The origin of the name Ctein (pronounced Ka-tine) is a Caltech story, as is Ctein's journey from physics to his cutting-edge career in art, printing, and photography. In the discussion below, Ctein recounts his Brooklyn background and why Caltech was an intellectual refuge, and he narrates the decision to admit women to the undergraduate student body in 1970.
Ctein's perspective on Caltech's political scene in the late 1960s is unique: the protest on campus against the planned cancellation of Star Trek (for which he was a key organizer) is often referenced to demonstrate Caltech's relatively apolitical and nerdy culture; in fact, as Ctein sees it, the Star Trek protest was easy to pull off precisely because Caltech undergraduates were political, they were capable of protest and organizing, and they were very much exercised by world events and injustices of the day.
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Monday, August 15th, 2022. I am very happy to be here with Ctein. Ctein, it's so nice to be with you today. Thank you so much for joining me today.
CTEIN: I'm glad to be here. It took us a while to get this set up, but I'm very happy.
All in a Name
ZIERLER: Ctein, to start, first things first, tell me about your name; how it came about; what it means.
CTEIN: It doesn't mean anything. It's my legal name, in fact, in case people are wondering. No, it really is my legal name. It's on my passport. It's on my driver's license, all of that stuff. But it happened at Caltech. What happened there was that I worked on the student newspaper the whole time I was there, and was editor of it for one year. This is my version of the history. Understand oral histories are all unreliable narratives.
ZIERLER: Of course.
CTEIN: But it's the best you can do.
CTEIN: One of our reporters who was, in fact, one of the first women to be at Caltech on the undergraduate level—Connie Staicey—was very particular about the spelling of her last name. As you can imagine, there are so many ways to spell that. One of her articles ended up being the lead front-page headline article, which was wonderful and exciting for her. This was back in the day, we were still doing hot type. We hadn't quite transitioned over to computer typesetting yet. This was literally a case of you typed up copy. You brought it down to the printers. They laid it out on a linotype machine—no kidding—and you drove down at like 2 a.m in the morning to pick up the galleys, and read them. I'm presuming Caltech still has the weekly student newspaper. If you haven't worked on that newspaper, you have no idea what the hours are like, because they don't want to hear last week's news. They don't even want to hear yesterday's news. Anyway, we'd pick up the galleys. We'd go back. We'd proofread them, every word. I will swear on a stack of Bibles that the name was spelled correctly on the headline. Of course, it appeared in print misspelled because that is what was going to happen.
CTEIN: This is where the stories diverge because shortly thereafter the masthead was completely scrambled. Everybody's name was gibberish, and the proofreader's name was listed as Etaoin Schroedlu, which if you know old keyboards (and if you don't) was if you ran your fingers just across the top line of the keys, this is what came out. It's also what typesetters used. Linotype machines, when they just had to add some what's called greeking, filling out dummy space, and they'd just go zip across the keys. Mine was the only one that was actually pronounceable. It came out C-T-E-I-N, whatever— the random monkeys typed it. I started using it as my photographer's byline on the newspaper, as a sort of a cautionary tale, and it became my nickname. When I left Caltech, I started using it for my articles, and then my professional photography, and it took over my life. Now, the place where it diverges is I had always assumed that Connie had done this as an exercise in revenge. I talked to her about five years later at a reunion party, and she had no idea how this happened—and I do believe her. The mystery of where I actually got the name from [laugh] remains a mystery—or I should saw who. But the reason was because I was a lousy proofreader [laugh], and what happened was it took over. I started using it professionally for writing. I used it professionally for photography. When I moved back to the Bay Area a couple of years after graduating, by weird chance, I discovered there were two other photographers in the Bay Area with my birth name, which I am not mentioning in this record. I've definitely dead-named that name. Don't ask me how that wild coincidence happened. We're talking 1972 or '73. We don't even have BBS's like FidoNet. How would I even have a chance of encountering these people but I did, and it was the same name spelled the same way. Apparently, that name had some sort of mystic power to attract photographers. I don't know. At that point, I decided, well, it's a good thing I have a professional pseudonym because, otherwise, there'd be huge confusion. I put up this massive firewall—nobody who knew me professionally ever got to hear the other name.
CTEIN: Anyway, Ctein took over my life, gradually, more and more. I had two sets of ID, even, one under the dead name; one under Ctein. At some point, a couple of decades ago, I decided this is ridiculous. Ninety-nine per cent of the world knows me as Ctein. My sweeties know me as Ctein, most of them have never heard me use anything else! so I went in and had it legally changed, and was able to get rid of one set of ID.
ZIERLER: Is it one name? Is it your last name; your first name?
CTEIN: It is a singular name. It is one name. Just Ctein.
CTEIN: No first name. No last name. Just a name, which is uncommon in this culture. But if you look at Southeast Asian cultures, there are a lot of people there with singular names.
ZIERLER: Well, wonderful.
CTEIN: It just depends where you live.
Photography After Caltech
ZIERLER: Well, Ctein, tell me a little bit about your career post-Caltech. What have been some of the things you've done in your life?
CTEIN: Well, my goal upon leaving Caltech was to become a photographer. I decided that my sophomore year, mostly a result of hitting the wall on E&M. Up to that point, I was going to be a theoretical physicist, and then I hit the wall on E&M, and it made no sense to me whatsoever. It really didn't. I could grind my way through it, but I had no intuition for it. I got the report card at the end of the term, semester—I forget what we even called them then—and I looked at it, and I'd gotten an A. This made me nuts.
CTEIN: I'm looking at this thing, and I'm going, "How can I get an A in a subject I don't understand and I hate?" This is against other Caltech students. How did I get an A? I remember walking down the corridors of the old student houses between Dabney Hall and Fleming. I'm walking down there, and I'm thinking to myself, "This is totally nuts. I don't know what's crazier: spending a term doing this stupid stuff for no purpose whatsoever, or having to spend the rest of my life doing this." At that point, I got a flash of Sartori. The Zen master hit me upside the head, and I thought, "If I'm asking that question, I am doing something wrong." That was the moment at which I said, "I'm going to do what I like to do. I'm going to be a photographer."
The first question was am I going to leave Caltech? No, I'm here, it's OK, and physics makes a nice hobby. I just don't want to make a living out of it.What else do I like? English, I really liked English. I went to my advisor, who not so incidentally was Kip Thorne. I got Kip Thorne, which was like the premium. Even back in 1967, he was the golden child of physics. They thought he was going to be the next Einstein. It turns out there's never going to be a next Einstein. Einstein was Einstein. But he was of that caliber, and I got assigned Kip Thorne, which made me realize later just what high hopes they had for me. I was a severe disappointment. [laugh]
Anyway, I went to Kip, and I said, "I want to sign up for another major," and so I signed up for a second degree in English, whatever they called them back then: double major; double option. I don't remember. I got degrees in physics and English, coming out of Caltech, with the intention of being a photographer. As it turned out, that's a pretty good background for someone who ended up being a photographer and an author. Who knew?! I got out of Caltech; immediately went into a job as a physicist for a couple of years.
I'm sorry, I need to back up and digress a bit.
I went working for Big Bear Solar Observatory as a photographer, as a darkroom printer, because this was back in the era when everything was done on film (or those who don't know this, seeing as I'm talking to the future). Solar astronomy is essentially taking movies. You're looking at the sun, and it's not a static object. It's like one of the weather satellites photographing the cloud patterns on Earth. So you're making a movie. We would in fact photograph on 35mm motion picture film, timelapse, and some of those frames would be photographs that would be needed for study. People wanted them for research, so you'd take those frames, and you'd go to the darkroom, and print them, and make a bunch of prints to send out. That ended up being my job at Big Bear Solar Observatory. In the course of that, I accidentally made a solar astronomy discovery, which made me mildly famous for a short period of time, and my name's on a paper, and that's all really great as an undergrad. That was a lot of fun. That was the digression.
I moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area because I was on trial as a draft resister. I was one of the last people to be put on trial. I really lucked out on all of that because a radio station called me up to interview me about this solar astronomy thing I'd done, which was a big deal for a (former) undergrad. They said to me, "Why are you back in the Bay Area?" I said, "Well, I'm here because I'm about to be tried for draft evasion." All of a sudden, I hit the local news. It probably served very well in my favor because I ended up getting—whatever the title would be—the chief justice in the local federal district, who was known to take on the difficult cases, and he was utterly, scrupulously fair. He didn't like me, but he looked at the record, and discovered that the government had messed up worse than I did. I, of course, had broken the law but so had they. The rules of the game are that criminals are allowed to break the law because that's what makes you a criminal; the government isn't. It's not a symmetric playing field. As a result, he acquitted me, but he did it as a memorandum decision so it wouldn't set a precedent. [laugh] But I got out of that.
Then I had to find work, and I ended up working for a company that was developing an electrophotographic process, who advertised they wanted someone with a physics or engineering BS who knew a lot about photography. I did that for a couple of years. Finally, I got to be a photographer, went off on my own; did terribly haphazardly at it. I think it took me—safely to say—30 years to figure out how to run a viable business. I just kept cycling between, OK, do I have next month's rent money? Do I not have next month's rent money? The answer I was ill-prepared for being a business person. But that's how I ended up being in photography because I was doing what I wanted to do.
I was also good at writing, so I decided to hit up a couple of the photography magazines with article ideas. They said, "Yeah, this is good. Write for us." Starting in the mid-70s, about the same time that I quit the company job, I started writing magazine articles and, very quickly, rose to the high end of that field because, let's face it, I'm a Caltech graduate with degrees in English and physics, and I really know photography. Compared to most of their authors, I'm way out of their league. I know how to write, and I know a whole fuck lot more about the subject than most of them do. After writing for a newspaper in college for four years, I also knew how to write to people. I knew how to write popularly, even if it was for a Caltech student audience. I knew how to explain things. I rapidly became very successful in that field, and became, frankly, one of the top writers in the photography field, which meant it actually paid me living money for my articles because I could churn them out pretty fast. I was doing that. I was doing my photography.
Eventually, I got into a very rarefied form of photography called dye-transfer printing. You can google this. For a good decade, if you googled "dye transfer," I was actually at the top of the Google list. As of this writing (October 11, 2022) I'm still fourth. It's an incredibly difficult and arduous and time-consuming process, and is the best-looking photographic process that ever got invented. I became an expert in it the hard way, the way most Caltech students would, which is a lot of experimentation and errors. Gradually, I became an expert in that.
A minor side point here. One of my mottos is, I don't believe in modesty; I believe in accuracy. [laugh]
CTEIN: This doesn't always make everybody happy.
CTEIN: But, in fact, I became one of the best color printers on the planet—darkroom printers. Kodak, at one point, said I was the best. I didn't agree with them because I knew two people who were better than me that I was directly acquainted with. But I was clearly in the top 10.
ZIERLER: Ctein, what's the skill set that gets you to that level, technically, creatively, intellectually?
CTEIN: Sure, ask the easy questions.
