Because of Caltech, Pasadena since the 1920s has earned a well-deserved reputation for being at the hub of the known universe when it comes to scientific innovation, imagination and space exploration.
But the institution’s name — in pseudonym form — only really found its way into the orbit of planet Hollywood and the world of mass entertainment in the early 1950s with the release of producer George Pal’s “War of the Worlds,” a stylized reimagining of the 1898 novel by H.G. Wells directed by Byron Haskin which, much like Caltech, has stood the test of time.
Steven Spielberg’s version of the same story in 2005 with Tom Cruise somewhat sticks to Wells’ original vision of the invaders moving around in giant three-legged death pods, while Haskin and Pal’s loosely adapted eye-candy classic, starring Gene Rayburn and Ann Robinson, features sleek, steel-gray state-of-the-art spacecraft with glowing green trim and a flexible, cobra-like tube that emits a blistering heat ray. Both films move the action out of England; New Jersey in Spielberg’s take, and first the San Gabriel Mountains and then downtown LA in the 1953 version.
For anyone from around here, using the name “Pacific Tech” for Caltech didn’t fool anyone, given the choice of locations, those being partly in the mountains, but largely in post-War World II Los Angeles.
Barry, a newcomer at the time who went on to be a pretty big star in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, plays the hero, Dr. Clayton Forrester, a bespectacled but handsome nuclear- and astro-physicist who investigates one of the first alien comets to strike Earth while on a fishing trip in a fictitious mountain town.
As prestigious as Caltech already was, however, up to 1953, the year the film was released, only three faculty members or alumni had won the Nobel Prize: Caltech’s first president, Robert Milliken, won in 1923 in physics for his work on the elementary charge of electricity and on the photoelectric effect; Thomas Hunt Morgan in 1933 won in medicine for his discoveries concerning the role played by the chromosome in heredity; and Carl D. Anderson, also in physics, won in 1936 for his discovery of the positron, defined as a subatomic particle with the same mass as an electron and a numerically equal but positive charge.
These three experimental scientists are today among 37 Caltech alumni and faculty who have won a total of 38 Nobel Prizes in the fields of chemistry, economics, physics, physiology/medicine and peace.
The only two-time winner was Linus Pauling, who took home the prize for his work in theoretical chemistry and chemical bonding, and in 1962 was awarded the prize in 1954 for peace for his work with the anti-nuclear movement of those times.
It was the development of quantum mechanics in the 1920s that led to Pauling discovering chemical bonding, or the way atoms join together to form molecules, which was important to both chemistry and physics, including the fields of astro-physics and nuclear physics, which were taking off in terms of public interest and scientific importance shortly after “War of the Worlds” hit theaters around the country to critical acclaim and box-office success. The film went on to win the Academy Award for Best Special Effects, also in 1954.
Throughout the 1940s, Hollywood science fiction films consisted of much the same subject matter as the previous decade: Monsters, ghouls, giant animals and mad scientists. By the time Pal and Haskin had made their 87-minute masterpiece, the genre had dramatically changed, with scientists becoming more important in America’s race for the stars and filmmakers training their attention skyward, with many space-based adventures by then entertaining American audiences. Among them were such classics as “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) and “The Thing From Outer Space” (also 1951).
Including Kip Thorne and Barry Barish, there have been 15 Nobel laureates in physics from Pacific, er, Caltech since 1956, the same year Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis and Leslie Nielsen starred in “Forbidden Planet,” another stylish classic of the time which also still occasionally plays on TV.
In the world of nonfiction science, Thorne and Barish each shared a quarter of the prize in physics in 2017 for their contributions to the work in detecting gravitational waves on the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detector, a large-scale physics experiment and observatory to detect cosmic gravitational waves and to develop gravitational-wave observations as an astronomical tool, Barish and co-author German physicist Rainer Weiss explained in a 1999 article appearing in Physics Today.
But what many may not know or tend to forget is that this place where dreamers spend their days bent over books, or staring into computers or scribbling on chalk boards also manages Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for NASA. And it’s there where many of these visions move from the theoretical to reality in the form of spacecraft and other technologies that have allowed humankind to explore the outer reaches of our solar system, and beyond.