowler’s work in nuclear astrophysics and the wartime rocket experiments that grew into the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), today the world leader in deep-space exploration.



“Millikan’s School presents an interesting and thoroughly reliable account of the astonishing change over a period of a few years of a small technical school in Pasadena, California, into one of the world’s leading scientific institutions. “ — Linus Pauling


“In Millikan’s School, Judith Goodstein tells the remarkable story of the rise of Caltech... She details how Millikan, aided by Hale and Arthur Amos Noyes, America’s leading physical chemist and another of Hale’s inspired acquisitions, took a former trade school and forged from it a ‘grandiose university among the orange groves’... It would be impossible, while reading Goodstein’s lively account, not to be impressed by the energy, drive and boundless enthusiasm of men like Millikan, Hale and Noyes... [who] had the bare-faced audacity to set about building an institute to rival the cream of the universities of Europe and America.” — Marcus Chown, New Scientist


“[Goodstein’s] story is first and foremost the tale of three men: the astronomer George Ellery Hale, the chemist Alfred Noyes, and the physicist Robert Millikan. It is the story of their attempts to transform an undistinguished little school founded in 1891... into a world-class scientific establishment... [A] useful book.” — Tony Rothman, Science


“In Millikan’s School, the story of Throop [University]’s transformation into Caltech is told with precision... Judith Goodstein’s history offers a quick tour of the landmarks of science in the mid-20th Century and a glance at how pure science puts itself at the service of government, commerce and the military... Goodstein... approaches her subject with a healthy sense of humor and an acute sense of academic politics. She tells a wonderful story about how Caltech lost to Princeton in a bidding war over the services of Albert Einstein, for example... To her credit, Goodstein asks the hard question: ‘What is the best way to do science?’... Millikan’s School offers enough hard data to enable us to come to our own conclusions.” — Jonathan Kirsch, Los Angeles Times


“A cleanly written, scientifically well informed account of one of the world’s foremost institutions for science and technology.” — Ed Regis, Nature


“Relying on archival material, published secondary sources, and interviews with institute scientists, Goodstein presents a highly readable account of Caltech’s beginnings at the turn of the century... substantive, informative, and a good read.” — Rebecca S. Lowen, Technology and Culture


“As a history of science, this book is well crafted. Orderly in its flow, it is not only a tribute to Millikan, but also places him within the development of physics as a field.” — Andrew Rolle, Southern California Quarterly


“A fascinating history that speaks to issues far larger than Cal Tech itself... This well-written and honest account (witness the many cited instances of anti-Semitism in the scientific world) is both a good read and a sobering reminder that big science and top schools are not brought by storks.” — Carroll Pursell, History of Education Quarterly


“The author focuses on the personalities and the research fields of the principal scientific figures... The [...] emphasis on personalities, and capsule surveys of relevant scientific fields produce a book that can be apprehended by a wide audience.” — Roger Geiger, Isis


“This chronicle offers glimpses of the passion and drive that have motivated a roster of distinguished scientists.” — Publishers Weekly


“A lively tale... [Goodstein’s] individual profiles are lean and candid; her background on subjects as diverse as nuclear astrophysics, seismology, aeronautical design, quantum mechanics and rocket fuel are crisp and understandable... With a light style... and meticulous documentation, Goodstein has produced a tale worthy of her subject... “ — Marshall Robinson, Foundation News


“A distinguished and uniquely American institution has found its chronicler and its chronicle in Judith Goodstein’s thorough but compact story of Millikan ‘s School. The emergence of Caltech as a powerhouse of science and engineering and a makeweight in the technological advancement of 20th century industry is both beautifully and reliably presented.” — Harry Woolf, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University

 

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Contents

Presidential Perspectives
Acknowledgments
From the Orange Groves to Camp Throop
Preamble to a Technical School
The Birth of Caltech
A Trio of Men
Millikan and the Rise of Physics
Biological Work
Aeronautics and the Airplane Industry
Atoms Molecules and Linus Pauling
The Thomas Hunt Morgan Era in Biology
Astronomy and the 200Inch Telescope
Nuclear Reactions
The Rockets Red Glare
The DuBridge Era at Caltech
Select Bibliography

Earthquakes
Abbreviations used in notes

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About the author (2020)

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Judith Goodstein graduated from Brooklyn College in 1960, and received a PhD in the history of science in 1969 from the University of Washington for a thesis on the English chemist Sir Humphry Davy. She taught history of science at California State University (Dominguez Hills), UCLA and Caltech. Her books include a history of Caltech, Millikan’s School, and The Volterra Chronicles, a history of Italian mathematicians from the unification of Italy to the outbreak of World War II. In searching for lost treasure in the Caltech Archives, her institutional home for more than forty years as Caltech’s first university archivist, she uncovered one of physicist Richard Feynman’s unpublished freshman lectures, published with David Goodstein as Feynman’s Lost Lecture, and translated into a score of foreign languages. Her most recent book, Einstein’s Italian Mathematicians: Ricci, Levi-Civita, and the Birth of General Relativity, is the first narrative in English on the contributions made by Gregorio Ricci-Curbastro and Tullio Levi-Civita’s tensor calculus to Einstein’s theory. Goodstein is University Archivist Emeritus at Caltech and served as the school’s registrar.

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