CTEIN: Technically, it really does require a scientific, analytical mind. Dye transfer is complicated enough that you can't do it by cookbook. Take the technique. It's finicky. If it doesn't work right, you have to figure out what you did wrong. You have to experiment. Sometimes, it got me to the point of tears because it used very expensive materials. That would be the intellectual part.
The creative part was I ran across somebody at a small show I was doing. I had an exhibit of photographs I'd made of Apollo 17, the last moon launch, which I went to. There was an exhibit of that, which were lovely Ektacolor prints—or I thought they were lovely. Guy walks up, and very politely says to me, "You do very nice work. I'd like to get some good prints of it." At that point, I decided either he was an asshole or he knew something I didn't. I decided to go with the second possibility. We had dinner together, and it turned out he did know something I didn't. He finally browbeat me into learning dye transfer, which took my printing to a whole different level. Once it did, the creative end was I couldn't do anything less: artistic perfection. I'm trying to make photographs that look like what I see, which is technically immensely hard because the camera does not see the things the way you do. If you look at my website, I'm trying to show you what I saw—putting aside the infrared stuff, which is alien eyes. But the color stuff, yeah, that's what I saw. That's the way it looked to me. That's a very hard thing to do. Dye transfer made it easier, and it also let me hit a quality level where very few people were doing what I was doing. I hit the point where I could charge premium prices for my printing services. There's the creative part. There is the intellectual part. The technical part—I guess a sufficient answer is go and read up on the process—which they can online—their heads will explode. They'll get what I'm talking about. [laugh] If they don't bother to, well, it doesn't matter. [laugh]
ZIERLER: That's great.
CTEIN: In the '80s, I started picking up custom printing work for people. At that time, I was probably charging $200–$250 for a first print. When I stopped doing darkroom work in 2015, I was charging $1,600 a print, which is about where inflation would've taken it. That was for one first print, and that is what people would pay me.
ZIERLER: This is private collectors? Who are the clientele?
CTEIN: My first client was a portrait photographer or, rather, his widow, Bernard Lee Schwartz, and him you can look up online. He's a semi-famous, B+ level portraitist. He had access to an immense number of famous people, and he photographed them. A few of his portraits are actually famous; most aren't, but they're in the British Museum, The Victoria and Albert, and the National Archives in Washington, D.C. He had contacted Kodak or, rather, his widow had contacted Kodak because she had had some dye transfers made in New York and was not happy with them. Their dye transfer expert there, Frank McLaughlin, who I'd met at this point, said, "Contact this guy in California. If he can't make you a good print, nobody can." She sent me a test negative back in 1982, I made a print she was happy with, and that set me off on that career. I've been working with them on and off ever since; now with her son. Frankly, it was their work that got me into being able to buy a house, it's the biggest score of my life. Working with the Schwartz's has been a huge gift to me.
The other thing that happened was, another example, was about around 2000, I got contacted by the office assistant for Jim Marshall. Jim Marshall was a major rock music photographer. If you look up the photograph of Jimi Hendrix at Monterey Pops where he's kneeling on the stage, and setting fire to his guitar, that photograph is a Jim Marshall photograph.
ZIERLER: Ooh. [laugh]
CTEIN: He wanted to get good color prints, and so he contacted me. I ended up printing for Jim, I would say on and off because he was a totally insane person to work for. But I'm happy to say he never pulled a gun on me, as he did with some other people. I'm not making that up. We worked on and off until he died. You can look at his stuff online. There's archives of that also. I'm mentioning the online because assuming anyone listens to this while the interweb still exists, they can go look this stuff up. Those would be two of my major clients. I worked for a lot of individual photographers, whose names people wouldn't know. But they absolutely wanted the very best printing, and they would come to me for one negative printed or five or ten negatives printed. I ended up doing a bunch of things. I'm writing articles. I'm selling my own photographs. I'm custom-printing for other people. I got into digital imaging, and then into photo restoration because that was something that interested me a great deal. I started doing that and, eventually, turned that into a business about 20 years ago. At that point, I had enough things going for me. It's like most self-employed people, you're juggling five balls at one time, and as long as you can keep three of them in the air, you're solvent.
ZIERLER: Ctein, besides being solvent, has this been a lucrative career? Have you been a starving artist at points in your career?
CTEIN: I've never been starving. In fact, doing the work for Ronny Schwartz for Bernard Lee Schwartz was what let me buy a house in 1985, because I'd been renting up to that point. They were going to sell the place, and I was going to get evicted. I talked to a sleazy real estate agent, who by "sleazy," I mean, this was the '80s. It was the wild west time. This is why there are all the laws in place now about documentation if you want to buy a house, because people played fast and loose and lied through their teeth. Among other things, the agent said, "Make up a phony set of IRS forms that we can show to underwriters. Just create fraudulent forms. Put down whatever you need to." [laugh]
I contacted Ronny Schwartz, and said, "I'm trying to buy a house. Can you advance me"—whatever it was—"$20,000 for work I will do over the next year?" Ronny said, "Sure, I'll write you a check." She got me into a house. But most months, it was like, "Am I going to make the mortgage next month?" I can't say I was a starving artist because, honest to god, that already put me better off than three-quarters of the people in the US, and 99% of the people in the world. If I'm going to plead starving artist, that is such a first-world problem level. That's privilege embodiment. [laugh] But, yeah, it was definitely hand-to-mouth, and not a stable income. I managed to get by. It didn't stabilize until, like I said, the mid-2000s when I finally had all these things going.
Then you mentioned the other thing, which was the author thing. I had done a couple of books. I'd been writing articles. I know I've sold over two million words worth of articles, and I could write them fast enough that I could make a living at articles—not a great living, but I could make a living. Then about a dozen years ago, through photography, through a blog called The Online Photographer, I made friends with somebody named John Camp, who writes under the name of John Sandford. He's an amateur photographer. He's quite good. He's also a painter, and he's very good. But he mostly made his living writing best-selling thrillers, of which, at that point, he had like 25 New York Times Best Sellers [laugh], many of which had gone number one. He had turned himself into a writer to make money, and he knew I could write, and he kept telling me I should do this. "Ctein, you should write fiction." "I don't want to write fiction." "You should do it. You could make a shitload of money." Those were his words. I said, "I live in Silicon Valley. Steve Jobs offered me a job once. If I wanted to make a whole shitload of money doing something I don't want to do, I've already had the chance."
CTEIN: He said, "But you could be another Michael Crichton." I said, "Michael Crichton was an asshole. I don't want to be another Michael Crichton." He said, "Well, I don't mean like that. But there'd be a place for you." Finally, he gave up. I do have a witness to this conversation. It was dinner with one of my sweeties. [laugh] The point is we met. We became friends. He was bludgeoning me to do this. I said, "No, fiction is hard. Nonfiction's easy." (Nonfiction is doing what I'm doing right now. I could take this interview and, in an afternoon, turn this into an article because, for one, I know how to speak in complete sentences. [laugh] For another, I'm doing popular science. I'm telling you facts.)
"Fiction, you have to make shit up. That's hard, so I've never had interest in doing fiction." He says, "Oh, OK." Then a few years after that, I get an email from him, which says, "Are you available? Can we talk on the phone for a bit?" I said, "Sure." He calls and says, "Now, I've got a proposition for you. Don't say no until you hear me out, OK?" I said, "Go ahead." He said, "This novel I've been working on, this science fiction novel for like four years, which we'd talked about, it's not going anywhere for me. I'm stuck on a bunch of hard problems. I know I don't have the time to research them, what with churning out two thrillers every year, and I don't want to make bonehead mistakes, so it's dead for me. Why don't you take it on?" "No," I said—just because I said I'd hear him out, why should I hear him out?
John said, "No, no, come on, listen. Look, I don't have much here. I've got a first chapter, and a couple of ideas for characters," which was actually like two, "and the idea of what the overall story theme is going to be, which is basically a great race novel to Saturn. That's all I've got, and I've got this technical problem I don't even know how to solve." I said, "I'm still not interested." He said, "Look, let me just send you what I've got already. There's going to be no pressure on you because I don't have a contract for this because I don't even know if it's going to be finished. You can do it at your own pace, and I'm going to be busy writing my next Lucas Davenport novel, so you really get to do the whole first draft yourself. I'll read as you go along, but I won't be nagging you." I said to him, "What you're telling me is there's no money, and I'm going to be doing the heavy lifting. You are not selling this." [laugh] He sent me the stuff. I said, "Fine." I went to bed.
You know the way the creative process works. The next morning, I woke up and realized I'd solved his technical problem in my sleep. I knew how to do the impossible thing he didn't know how to do. At that point, I should've realized I was stuck but I didn't. I spent three months talking to friends. I'm very active in science fiction fan community, and I know hundreds of authors. I know dozens who I'd call good friends. I talked to many of them, and said, "Should I do this?" They said, "Yeah, sure, go ahead. You could probably write fiction." I said, "No, I can't." They said, "Well, what's the harm? Find out."
After three months, I decided to do it. Then being a professional writer I procrastinated for another three months, doing anything else to avoid writing. My office got very well organized. My computer desktop even got organized. Finally, after six months, I sat down at the keyboard. I had just talked to another author friend and said to her, "But I'm terrified. I look at this blank screen, and I don't know what to do. It's too terrifying." She said to me, "That happens every time I sit down with a new novel." I said, "Oh, so that's normal?" She said, "Yeah." I don't know if that was good news or bad news. But I finally sat down, and took John's first chapter, which, frankly, was pretty bad and really needed work. I'd also read one of his novels to prep for this, and realized I could write that well. It's a pretty low bar, writing a mainstream thriller. He's one of the better ones, but it's not a high literary bar. I rewrote his first chapter. Then I got an idea for another character, which is, if you've ever read the novel Becca, the short, fat power engineer from Minnesota. I wrote her introductory chapter, and I showed these both to Paula, my partner, and said, "Read these because I'm too close to it. Tell me if they suck." She read them and said, "They don't suck." I sent them off to John, and said, "What do you think?" Twenty-four hours of nail-biting, and he wrote back and said, "This is OK. I can work with this," and we were off. That's how Saturn Run happened.
I did indeed write almost the entire first draft. He rewrote part of it. He changed some things. Anybody who reads the book can't tell who wrote what because both of us are professional writers, and we know how to write to style. My normal style is the way I talk, which is a lot like Faulkner, with long sentences with plenty of commas, and occasional digressions and parenthetical remarks inserted. John's way of writing is Hemingway. Short sentences. Not many commas. Lots of periods and declarative phrases. I came up with a style that was 80% his, 20% mine, given our relative audiences. He could write to that. I could write to that. Believe me, you can't tell who wrote what. The scenes in there where they're talking about videography, where people go, "Oh, well, Ctein must've come up with that," no, that was John's. I added some scientific jargon, but those scenes were entirely his idea.
So... We wrote a novel, and it was a best-selling novel. All of a sudden, I'm worrying a lot less about money. Advice to budding authors: one novel doesn't make you rich, even one best-selling novel doesn't make you rich, but it will make you a lot more comfortable. [laugh] That's how I ended up being a fiction author.
