Mon, Mar 08, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Lunch without small talk at Cal Tech

By John M. Broder  /  NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE , PASADENA, CALIFORNIA

Eminent scientists talk shop at Cal Tech.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

Every weekday at noon, a group of eminent scientists gathers for lunch at a round table in the middle of the dining room of the Athenaeum, the slightly musty faculty club at the California Institute of Technology.

The group often includes two or three Nobel laureates among the four currently on the Cal Tech faculty. The professors are occasionally joined by Cal Tech's president, David Baltimore, who won a Nobel Prize in 1975 for his work in virology.

On any given day, the table might be, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, one of the most extraordinary collections of scientific talent ever gathered together, with the possible exception of when Einstein dined alone.

The discussions range widely, from the latest advances in particle physics to the freshest campus gossip. When Richard Feynman, the brilliant theoretical physicist who died in 1988, participated in the lunches, fellow faculty members and graduate students hovered around the table hoping to snare one of his place-mat doodles as a souvenir.

The Cal Tech discussions could be compared to the celebrated Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, where leading literary wits of the 1920s traded quips and well-crafted insults.

But the round table at the Athenaeum is a more sober and discursive affair. The discussions are notable for their spirit of inquiry, lack of intellectual pretension and absence of verbal one-upsmanship.

On a recent Thursday, Baltimore joined seven senior faculty members around the table for a lunch of salads and light sandwiches. They drank nothing stronger than iced tea and lemonade.

The participants ranged in age from 49 to 90, and among them they had hundreds of years of scientific expertise. They wore thick-soled shoes and tweed sport coats and sweaters that were probably older than most of their students.

Much of the discussion centered on the Rover expedition to Mars, run from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which Cal Tech operates in conjunction with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

"Supposing they find water; does this change the whole picture of life in the solar system?" asked Francis Clauser, a 90-year-old emeritus professor of engineering and aeronautics and an amateur yacht designer.

Baltimore, 65, whose biological research has led to significant advances in cancer and AIDS treatment, replied: "There is no certainty that the existence of water means the existence of life. The other way around is probably true, though."

The curious Clauser inquired, "Would you expect to find fossils of some kind?"

"That's a lot to ask," Baltimore replied. The conversation then turned to fossil formation and lipid envelopes of various thicknesses, way beyond the ken of a fly-on-the-wall newspaperman.

The conversation then turned to more earthbound concerns -- the conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan. Jack Richards, a 73-year-old biochemist, noted that Clauser had traversed "nearly every square foot of the planet, most of it in a Volkswagen." Clauser, then in his 70s, drove over the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan when the Russians still occupied the country.

"I thought I was crazy," Christopher Brennen, an avid mountain climber, said under his breath.

The discussion then took a detour through the landscape of American politics, an area where the professors had decidedly less expertise than fluid dynamics and molecular biology. The conversation could have been overheard in any hotel bar or student lounge.

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