History in the Making
The Caltech Archives, which serves as the Institute's collective memory, has long understood the importance of collecting documents and information that not only describe what happened and when, but add dimension and texture to crucial events.
Interviewing the people who lived through those events accomplishes that in a particularly powerful way. Started in 1978, the Archives' oral history program holds personal memoirs and in-depth interviews with distinguished members of the Caltech community. The most recent additions are interviews with Ahmed Zewail, the late Pauling Professor of Chemistry and professor of physics who died in August of 2016, and Harry Gray, the Beckman Professor of Chemistry.
The Zewail interview chronicles his childhood in Egypt, where his hunger for knowledge often led him into trouble. At one point, as a boy, Zewail—who had written "Dr. Ahmed" on his bedroom door—nearly set fire to his mother's rug with a chemistry experiment. In a later episode, young Dr. Ahmed took his uncle's car for a spin and drove it directly into the Nile River. "I knew theoretically what to do," he explains. "I put my left foot on the clutch, and I turn this on. To make a long story short, I tried to apply the theory to the experiment. Well, the car was headed down into the waterway!"
Zewail also describes how his political consciousness took root early on, noting that as a child he wrote a letter to the new Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Zewail recalls writing, "'You are one of us, and in Egypt that's very important, and we are so happy that you are leading the country.' Then I said, 'I pray that you will succeed in your position as the president of Egypt.' These are the three messages that I remember." Nasser sent a gracious response, wishing young Zewail success in the pursuit of knowledge. An image of Nasser's response can be found in the interview transcript.
The interview also covers Zewail's scientific career as well as his many accomplishments and awards. He says that all of his research was "for the love of what [he was] doing."
"This business of the Nobel Prize, it didn't come to my mind, nor did I know any details about it or what it meant," says Zewail. "For me it was the sheer love of whatever we can discover in a small way."
Harry Gray's interview spans his entire life to date—from his childhood in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where he was the first boy in his class to ask out a girl, to his time at Caltech. He speaks fondly of his students and the pranks they pulled on him over the years.
One time before class, he recalls, his students unfastened all the desks in the lecture hall and reattached them to face the back of the room. Amused but undeterred, Gray simply carried a blackboard to the back of the lecture hall and taught from there.
"They put all this effort into unscrewing all those chairs and turning them around. Unbelievable. But it's because we had a great relationship," says Gray.
Later in the interview, Gray shares another favorite prank. "They broke into the conference room next door and turned it into a high-tech miniature golf course... They thought I'd be mad. I was happy. I played the golf course for three months. I didn't take it out of here." The full interview with Harry Gray can be accessed here.
To date, the oral histories program has published more than 160 interviews, many of which were recorded over multiple sessions. They can be found at the project's website at oralhistories.library.caltech.edu.