The Advent of Digital Photography
ZIERLER: Ctein, tell me about the advent of digital photography, and how you dealt with that.
CTEIN: Well, I've always been interested in the technical side of things, and I've always been interested in computer stuff. I was one of the very first high school students in the country to get to program computers. Originally, I was thinking about being a computer programmer back in college because I realized—this is with a certain amount of prescience; this was before Silicon Valley blew up—that if I did that for 10 years, I could retire. I didn't do it because I thought about that and said, yeah, and if I do it for 10 years, I'll be the kind of person I don't want to be, and I probably won't even be able to do photography anymore. I took the easy way out. I am, in that sense, a dilettante artist. [laugh]
But I'd always been into computers. I follow that stuff very well. I wrote a column for a while for InfoWorld and did reviews for them. I wrote for High Technology magazine. I did writing that was other than photography. I really do know computers backwards and forwards, and I'm a tolerably good hacker. Digital stuff came along, and I started to play with it. I bought an inexpensive digital camera. Actually, I bought one of the little key-chain [laugh] pocket digital cameras that cost $10—just for the amusement value—and used it and then bought another one and took it apart, dissected it, and wrote an article about it for one of my columns for The Online Photographer, which is, "Here's what the innards look like." I had some fun with that. Then I got another digital camera to play with and liked it. Then the other thing that happened—the big thing was I was doing tolerably good work—was I was visiting John, and he said, "I've got this Olympus Digital Pen. I don't like it. You want it?" I said to him, "Really? It's an expensive camera." He said, "Take it. I bought something I like better." It's not like he couldn't afford it.
I did, and it was really good, and it totally got me hooked—it was small and it was compact. My usual camera for working was a Pentax 67. If you look on my website at some of the portraits of me, like the one of me photographing eclipses, that's the camera you see on the tripod. I was used to hauling around this hulking big thing, and I could still do it. But here's something I could slip in my pocket, and it made good quality photographs. I started doing more and more digital, and wrote articles about doing digital. About I think it was 2010, I stopped making film photographs. I just simply stopped. I had a freezer full of film. I had my film cameras. But I just wasn't using them anymore. I let it sit that way. In 2013, I woke up one morning, and said to myself, or it was a realization, "No, I quit. I've quit film photography. This is not something I'm going to go back to. I'm done with it," and within a week sold all my camera equipment. If people want to look it up also, The Online Photographer, "I quit" put that in quotes, add "Ctein," and you can find the column where I talk about this, which includes, in fact, the hotograph from last frame of film I ever exposed.
At that point, I was digital, and I never looked back. I have to say to all the people who stick with film—I don't have a problem with people who do film photography. Some of my best friends do film photography, and it is still wonderful. It's just not for me anymore. I get as good or better quality from my Micro Four Thirds camera as I ever got from my Pentax 67, and I mean that by every technical measure of quality. I can carry it with me everywhere. Well, I did with the 67, but it's so much nicer carrying something that weighs a quarter as much. I can make prints which are, in their own way, as good as the dye transfers I could make because of advances in printing technology and the wonders of Photoshop. I used to tell people, "Dye transfer was like Photoshop in the darkroom," which is kind of a reverse neologism, but it gets the idea across to them.
I'm doing all this, and instead of spending over $100 to make a print—which is truly what it cost to make the first dye transfer, which is part of why I charged people as much as I did—and it would take a week (the other part), now it costs me a couple of bucks, maybe 10 bucks in supplies with proof prints, and I can do it in a day or two. If it's really hard, I still take a week. But I can do a whole lot more work. and I have a lot more fun doing it. The point is: I was getting bored in the darkroom. I still did darkroom printing because I was making money for clients off of that. I kept that up for another two or three years. Finally, I realized I was just bored. I'd been doing dye transfer for almost 40 years. I had plateaued. I hadn't mastered it. Nobody has ever mastered that process. But I'd hit the point on the curve where it was like that I wasn't learning any more. It would become—as weird as it is to say this—oh, ho-hum, another day in the darkroom. I'll do this. I'll do that. I'll go through these exercises and, in three days, I'll have a magnificent-looking print—and it would be, but it was all routine, and my muse was just plain bored.
Digital wasn't. It was exciting. It still is, I'm still climbing the learning curve of that. It's a very long learning curve. I'm figuring out new things and new tricks. Digital excites me. The process of making the prints excites me. Digital photography, well, that's nice. But the printmaking is what excites me, and I'm learning new stuff, and my muse is engaged, and I'm having fun with it. Whereas the darkroom had just become—it's a job. A nice job, to be sure. Everybody should have such a hard job as me. In 2016, I closed down the darkroom, used up the last of my supplies, and had a blowout print sale. I announced to people, I said, "I'm closing the darkroom. I have 150 sheets of paper left. Here are four images you can choose among. I'm never going to be printing these in the darkroom again. You've got five days to order." We figured we might sell half of them. We being Mike Johnston and I, who's the editor for the site, and runs The Online Photographer. He and I thought I might sell half of them. We sold out in 3 hours and 15 minutes.
ZIERLER: Wow. [laugh]
CTEIN: [laugh] This was six figures' worth of money, and it paid for the remodeling downstairs, so the house got much bigger and more livable. The houses here have effectively an unfinished floor. They're two stories, but there's a garage level, which is unfinished. We finished it off. I closed the darkroom. That was a hit to my income because, all of a sudden, I wasn't making $1,500 prints for people, but I didn't really have to at that point. I had a stable business. This was before Saturn Run, mind you, although I was in the process of writing that. Here's a piece of advice, by the way, to authors. If you're in the middle of trying to write a novel... One, don't do something like have a massive print sale that means you have to be working to fulfill that for the next year, doing all the finishing work. Two, don't start remodeling your house in the middle of it. [laugh]
ZIERLER: [laugh] Words to live by.
CTEIN: I've made smarter moves. [laugh]
ZIERLER: [laugh] Ctein, let's shift now. Let's go back.
CTEIN: Yes, enough about me. What about you?
ZIERLER: Well, right.
From Brooklyn to Pasadena
ZIERLER: Let's now go back and establish some context before you were an undergraduate at Caltech. Where were you at high school? Where did you grow up?
CTEIN: I lucked out there. Well, I was born in Brooklyn. My folks moved out to California in 1960 because my father got a job here, managing the Bay Area office for one of the technical publications firms. They wrote for people like Lockheed and Sylvania and GE—high-end clients. He wasn't a technical writer. He was a manager and, boy, was he a crappy manager. I learned from him. I'm a crappy manager. We'll get back to that. [laugh] My joke, by the way, about this is I'm a better manager than Steve Jobs was because I knew I was a crappy manager.
ZIERLER: [laugh] That's great.
CTEIN: Steve was a friend of mine. But, anyway, we moved out here. This was in 1960. I went to various elementary schools here, with some people now who are famous. Weird thing. I have my junior high yearbook, and there are pictures of me, and there's a picture of Woz also, who I knew back then. It turns out, by the way, people will pay hundreds of dollars for that yearbook because it has a picture of Woz in junior high school.
CTEIN: No, I'm not selling it. Don't ask.
ZIERLER: OK. [laugh]
CTEIN: But it amuses me. I ended up going to a new high school here called Homestead High School, which had just been built—a very large high school. It had as many students in my class as all the undergrads at Caltech—I'm not kidding—700–750 freshmen in each class. This was when the district was flush. They had tons of money, and it was the 10th best rated high school in the country, and we knew that. The only reason we didn't take on airs about this is because Silicon Valley was rich, and Palo Alto High was ranked number three, so we didn't think we were the best. I later discovered things like my social studies teacher in my junior year had been hired away from the Monterey Naval Postgraduate School to be a high school teacher. God knows what they offered him—or maybe he was just sick of teaching Navy people. But they had that caliber of faculty. I got to go to one of the best high schools in the country; more luck... and privilege. It was almost entirely white. But it prepared me very well. I did well in high school. I'm still friends with a couple of people from high school—not a whole lot but they're there. Mostly, though, public school for me was a horrible experience because, except for the cohort I hung out with, I was way too smart. I wasn't very popular. I relied on my intellect because of what I call the Mr. Spock syndrome. I bet a whole lot of Caltechers, if they're listening to this tape, are going, "Oh, yeah, I know what you're talking about."
CTEIN: If they're still students, they may not yet, but if they're now in their 30s, they'd go, "Oh, yeah, I know what you're talking about." I wasn't socially adept. Yes, I had a girlfriend, a very steady one, but I was not one of the popular kids. There were other ones who bullied me, all this. I was very glad to get out of high school.
ZIERLER: Were you into physics specifically? Was that a draw to go to Caltech?
CTEIN: I was into physics. It was the thing that looked most interesting. I was a whizz at that level at math and at physics. As it also turned out, what I am is a really good—I forget what the term for it is—someone who can cross the lines between experimentation and theory. There's a term of art for this, and it was only coming into vogue when I was at Caltech, and I don't remember what it is. Phenomenologist? Something like that. I don't remember. But there's a term for someone who can look at a theory, and think of how to make an experiment. I'm that kind of a person, but that wasn't a discipline back then. If it had been, I quite possibly would've stayed in physics. But I was a damn good experimentalist, and I could do the math in high school. I was your typical student. I taught myself calculus in my freshman year of high school because my father had a textbook, and I went and read it, and it was fun—that kind of thing. I got almost straight A's, except for physical education. Big surprise. [laugh]
It was a very high-caliber school, as I said. There were some 700 students in my class. At graduation, I was actually ranked 23rd. In that sense, I was not like most Caltech students. I didn't come there thinking that I was the brightest kid on the block. I didn't come there because I was first in my class, which was a big help. I already knew there were a lot of smart people out there but maybe not my kind of smarts but certainly in terms of getting grades in academia better than me.
ZIERLER: Did you specifically want to stay close to home? Did you apply farther away, like Harvard and things like that?
CTEIN: No, I had no desire to stay at home. Well, being in a class where there were plenty of kids who were doing better than I was, I also didn't have a good idea of how smart I was, and I didn't figure that out until later—in part because I was trying to blend in, and in part because I really had nothing to compare it to. I did have the experience in high school of bouncing around between English classes because that was secondary then. Everything was vocation-oriented. I needed certain electives to get into a really good school in science. I bounced about English—keep in mind that this was one of the best high schools in the country—between track A to track B to track C to track AA—because it was what fit into my schedule.
I could tell that my skills were declining in track B's and C's. I wasn't being stimulated, which has made me a fierce enemy of any kind of tracking system. I don't care about providing elite things for people to get better. This is not a good system. I get advantaged, and it holds 90% of the people down, so there's my little rant about tracking. No. The answer is you give up a little bit so everybody else is a whole lot better. Anyway. But I had a low opinion of myself relative to what I could do. I applied to Stanford, to MIT, to Caltech, and to UC Berkeley because then I would have them as a fallback because they had to admit anybody who had at least a B average—because I wasn't sure I would get into anything. I think there was one other school. I can't remember which one. It wasn't Harvard. Maybe it was Harvey Mudd, which I don't know if it still is but then was an extremely high-end school. The answer is I got into all of them except Stanford, which I didn't get into mostly because Stanford back then was still very much a good old boys' club, and most of the slots were filled up with alumni or relatives of alumni or people who had made donations. But I didn't care. I'd gotten into all of those others. I don't know why I chose Caltech over MIT.
ZIERLER: Were names like Feynman and Gell-Mann, did they register with you even in high school?
CTEIN: Oh, yes, they did. In high school I applied to what was called the NSF Summer Science Program. I have no idea if it still exists. It probably doesn't. It was a crash six-week course held at a private school—Thacher, I think it was—in Ojai. Probably the same Thacher whose name is at Caltech. They picked like 30 students, and it was this crash course in astronomy and physics. It was also, by the way, the first place where I discovered I really had to do homework because the first couple of days, I was going, oh, I know that. I know that. I know that. I wasn't taking notes. The third day, it got beyond me. It was like, oh, hell, I'm in trouble. Scramble, scramble, scramble. But, yeah, they had people who later went on to become very significant. I think Jay Pasachoff lectured there. I don't remember. Courtney Seligman certainly did, who became an astronomer. Richard Feynman came in to give a talk once. I have a lovely photograph of him in my book on digital restoration because I took a Polaroid of him with a dog he had, and this was when he had a mustache. For a short time. I have this lovely portrait of Dick Feynman with a mustache. I knew these names. I knew these people. We got lecturers coming, and I think Gell-Mann came in to lecture once about the recently discovered quasi-interstellar object, which was being called a "quasar." No, that wasn't Gell-Mann. I've screwed up. I blanked out. Who discovered quasars again?
ZIERLER: Oh, Goldreich?
CTEIN: No. Look it up. I've knocked it out of my head. We could google it now. Whoever it was came in and talked about it, about making the discovery. The reason I got it wrong is because I remember Gell-Mann liked quarks, and the people were calling them quasars. He thought that was horrible. It was a dumb-sounding name, and they should just continue to call them quasi-interstellar radio objects. Well, guess what, people didn't.
ZIERLER: You don't mean Jocelyn Bell Burnell?
CTEIN: No, she's pulsars. God, now, I'm going to have to look it up—I'm sorry—because this is going to make both of us crazy. [laugh] Yeah, you can pause the recording—or not.
ZIERLER: Allan Sandage?
CTEIN: Maarten Schmidt.
ZIERLER: Maarten Schmidt, OK.
CTEIN: Yes, of course, Maarten Schmidt, who discovered them, mostly because he was a consummate experimentalist. Do you mind if I digress a little bit?
ZIERLER: Not at all.
CTEIN: This is about Maarten Schmidt. Back then, the way you did astronomy—"Hi, kids, in the good old days when computers were steam-powered, and we had to haul the coal uphill both ways"—no. Back then, astronomy was all film-based, plate-based, photographic plate, and all guiding was done by hand. You sat there with a guide scope with a reticle, and you put it on a star. You had this little hand controller with buttons, much like a game pad like for playing games, except there were four buttons for up, down, left, right, declination and attitude and right ascension. You sat there, and you watched this star image quiver around the crosshairs, and you played the buttons to keep it centered. This is how you got sharp images. You did this for as long as the exposure was. What we were told was Maarten Schmidt was so good at this that he could do this night after night, and put the star in exactly the same place. This let him actually look deeper into the universe than anybody had been able to look before and identify these really anomalous redshifts with values of, like, I think, 3.7 for the time. That's how he managed to discover quasars, because he was a really good experimentalist. The wonderful thing about astronomy is so much of it is observation. It's the best place to build a new instrument because you build any kind of new instrument, and you see something you never expected to see. We don't understand what the hell's going on out there. I think it's one of the best things about physics. The triumph of 20th century physics was discovering that we do not understand a little more than 95% of the entire universe. We don't have a clue. This is fabulous. We have quantified our ignorance.
CTEIN: I love it. I love it.
CTEIN: Physics is so going to blow up in the next 100 years. I have no idea what it's going to turn into, but it's going to be the difference between classical physics and quantum. We are clearly very badly wrong about some stuff, and we don't understand why, and it's enough things and they're big enough that we've got it wrong.
ZIERLER: Yeah, and we know we have it wrong.
CTEIN: We have no idea how we have it wrong. I don't know. Are you a physicist?
ZIERLER: I'm a historian of science, no.
CTEIN: OK, but then you know physics. You know this stuff.
CTEIN: You look at things like, for example, the so-called vacuum energy. This is like the ultraviolet catastrophe all over. You do the calculations. Any grad student could do them. The energy density you come up with for the universe is off by a mere 130 orders of magnitude. We know that would be wrong because if it did, the whole universe would just go like that, collapse into itself. It's like the ultraviolet catastrophe was. We have no idea what we're doing. That's only one example. We have no idea what we have wrong but we have something very wrong, and there are too many of those. We aren't finding dark matter. We know it's got to be there. We can't find it. Dark energy, we do not yet have a clue. It's all going to blow up. It'll be wonderful. I wish I'd be here in 100 years to see what physics looks like, and I know I wouldn't understand it.
Anyway, I knew about all these people. I don't remember why I decided between MIT and Caltech—maybe because it was a little closer. I didn't want to be at home, but it meant I could get home easily. California weather—maybe because it was smaller. I don't know. I really don't remember. I didn't go visit either campus before I chose. I ended up choosing Caltech. I don't know if it was the better choice of the two or not. I really don't know. The advantage that Caltech has is that it's small and intimate. Indeed, because I rapidly became a shaker and mover on campus with the student council and the newspaper, I knew almost every single undergraduate, and a fair number of the grad students. MIT's got seven times the population. You can't know everybody. But the advantage MIT has is that, well, one, they had already admitted women because they were a little bit more aware than we were. But, more importantly, at Caltech, if you've got two or three friends who are interested in a particular weird thing, you've got two or three friends who are interested in a particular weird thing. If that happens at MIT, you've got 25 or 30 people who are interested in that weird thing, and you actually have a club or an organization. It can sustain a much more diverse academic environment than Caltech can. That's an advantage of a big school like that.
Personally, if I were to redo it all over again, I would go to an elite liberal arts college, like Grinnell or Carleton or something like that. I think that's the best education for an undergrad, unless they really do absolutely know what they're doing, and most of you don't. Sorry. I thought I did. You think you do. You don't. A really good liberal arts college will let you get into any graduate program you want to, if that's the way you want to go, and it indeed provides a broad education. I know two mathematicians who went to liberal arts colleges because they provide good background. Same way Caltech can provide you, actually, with a good degree in English or economics, a liberal arts college can provide you with a good degree in science and math. That's my advice to all the youngsters who will pay no attention to it because why should they? I wouldn't have.
ZIERLER: [laugh] Ctein, what year did you get on campus? What was your first year at Caltech?
CTEIN: 1967, fall of '67. I was class of '71.
Caltech Politics in the late 1960s
ZIERLER: Now, the broader context here and, ultimately, we'll get there, this decision about admitting women, were the '60s present at all on Caltech's campus? Were you political at all?
CTEIN: Oh, my god, yes. Oh, my god, yes. Caltech was extremely political. The whole antiwar student movement for Southern California was coordinated out of Caltech people. Not me personally, but they were the coordinators for that. We were hugely active politically. There were rallies. There were marches. In a slight parallel, one of our students got busted on campus for pot. Police came in and arrested him. We marched down to City Hall, and Feynman was marching there with a sign also, which said, "Foolishness should not be a felony."
CTEIN: I have photographs of that. [laugh] No, we were politically active, and we were very antiwar. We had major speakers come to campus that filled the plaza with students. A side of this is I had the state police—or not state police. State law enforcement officials come to campus one day to talk to me. This was back when Caltech maintained its own police force, which I understand they got rid of and contracted out. Then they used the city police, which I hope that worked out well for them. But the Caltech police understood Caltech students. We got Angela Davis there to speak, who has now been fortunately recognized as being important but back then was mainly known for being associated with extreme radical causes…what they would today brand, quote, "a terrorist" because we brand everybody a terrorist. The plaza was filled with people.
State investigators came and talked to the campus police, and they said, "We understand you have photos of this. We'd like to get copies of the photos." I said, "No." They said, "We can get a court order." I said, "You go get a court order." Of course, they didn't, and it wouldn't have stood up because I had done it for the newspaper. But I actually went and hid those negatives. I took them out of my house. I went and hid them in a place, I won't even say where, but in a place on campus where no one would think to look. I was already a scofflaw. I was also a pacifist. David Harris came to speak on campus. He founded the Resistance, and people can look up what the Resistance was. It was an anti-draft movement. The term you would use later would be "monkey-wrenching." We didn't have that term yet. It was what I called social jiu-jitsu. The idea here was you sent back your draft card. You told them you wouldn't comply. You made them indict you. You made them take you to court. You made them try you. Since we were students, you made them pay for the court-appointed attorney, and, if you had to, you went to jail. In other words, you used the system against itself—and it worked. It actually worked. A bunch of people went to jail. I got lucky; I didn't. I fully expected to be in jail as a result of this. But it worked. By the time they got rid of the draft, three-quarters of the men, boys being called up on the West Coast weren't even showing up at induction centers because they knew they wouldn't get prosecuted. We jammed the system. We broke it. We were very politically active, massively politically active in the '60s. I don't know who was responsible for that. It could've been the zeitgeist. I wouldn't put it past being Joe Rhodes again, who completely transformed Caltech.
ZIERLER: How well did you know Joe?
CTEIN: Pretty well. Well, he was there for my freshman and sophomore years. We stayed friends and corresponded after he went off as a Junior Fellow to Harvard. I visited him there. We had lunch together at times. I knew him tolerably well. Joe was my first experience with charisma. I don't know what you think about charisma. Charisma is not a good thing. It is a force, it is a power, and it can be used for good or it can be used for evil. It is not inherently a good thing. Joe was my first experience with charisma, so it kind of got me inoculated against it and, eventually, it got other students inoculated. Joe would come into a room, and most of his ideas were good, and occasionally they weren't. He'd sit down, and he'd talk to you about his latest idea, and you would sit there and go, "Yeah, that's really good. I really like that. That's really, really good. We should do that." You knew enough, you learned after a while, to just go home, sleep on it for a couple of days, and then think about it. Steve Jobs had charisma, what the geeks called his reality distortion field, because most of them never heard the word "charisma." He had charisma. The way he used it was not so great but he used it.
Another historical figure… Ronald Reagan had charisma. I met Ronald Reagan because he'd invited a bunch of student leaders, of which I was one, up to Sacramento to listen to him talk. You listened to Ronald Reagan and, honest, this is after he'd done horrible things like SF State and Berkeley, it was like listening to your kindly grandfather who really only wanted the best for you. He really loved you. He just wanted what was good for you and right. You walked away with just that warm, fuzzy feeling—until reality set back in. That was charisma. It was also part of what he was like as a person, though not entirely. But this is charisma at work. But, at that point, I knew what charisma was. Of course, the worst example we know of in history was Hitler, who clearly had charisma. You can't understand why people would follow him, unless you look at the films, and can speak German, and then you go, "Oh, my god, it's hypnotic. I believe this man."
OK, Joe had charisma. Most of your listeners will not know this, but Joe was student body president for two years. He was the first because the rules were you could be elected to the ASCIT board any time, but you couldn't run for president until your junior year. They changed that to sophomore year for Joe. I don't know if there's been one since. He was the first student body president who was elected president for two years because they changed the rules so Joe could be student body president. Joe also wrote an utterly prescient essay before I arrived about basically how Caltech was screwing over students, and burning them out. It was printed in the paper before I arrived. It was also reprinted in the student newspaper around 2002–2004. They reprinted it because it didn't look like things had gotten much better. I read the essay when I was a student and thought, well, that's really interesting but it's not me. But, really, I was one of those cases. Caltech managed to convince me that I didn't like science. If I may indulge in a bit of indictment here because we're talking history. I don't know what the graduation rate is now. But I know at least 20 years ago, Caltech was still losing about a third of its admission class. They did not graduate with their class. I don't know if it's better now. It was that way when I was there. I knew almost everybody on campus. I knew in my entire time there exactly two students who left because they couldn't cut the work, and they really tried. These were ones who couldn't manage to do it. They had lots of people in their student houses, helping them, trying to tutor them and, for some reason, they weren't up to it.
ZIERLER: Ctein, was your sense that Caltech administration viewed these rates as a failure in its education or more as a point of pride in how difficult the curriculum was?
CTEIN: I don't think they viewed it as a failure in the education because I think they would've fixed it if they did. If it's still that rate, I think they still don't. Whether they view it as a point of pride, they shouldn't because, as I said, their admission processes, at least back then, were fabulously good. Almost everybody could hack it. By the end of four years, a third of them had decided they didn't want to. They either flunked out because they just said, "To hell with it," or they went to another school, or a minority didn't graduate with their class, or some of them just dropped out. Many of them went on to do very important things in their own areas, sometimes even in science. But Caltech made science seem like drudgery, like work. It didn't let you know how much fun it could be.
If it had, I would probably still be in science, and my life would've been very different. I have no idea if it would be better. I like my life. But it would be a very different timeline. I was a very good experimentalist, and also whatever the crosses between the two. I might not have been able to hack the math, but I could understand theories when they were explained to me, even very advanced theories. I just couldn't do the equations, but I was really good at saying, "Well, here's how we can test it."
I remember in my second year in physics lab, Physics 2, there was one experiment that was involved in measuring I think it was something like the gas constant. I don't remember how we did it. We were given a bunch of equipment, a traveling microscope, and blah, blah, blah. Anyway, I looked at the equipment, and I looked at the way they had arranged it, and I rearranged it. I managed to pull out two more significant figures than I was supposed to do in the experiment—actually three because there's always the round-off errors. The two additional ones were correct. I got 11 points out of a 10 on that one. I'm good at that. Nobody seemed to be able to tell me, "You can do something. You have promise. You should at least be with someone like the..."—I would've fit into the National Bureau of Standards great, and what's now NIST. Nobody knew how to tell me that.
I got lucky. The irony is after doing so well in second term E&M at Caltech, they said, "You don't have to do third term. Instead, you're going to get personally tutored in quantum mechanics." I was tutored by Robert Leighton, look at the authors on the red book, he's one of the three authors. Kip Thorne is my advisor. Robert Leighton is personally tutoring me in quantum mechanics. They're still thinking I'm gonna be a great physicist. But what Leighton was doing ws cutting edge astronomy. He was a pioneer in infrared astronomy. He thought of spin-casting resin mirrors before anyone else thought of spin-casting. He'd been involved in the camerawork, I think, on the Ranger lunar probe, some of the planetary—not planetary—camerawork for extraterrestrial probes. I asked him, "How did you get involved in doing this cool astronomy stuff?" He said, "Well, I planned on being a theoretical physicist, and I found I couldn't hack the math." That should've taught me something, and it didn't sink in. Later on, I ended up doing honors chemistry under George Hammond. He gave me a photochemistry problem to work on that had been vexing people for years—decades actually. The results were all over the place. Just by—I don't know—this intuition of mine, I did the experiment a little differently, and I figured out what everyone else had been doing wrong. It still didn't occur to me that maybe I had a career there. By this point, I was fixated on the idea I was going to become a photographer. Caltech basically bludgeoned science out of me. It bludgeoned out the physics, made it seem like a drag, and you didn't get the fun. I hope they've fixed that. I don't know. But I know they hadn't as of 20 years ago, or the newspaper wouldn't have felt the need to run this essay again. If they have, great. If they haven't, hey, administration unless you've really slacked off on your admission requirements, unless you've really gotten sloppy there, those third or whatever your losing, those are your failures. Those aren't people who couldn't make it. Those are your failures.
CTEIN: [laugh] Now it's on the record for posterity, and no one will ever care. I always fantasized that if I were ever really, really rich, what I would do would be to offer Caltech a huge endowment with a whole bunch of strings attached, which they wouldn't want to take, but it would be fun. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Ctein, let's now move onto the main topic of our discussion.
CTEIN: The main? We're finally getting there!
The Decision to Admit Women Undergraduates
ZIERLER: The decision by Caltech to admit women to the undergraduate student body. Let's start first on an informal level. What is your memory of conversations among the guys, among the Caltech undergraduates that led to the formalization of an effort to agitate for this move by Caltech?
CTEIN: Collectively? Well, there will always be a diversity of opinion. There's always going to be a range. But, collectively, the thought was, "This is stupid. There's no reason for not admitting women." We knew MIT had, and it worked. More importantly, we all knew that Caltech had admitted its first women graduate student back in the 1950s, and they admitted her because there was a faculty they wanted to woo, a researcher at another institute, and he wouldn't come unless he could bring his grad students, and one of them was a woman. All of a sudden—well, it wasn't all of a sudden; there was a lot of sturm und drang—but, all of a sudden, the rules got changed for grad students. Oh, wait, OK, we can have women now. They had no good reason for not admitting women, except plain and simple sexism—blatant, simple, and not even—is there such a thing as smart sexism? No. But some of it is more stupid than others. Clearly, it had worked at MIT, and we'd already had women graduate students.
Remember, at this time, nothing was finalized. The board of trustees was talking about, for instance, having a separate dorm for the women to protect them—not because they actually had a clue about sexual harassment or any of the other issues, which are still an issue in society, but just because women had to be set off in their little housing, which was not the way it happened, and that was our doing. It was discussed, and we knew it was dumb. There was no obvious logical reason for it, and we were, of course, all über-intellects, so why are they doing this? The answer is because, frankly, they were all old white males, and that's the way old white males think. It is still substantially the way old white males think, except for me, of course. I'm different. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Ctein, there's a range, of course, the motivations in bringing women on to the undergraduate student body, from the highfalutin in terms of civil rights and an understanding that women could be just as good as men. How important—?
CTEIN: Dating, to dating. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Right, exactly. In the range of motivations, how would you rate each of them in terms of their order of importance?
CTEIN: That's difficult to say because when I was there, Caltech had already worked out some alternate arrangements. They did mixers with Pasadena City College, which was nearby. While most of their students weren't at our level, some of them were. Frankly, a lot of the guys didn't much care if the women had as many brains as they did. A lot of them did, but we did mixers with them. We'd also gotten affiliated, informally, with a college called Immaculate Heart College. I don't know if they still exist or not. It was religious. It was a Catholic college, but this is the '60s. We're talking liberation theology. This was the radical left end. This is before religious politics got totally taken over by the alt-right, thank you Newt Gingrich and the Moral Majority and Jerry Falwell. It was a far-left thing, and this was the far-left, far-left of the movement. These were the nuns who would be out there laying themselves across railroad tracks to keep military trains from going through—that kind of thing.
We had a serious association with IHC. We'd visit; lots of intermingling, lots of visiting. This relates to the issue of admitting women. There was a serious official effort to affiliate the two colleges, academically and legally, so that you could take courses at both, they would apply to both, and create, as it were, a two-campus university with their benefits and ours, because they were way strong in the liberal arts as you might guess. Whereas we had excellent liberal arts, but it was thin. We hired the very best professors. I remember one of my English teachers, who'd been hired away from Harvard. We asked him, "How does this compare to English curricular at Harvard? Are we getting any thing more dumb?" He said, "No, you're actually getting it tougher because you're all smarter, but you don't have a lot of choices." This association was actually put forth by Harold Brown, and it went to the academic... senate? I don't know what the hell it's called. But it went for a vote. Every department except one or two was strongly in favor of it. I know one of the ones which wasn't was engineering, and they were strongly against it. I do not know if this was the right decision, but Harold Brown and the board decided that consensus was more important than majority rules, even when it was an overwhelming majority, so we never officially affiliated with them. But there were these efforts going on. Now, we get back to Joe Rhodes. One of the things Joe did, or one of the other things was, he came up an idea for something called the ASCIT Research Project. Have you talked to people about this already?
ZIERLER: I have not. This is new.
CTEIN: Oh, my, ARP, ASCIT Research Project turned out to be very important. I don't mean organizationally the basis but in terms of meta, it was the founding structure for Caltech's Environmental Quality Laboratory. They modeled it off of the ASCIT Research Project. This was major, and we did major research. Joe's idea here was the students should be able to do research. Students should be self-actualizing. Students should be able to pursue things that interest them. Let's take on air pollution as a problem. Joe also had the idea, the brilliant idea that this is an interdisciplinary, a multidisciplinary problem. Pollution is not a single variable problem. I know, everybody now goes, "Yeah, duh." That was not the way it worked back then. Most of the stuff we knew about pollution was single issue because people had focused on it. The business with getting lead out of gasoline—and I blanked out on the name again of the guy, and I've even got a bookmark to read.
ZIERLER: Arie Jan Haagen-Smit?
CTEIN: No, that was air pollution. Lead was a chemist.
ZIERLER: Oh, my gosh.
CTEIN: I want to say Perkins but that's not right.
ZIERLER: No. This one will come to me. I will get this one.
CTEIN: OK. Anyway, it turned out he got into lead because he was trying to do work on heavy metals. He was actually a geochronologist, and was doing dating of the Earth, and did groundbreaking work in that area. He was one of the earliest geochronologists. At that time, you did it by looking at things like lead isotope ratios versus transuranics. Now, there's much more sophisticated tools, but he was one of the very first people. He did, I think, the first accurate dating on the age of the Earth, and he kept having these contamination problems. There was lead getting into his system, and he couldn't figure out where. Finally, he discovered it was getting in there from the air. He went and traced back, thinking, "How's it getting here?" It was tetraethyl lead in gasoline; the anti-knock compound that they added.
ZIERLER: Clair Patterson.
CTEIN: Clair Patterson, yes. I knew Clair Patterson. He was still around then. He got into it for that reason. I forget how Arie Haagen-Smit got his—the point is, these were single-focused people. They didn't see these as multidsciplinary problems… this was how all the early environmental scientists—because we didn't even have that term—worked. Clair led the movement to get lead out of gasoline, and prevailed. It was part of our first air pollution project. In fact, this was at a time when if you went into Central LA—not just the poorest people of color neighborhoods, though that was no coincidence, but lots of it— and you measured people's blood, you found that their blood level level was at 40% of LD 50. Tetraethyl Corporation and the gasoline companies claimed this was harmless. They claimed that, essentially, the mortality curve for lead was a delta function. It wasn't a sigmoid. They claimed was a delta function, so it didn't matter if you had 40% of LD 50 in your blood. It wasn't going to cause any problems. They actually argued this. These are not nice people. [laugh]
Anyway, this is how it happened. Joe had the brilliant idea that this should be an interdisciplinary program where people are cross-fertilizing and talking to each other about what they're doing, and how these things all interact. As far as I know, he invented that. He certainly invented it for Caltech, and it was the model of the EQL. That's major. That is huge. He came up with this idea for an ASCIT program—the idea that it should be student-run and student-administered. We should have complete control over it, and we should be the ones who get the money. It doesn't go to faculty., we aren't doing research under a faculty member. It's our work. Somehow or another, he figured all this out, and talked the campus into it because, indeed, charisma.
CTEIN: This has happened mostly before my time because it started my freshman year, so he'd been laying the groundwork. We got an official high-level faculty advisor because it was impossible at that point for students to apply for federal grants. It just wasn't legally possible. There was an administration official who signed onto the application so the NSF would take our application, which then funded us. We got an NSF grant! Caltech let us the use of their accounting services so that we didn't actually have to try to manage the money. One of the big problems, of course, is we were all minors. [laugh] It's a little hard to set up the bank accounts, and manage the finances, so the administration facilitated this. They thought this was a great idea.
The ASCIT Research Project was created. I wasn't there at first. The other third thing, here's the third piece of the puzzle. Joe's really working here. It needs to be interdisciplinary and we're too narrowly focused. We're a bunch of geeks, and we're mostly hard science geeks, but this is also a sociological problem. This is an economic problem. All of this stuff interacts. It is not just hard science. It's not just a chemistry problem. We don't have those people, so we need to get them from elsewhere. We created or Joe created—I'll say Joe because I'm sure these were his ideas. At that point, I'm sure he had a whole set of minions who were doing his bidding [laugh]—created something called the Student Research Associate, SRA, and these would be students who would be transferred here for a year from other campuses. They'd be allowed to take courses here, and get credits back to their campus. They wouldn't be officially students at Caltech, but there would be this official academic linking. Remarkably enough, the majority of those SRAs just had to be women.
What a coincidence. Whoda thunk?! Not all of them, by the way, but a majority of them. We put out appeals to all sorts of good schools and the first four SRAs arrived in early 1968. I've only been in contact with one of them recently, but I assume they're all still around. They were Nancy Grana, Helene Silverblatt, Marci Hunt and Connie Staicey, the infamous Connie Staicey, who led to my name—or not so infamous. We got a whole bunch more that summer when the program went full-blown. I wasn't here for that. I didn't quite get the import of this. ARP really interested me, and I was involved in peripherally helping to get it going, but I had to go get a decent summer job. I thought about staying with ARP, and my parents would have been OK with that but Tektronics offered me what we would now call a paid internship for the summer a thousand bucks a month—1968 dollars!—for an undergrad, with the opportunity for a job when I graduated, and I hadn't yet decided I wasn't going to be a physicist. I really had to take that job. Today, that would officially be about $5,000 a month. But in terms of real inflation, that would be more like 10–15K a month for real inflation, not cost of living. That was a shitload of money to be offering a freshman.
I came back home, and promptly sent ARP a donation of $100, which was like their highest tier of donations. This ended up getting me on all sorts of interesting mailing lists from people who thought I was rich. But, otherwise I wasn't part in the first year's project, although when I came back, I was one of the editors on the research papers they produced. The one I remember specifically was—and, as far as I know, this was the first work in this area—the effect of sub-lethal doses of lead on neonatal development. They did it with lab rats—they induced levels of lead, and then they tested their learning after the rats grew up. It demonstrated that there was cognitive decline down to almost any level of lead you could measure. That was one of our research papers. I think that was the first evidence for that. I don't remember the other papers. I have the reports. I didn't review them for this.
This was important. This was significant. Students were doing their own work. They were running their own research. We were developing our own processes. This was also the '60s, so we had lots of modern psychology, Abraham Maslow, all the rest. Encounter groups and sensitivity training were a big thing back then; ways of getting people to talk to each other, and not do it through just their intellects. Esalen was new then, Asilomar was new then, all of that stuff was incorporated into this. We were doing a major social experiment. Everybody lived together on dorms on campus, and they were mixed dorms because we were running the project, and it was the summer. There weren't other students there. No, the women were not sequestered off in a separate dorm. This was entirely by intent, not only because it served our needs of building a community so that we wouldn't have an "us" and a "them," but also we knew what the trustees had in mind. We knew they were thinking about maybe admitting women somewhere in the 22nd century... maybe—
CTEIN: —when the women were ready for it [laugh], when they'd be good enough. [laugh] Oh, yeah, this was all—we understood exactly what we were doing. [laugh] We and Joe—I'll say Joe—but we were all—we were socially engineering Caltech, and we were doing it with benign aforethought. It was not malice. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Ctein, who among the faculty or administration did you or other undergraduate guys regard as allies in this?
CTEIN: I have no idea. If I look back at the reports, and looked at the names of professors who associated with them, I could tell you. I'll tell you afterwards. If I can find the reports, I'll look and see if any names jump out at me. But I really don't remember. We really were autonomous. We didn't talk to the faculty about what we were doing. We had an administrator so we could get grants, who never touched us, and we had the faculty accounting department who could issue the checks, who never touched us. We had an administrative assistant, who handled dealing with them and interfacing with them, someone who could handle the books from our end, and hand people their checks. But, no, we never interacted with them. Well, the lead people clearly worked with Clair Patterson. I don't remember. I honestly don't remember who else people worked with. That first summer, I wasn't even there.
My sophomore year, I immediately got heavily involved in it; worked on editing the report; worked on writing the second year's proposal. I ended up in what we would now call social media or advertising or PR. How do we convince people that this is a good thing? We made public air spots. We got a couple of the big-name radio people in LA to come on board with us—I cannot recall their names now—to do the announcing for us on these things. We connected, and they said, "Oh, this is a really cool thing." I think the guy who did the announcer's voice on Laugh-In was one of those people. Major people were willing to come and help us out on this in terms of media. I have no idea if the commercials that got put on ever made an impact on anybody, but we did little commercials and things like that. We came up, actually, with some good ideas there. Something which is still a useful thing today when you hear people who still claim that it isn't a problem—pollution isn't a problem—we came up with a very simple slogan. "Pollution is too much of what you don't want, where you don't want it."
ZIERLER: That's good.
CTEIN: That's a really good meta.
CTEIN: It's not perfect, but it's really good. This was also in the era, by the way, when the power companies were trying to promote nuclear power by instead of calling the radiation units roentgens, they wanted to call them sunshine units. They really thought that would fly. Even then, that didn't fly. But people would say things like that. But there's radiation coming down from the sun, and there's the ozone layer up there which helps us, and doesn't it smell nice after a thunderstorm? The answer is yeah but not when it's down here, and there's too much of it—too much of what you don't want where you don't want it. It works very well, and people still don't think that way.
For a bunch of undergrads, we were tolerably clever people. The second year, I worked on the project. The third year, I ended up being the director. By this point, the idea is—what do you know—women are working out OK on campus. I'm going to modify that. We're talking the '60s. Sexism is still a serious problem. Most of us don't even know it's a problem because we've completely internalized it. This is just the way boys are. This is just the way girls are. I am certain that what we would now call sexual harassment and low-level assault was a very common thing because we should have but we didn't know better. I will not make apologies for it because not everybody behaved that way. You can't use the excuse, "Well, we were just a product of our times," because not everybody behaved badly. Yes, we are that, but some people have better sense and better ethics and more empathy.
But it was also a time when I knew of three cases of faculty members sleeping with their students, and it was sort of accepted this was done, and it was mildly scandalous only because two of them were married. That was the scandal part, that they were cheating on their wives, not that they were sleeping with their students. In fact, seeing as he's dead now, it doesn't matter, but when I worked for Big Bear Solar Observatory, which was created by Hal Zirin who was a major solar astronomer. (Caltech eventually sold it off.) Happy Hal, as we called him, was sleeping with one of his grad students, who looked remarkably like his wife, who I was acquainted with because she taught Russian on campus. One year I took Russian, and did terribly at it. [laugh] But this sex-with-subordinates was a known thing. This happened. Faculty slept with students. It may not have been considered really appropriate, but nobody thought it was that bad. I should say male students. Actually, for a short while, I dated Jenijoy La Belle for a bit. It didn't go very well because I was a stupid kid—a young, dumb boy. I say it didn't go that because that's my fault. I didn't know how to do a social relationship well at all and, eventually, we stopped, and didn't really talk after that. But nobody thought it was odd, that here was a faculty member dating an undergrad. We even went to campus functions together, which vaguely scandalized people more because that was Jenijoy and ohmigawd she wasn't supposed to act like a male faculty member..
A bit of history: they denied her tenure. She sued. She won; one of the first court cases in the country—maybe the first—where the court said, "You aren't immune entirely from the law. Tenure is not 100% an academic internal decision. If you screw up badly enough, you get slapped." That was how Jenni got tenure. Even though we weren't even speaking at that point, my reaction was, "Go, Jenni. Yay for you." That was an example of rampant sexism because she was young. She was very attractive. She was a woman. She was not in science. In other words, it's pushing all the old white male buttons. Anyway, this was the rampant situation. I have a fair feeling that it was not all honey and roses for the women who were on campus back then, but with few exceptions, the guys didn't know it, and they didn't talk about it.
ZIERLER: Ctein, when the decision came through, how did that news get to you? Was there a memorandum? Was there an announcement, a speech? How did you come to learn of this decision?
CTEIN: Lee A DuBridge, then Caltech's president, announced on November 4, 1968 that the Board of Trustees had voted the previous weekend to admit women undergraduates. It was—oh, surprise—the headline article on that Thursday's issue of the California Tech. They voted to admit them in 1970. At that point, they hadn't made a final decision on whether to house them in a separate dorm.
The first ASCIT Research Project was the preceding summer of '68. The second one was summer of '69. By then, the admin had looked at us, and they didn't make the women live in a separate dorm, because they really didn't have a good rationale for that. I think, also, knowing the way things work now, they would've had to go and raise money for that. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Yeah. [laugh]
CTEIN: They would've had to actually raise money, so I bet that came into the decision. At the time, what we simply thought is, well, because we proved to them that it made no sense. Now that I know more about the world, well, I'm sure finances affected it. But the answer was, no, there really isn't a good reason for this and, besides, it would be work for us, so we won't. But I'd have to go look. If you know when it was, you can probably go look. We have all the newspaper archives. Maybe they're even online now. Maybe someone has even scanned the old ones. But I couldn't tell you exactly. For us, it was sort of like, oh, yeah, finally, we won that one.
ZIERLER: Ctein, how aware were you of Caltech's peer institutions, and the timing of their decisions to admit undergraduate women?
CTEIN: Other than MIT, not at all. The truth was [laugh] that except for MIT, we mostly didn't consider anybody our peer institution.
CTEIN: [laugh] What can I say?
ZIERLER: The idea that Caltech was behind the times or not didn't really register with you?
CTEIN: Well, we knew it was because we knew MIT, which was the closest parallel, had done this and very successfully, or as successfully as one could at the time. Of course, it turned out they had their own issues with harassment and sexual assault and all of that. But, like I said, it was the '60s. Gee, that was normal when you mixed men and women. God. Well, we haven't fixed it but at least now we don't try and claim it's normal—well, most of us don't. But, no, we had a data point. We had a perfect comparison data point. We didn't need another one. There was no obvious logical reason for it.
ZIERLER: In 1970, you were a senior when the first women were admitted? You had one year of overlap?
CTEIN: Yeah, right, I would've been a senior. I was actually on campus until '72 because I was working for Big Bear Observatory, so I was around for the first year and a half of women being there.
ZIERLER: What were your impressions of how Caltech acknowledged this event, this transition, this development, or did they make it a nonissue entirely?
CTEIN: I can't speak to that because I was already hanging out in the integrated Caltech. I was hanging out in the ASCIT Research Project. I was going over to Immaculate Heart College, and hanging out there with the women there. I was already in a mixed institution. It was a subset of Caltech but, as a result, I didn't have that experience, so I can't tell you how other people responded to it or how the campus as a whole did.
ZIERLER: It does suggest by not remembering much that Caltech did not make a big deal of this.
CTEIN: I don't think they did. There were a few students who felt that—and I'm sure some faculty members—who felt that Caltech was lowering its standards to bring women in, that it had to lower its standards to do it. That opinion did not last very long because they didn't do that. The women students pretty well beat the shit out of them. [laugh] As I said, the admissions process was pretty damn near flawless, in fact, partly because of that, and partly because they were more visible. To quote that old line, "In order to get to the same place a man has gotten to, a woman has to be twice as good and work twice as hard. Fortunately, that's not difficult." The women who went there knew how to do this, and they ended up being disproportionately represented in student government, in leadership positions on campus, in part because of the novelty, as they were women, but in part because you had to be goddamn good to have made it that far. You had to be seriously motivated and have some desire to look at that brick wall, and just go, push, it's gone, I'm getting rid of that.
I imagine it was very hard on some of them. I don't know what the phenomenon is called today, but it was both a blessing and a curse which was, despite comparisons with other campuses, the ratio was very skewed. It was like [laugh] one of those prairie grouse leks where you would have tons of males hovering around women. For women who are geeks and, in high school, probably got treated as well as we all did in high school, this was to some degree appealing, and to another degree very, very annoying. Plus, I'm sure, worse things happened. When I say I'm sure, I mean I'm really sure. I just never heard about them. I knew about the professors. I'll mention in that same area, one of the institute psychologists back then, Ian—I don't remember his last name—was sleeping with one of his patients, who was one of the women undergrads. I knew about this because she was very good friends with my Caltech housemate at the time, and he was extremely outraged about this. I was sufficiently clueless that I just went, "Well, that doesn't seem very ethical." I didn't know enough to be outraged. Now, I know enough to be outraged. I'm saying it was a very different environment. If you talk to anybody who says, "Oh, it worked out very well, and it was sweetness and light for them," they either didn't see it or they're lying through their teeth because there's no way it could've been.
A Low Key Transformation
ZIERLER: Ctein, what about the idea if Caltech did not make a big deal of this, your sense, talking to the women, maybe they themselves didn't want this to be a big deal because they were here like everybody else, for the science and the engineering?
CTEIN: Exactly, they did not. They totally didn't want it to be a big deal. Honestly, I don't know that Caltech ever asked them though. In the same way that Caltech then didn't pay much attention to why a third of the students were disappearing, I don't think they were paying much attention to that either. The Caltech administration listened to students far more than most administrations did.
ZIERLER: But that's not saying much, is what you're saying?
CTEIN: I'm saying it's not sufficient. It was actually a lot because, for one thing, they didn't dare not to. [laugh] It was real dangerous if you didn't listen to Caltech students when they said something, and there were any number of pranks and other misadventures to demonstrate that. They listened to us in some ways. I think on the academic level, though, they felt they knew better than us. For all I know, Joe changed that also. It may have been even worse before I got there. But, no, they didn't make a big deal of it, but I'm not sure it was because they talked to the women about this. I don't think, really, I don't think most of us would've had the social consciousness to figure out that we should do that. Why don't we ask them what they think? We're talking over 50 years ago. We're talking about a time when the campus still operated on the principle of in loco parentis. Even though these were Caltech students, they were our parents. They were our guardians. They got to set the rules. The administration looked the other way as much as it could. But if someone was too flagrant about it—like most such schools, there were codes. You were not supposed to have women in your rooms at night or actually at any time with the door closed. We had codes for that. The administration looked the other way on that.
I'm sure when women got there, it was the same way the other way. They were not supposed to have men in their rooms. There was, of course, rampant drugs on campus, and unless it reached the level of coming to public attention, the administration just sort of—what? To quote from Casablanca, "I'm shocked—shocked, I say—to hear that there is gambling going on in this establishment." "Your winnings, sir." [laugh] In fact, there was a huge amount of drug use on campus in some of the student houses because they tended to segregate by social policies and milieu. But that's because it was the '60s, and we had a bunch of damn good experimentalists and a bunch of really damned good chemists. Caltech students never had to worry about the quality of the drugs they got.
CTEIN: I am not kidding. I'm really not kidding.
CTEIN: By the way, I'm a teetotaler, and I always was, but I always hung out with these people. They were my friends. I was a druggie hag, if you will, but those were the people I got along best with. In fact, after I moved off campus, I lived with an ex-Caltech student who was the biggest dealer in Pasadena. This was just my milieu, along with the jocks in Page House. I also had dual dorm-ship, along with a degree. I was a member of both Page House and Dabney House. I don't know what their cultures are like now, but you could not imagine two more polar opposites then.
CTEIN: I tended to be a bit of an iconoclast, even at Caltech. But, no, drugs all over the place. We made them. There was an infamous drug of the era called STP. It was like LSD on steroids, and it was actually dangerous. It was invented by an ex-Caltech student who, very stupidly, didn't realize what would happen if you let it out into the world. STP's effect was the trip didn't last for hours, it could last for days. Furthermore, the standard treatment for bringing someone down from LSD, which were things like Thorazine and other major tranquilizers, very badly interacted with STP. This is not something that should ever have been released into the world—I didn't say we were smart.
CTEIN: But people would make up batches of stuff. They'd make up batches of chemicals, and then there would be students, experienced ones, who would be willing to be the guinea pigs to test them out, and they were carefully monitored and all of that. We had a very good structure for doing all of this, and the administration pretty much looked a blind eye, unless it got completely out of hand—and it did. I remember, Dabney House actually went after that institute psychologist, Ian. Apparently, they knew he was being a real shit. They actually went for him. They invited him for dinner, and then they basically ambushed him, and treated him, deservedly, really horribly.
That came to the attention of the administration. The administration said, in so many words, "Tone it down, people." I don't remember what they did. I knew at the time. But it was fairly outrageous, I think, a combination of theater and theater of the absurd. But the point is they mind-fucked with him hugely. In that sense, no, there were things that people knew weren't OK. But, yeah, lots of drugs. I presume a reasonable amount of sex, honestly. Most of the men were actually very good in one reagrd which is they did not talk, so I can't say what other people did. Politically active. We were a campus of the '60s. We may have all been hyper-intellectualized, but we were not a campus of Mr. Spocks.
The Star Trek Protest
ZIERLER: The popular narrative is that the only thing that Caltech protested about was Star Trek.
CTEIN: [laugh] Well, we did, and I was one of the organizers of that.
CTEIN: Do you want to go into this also?
ZIERLER: Well, the point is is that that wasn't the only thing that people were upset about.
CTEIN: Right. But I was actually one of the organizers of that march.
ZIERLER: That's great. Tell me how that started.
CTEIN: That association, there were two long-time serious fans and Star Trek people, named John and Bjo Trimble. Bjo was her nickname. It's spelled B-J-O, Bjo, and Trimble the way you'd expect it to be spelled. John and Bjo were major fans. Through those circles, they knew Roddenberry. They knew the other people. They started a letter-writing campaign when Star Trek was going to go off the air. Before Bjo met John, she'd dated some Techers. She knew people at Caltech and was still socially associated with Caltech. In fact, I don't know if the student newspaper still uses the picture of the snake on the masthead for Snake Week before finals. I don't even know if Snake Week is still a thing. But there would usually be a quote above the banner; a quote above the headline. There was this long curly snake that Bjo drew that for the newspaper. If it's still being used, that's a legacy of Bjo, because she was an artist.
Bjo and John came to campus to recruit some students to work on a protest march, because we were active in that area. She knew people at Caltech. For some reason, I went to that meeting. I met other people there who are still friends of mine: Clyde Chadwick, who's still around, and a few others. Wanda Kendell, who he was dating, who is still a fan figure. The point is there were seven or eight of us there, and we formed the committee to do the march. Bjo got the word out. We did it through our networks. We made placards. We made protest signs. What are you going to do? It's the '60s. You hold a protest march, of course. My uncle's got a barn. Let's put on a show. What do you do in the '60s? You hold a protest march. Along with the letter-writing campaign, there was that. Bjo with other people organized one in New York. I actually made the signs for the march because I was the artist. I made up all these signs.
At that point, Dr. Benjamin Spock was running for president on the peace ticket, and I made up signs that said, "Mr. Spock for president." We actually made up a bunch of bumper stickers like that. I still have some. I have a lot of memorabilia from this. We went, and we held a nighttime—not torches—but a nighttime protest march on NBC Studios and, my god, it made all the news media all over the West Coast. It didn't make the East Coast because they were having their own. But nobody on the West Coast pays attention to what's happening on the East Coast anyway, in Hollywood. I was involved with that. We did protest to save Star Trek, but it was because we were politically active, and we knew how to do this, and it's what you did back then.
Yeah, I'm one of the people who organized that campaign, and I still have the memorabilia from it. I am still friends with a whole bunch of people. That was how I met David Gerrold, by the way. He's a couple years older than me. He was out of college. He had just written an episode; his first-ever screenplay. He submitted it to Star Trek. They bought it; first thing he'd ever written and sold. It got put on the air, and it was an episode nobody has ever heard of called The Trouble with Tribbles. [laugh] I'm saying that facetiously because, for the anthropologists a million years from now, that's still the most popular and most famous Star Trek episode. Out of all the hundreds that have been done, it's The Trouble with Tribbles. David wrote that. He came to campus, and talked. I met him actually at the after-march party because a lot of the people came. Majel Barrett came. Gene Roddenberry came. Jimmy Doohan came. DeForest Kelley came. David Gerrold came. We ended up becoming friends. At that time, the way I put it—how long have I known David? I met him back when everybody thought we were both just nice Jewish boys. [laugh] The other way I put it is I met him before David got his nose job. It was not vanity; he was in a car accident. Before that, he had the typical Jewish beak, but he needed facial reconstruction. Being a gay man, even if he was completely closeted then, his attitude was, "I might as well get a pretty face." I met David. We became friends. We've been friends ever since. Thus how I met David Gerrold.
ZIERLER: Did the television executives know about the protest? Did it affect their decision at all, as far as you know?
CTEIN: Yes, and so did the letter-writing campaign. Back then—again, context—people don't have computers. Phone calls are expensive. This is when long distance calls were something you got charged a lot for. You sent people postcards or letters. There was no way to network otherwise. It was face-to-face, word of mouth, telephone, mimeograph, postcards, and letters. Fortunately, the science fiction fan community has a long history of fan publishing, and they're used to doing this sort of networking. The kind of publishing they do actually goes back to the 1800s in different veins. It's called amateur press associations, which were done by printing afficionados back then. But fandom took to it like a duck out of water. I think it's because we didn't invent it. But fanzines, all of that became something which became associated with science fiction, so we already had this communication network established on paper. They did this letter-writing campaign. Back then, because there were no media, and phone calls, for instance, networks figured that each letter they got was the equivalent of 1,000 viewers, which was probably accurate in most cases. They got a million letters protesting the cancelation of Star Trek, at which point they kind of knew their statistics had to be wrong because they were pretty sure one-fifth of the population of the planet was not watching Star Trek. [laugh] But, yeah, it got their attention, and it got them renewed for two more years, until the third season was just so bad. I got called during the third season, in fact, as one of the shakers and movers, someone calling up to ask me if I'd help organize a new march. I told them, "No. It's reached its end. Too many bad episodes."
ZIERLER: You were campaigning for a few more good years?
CTEIN: We got a few more good years. Those of us who had organized the march got to go down to Paramount Studios, and watch them film an episode. I've got some really nice photographs from that—not on the set because of union regulations but of the offices, of the other people there, people off the set. We actually watched them film the very last episode, which ended up being a pilot for a series called Assignment: Earth that never happened, with a very young Teri Garr in the secondary role before anybody knew who she was as an actress. It was a lot of fun to see that stuff, and to see the details you couldn't see on the TV screen at the time. Now, you can because they rebroadcast now at higher quality, which is why some details don't look as good. You can see things like matte lines around the cut effects. Back then, you couldn't. Broadcast quality was too low, and you weren't going to spend more money than you had to. But little things like you went onto the bridge of the Enterprise, and by the doors to the turbo lift, there was a little gold square on the wall. This was actually the commemoration plaque for the Enterprise. It said something like, "USS Enterprise, Commission San Francisco Spaceship Yards," and it gave a date [laugh], stuff that never showed up in the show because it was below resolution.
But despite what looked like cheap effects, they had a lot of fun with what detail they could. It was still by far the most expensive show on the air at the time, which is also why it didn't stay. I have a lot of clips from the dailies. They handed them out like candy, so I have a lot of original framed clips from there. I don't have many of the special effects because those are very rare to come by. There weren't a lot of outtakes for those because it cost a lot of money to make those. They tried to get it right the first time.
ZIERLER: Ctein, I want to round out our conversation. A few retrospective questions.
CTEIN: Oh, my god, we did this for two hours.
ZIERLER: But we're having fun. There you go.
CTEIN: Before we go, by the way, I have to show you my office cup. One of my sweeties got this for me for Christmas.
ZIERLER: Oh, very nice. "Pay no attention to my browsing history. I'm a writer not a serial killer." [laugh] Very good.
CTEIN: It's my favorite teacup, and I've just been talking so much, I haven't needed it.
ZIERLER: No, that's good. That's good. Do you remember either in your senior year or the year after when you stayed on, did you sense how women as part of the undergraduate body, they just made things better? It just was the right decision on multiple levels?
CTEIN: Again, I don't know because of the social circle I was hanging out in. It was already integrated. It had been integrated for two years. I couldn't tell the difference. I really didn't know. Sorry. I wish I could speak to that, but I wasn't there. It would be, for instance, asking me what was the culture like in the biology division. I don't know, I wasn't in biology. Honestly, it's not even not remembering. I have no way of knowing. I'm sorry for going on for two hours. What can I say? I'm an artist. You asked me to talk about myself on camera.
ZIERLER: You delivered.
ZIERLER: You delivered.
CTEIN: [laugh] Throw me in the briar patch, for god sakes.
ZIERLER: [laugh] Have you been an active alum? Have you kept up with Caltech over the years, gone to events, things like that?
CTEIN: Not a whole lot. As you could tell, I have very mixed feelings about my time at Caltech. I gave them money once. This was for a student scholarship fund that was set up. A little bit of history: one of the ex-Caltech students went to Chile in the early '70s, and was a teacher there. He was one of the people Pinochet rounded up and had killed in the stadium. This was a serious enough matter that Harold Brown, who was president of Caltech at that time, pushed it all the way up into the Nixon administration, as high as he could, and got stonewalled, of course. But a fund was later started for this student, and I donated some money to that, which means the letters have been never-ending.
But, honestly, my feeling is until I hear Caltech is doing better by its students, and a whole lot better, there are other causes I'd rather be giving my money to, and god knows there are enough of them in the world. They don't need my money. I do have friends, by the way, from other periods, one who graduated in the '80s; another one who graduated in the '90s. I can tell you things hadn't changed then. The essay from 2000 says they hadn't changed much then. Maybe they're different now. I do get the alumni magazine, because they send it to everybody. I read it. It puts on a really good face. But I have no idea how much of that is a face. I do notice that they finally got the numbers of women up to about a third, where it seems to have stagnated, and no one is quite sure why. At the risk of sounding egotistical, at this point, I'm politically and socially aware and active enough, I bet if I were there I could figure out why inside of a month.
ZIERLER: We are better than a third now. It's closer to a half, I'm happy to report.
CTEIN: Is it?
CTEIN: Is it? Oh, excellent. You finally—oh, good. Oh, good. People did get a clue, and realized we're still doing some things structurally wrong. We need to address them. I'm really glad. No, I am delighted to hear that. That is wonderful. It's a shame it took 50 years, but it's better than not getting there. I'm really thrilled about that. The answer is really—
ZIERLER: These are big structural changes. They take a long time.
CTEIN: I know they do, and you also have to have the insight to realize there are other things you need to do. You thought you did everything you needed to do, and it turns out not to be enough. "What am I missing? Because I think I'm doing everything right, but I'm not getting the results I would expect," the experimentalists' mentality at work in a social milieu. "What am I still doing wrong?" That's how you figure it out when you're inside the box with the vial of poison and the nonexistent cat. I'm glad to hear that.
But the reality is that the money I give these days tends to go to various sorts of radical social causes. Just to get the whole thing out, I'm radical poly bi-queer feminist. There's a whole lot of causes that I end up giving my money to. I don't have a whole lot to give, so I'd rather give it to people who really need it, or when a specialized fund like that student one comes up at Caltech where if I give them $500, that's a big part of what they got. If I'd gotten super rich, would I give money to Caltech? I have no idea, but I chose not to get super rich. [laugh] Steve Jobs said, "I'll make a rich man." I said, "I don't care." This may not have been the smartest decision I ever made, but I've lived a happy life so I'm not going to go and change it. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Ctein, one last question. We'll end on a positive note. What are you most proud of in all of your activities from Caltech?
CTEIN: I'll answer that if I can answer a different one: what I'm least proud of.
ZIERLER: If you must but OK.
CTEIN: It goes back to this. The third year, I was the director of the ASCIT Research Project, and I fucked it up royally. I made a hash of it. It's what taught me that I was not a good manager. I fucked it up on two levels: one because I wasn't a good manager, and it was a managerial job. Mind you, compared to most of the robber barons in Silicon Valley, I'm better than they are, but they're not trying to be good managers. They're trying to build empires. The other thing was what I would call the second—the co-leader, really, who was the person in charge of the process side of how things worked in that, as opposed to the content side, even though managerial—she and I were butting heads about the vision for how it should work, and the way it should go. We spent most of the summer fighting and trying to drag it in different directions. What that told me, what I learned from that, is that's a stupid thing to do. If you have two powerful leaders, one of them should leave, and it doesn't matter which one. It doesn't matter who's right or who even thinks they're right. You're better off flipping a coin, and one of them just leaves because you're both just hurting the institution. That was a lesson I took away from that. But that was my biggest fuck up and, yeah, I did not do a good job. The thing I'm most proud about at Caltech?
ZIERLER: Thank you. I'm glad you circled back to that. I appreciate it.
CTEIN: I did, but I felt I should get this on the record.
CTEIN: This is the other side of not believing in modesty but believing in accuracy. I'm talking about all these things I did, and what Joe did. It's like, no, I was a stupid, young, entitled white boy. At that point, I didn't even know I was queer. To use John Scalzi's metaphor, I was playing on the easiest level. I didn't even know what privilege meant. [laugh] Now, I know. Now, I know that most of my opportunities happened because I got put into that situation. The thing I'm most proud about at Caltech? My work with the Caltech YMCA, the Caltech Y. I don't know if it still exists, but it was a major social institution then. Despite the name, it was not a Christian institution. It was a social institution. It made students' lives better. I ended up being on their board. I was their, either secretary or treasurer for one or two years. We helped students a whole lot. We organized things. We organized, through the Y, a drama class at Caltech, where I learned drama, and where I almost got talked into becoming an actor—and I'm glad I didn't. I knew better. [laugh] It looked like way too much work. But I learned how to act. I can do method. I can do improv. Hollywood, call me.
The other thing I was proud of was the art program at Caltech in which I was a shaker and mover. One of the things Caltech advertised in their brochure was that they had an art program, and I was interested in art even in high school. They did not have an art program, no they did not. But it was in that little eight-page pamphlet you got sent, and there was a paragraph about it. What they had was a weekly drawing class that was taught by Dick Feynman's artist friend, and the one who taught him to draw, Jirayr Zorthian. Dick was the faculty sponsor. It wasn't accredited, and the students paid for the models, and that was their idea of an art program. I felt that was advertising slightly under false pretenses. But I went into that program, I signed up immediately and became friends with the student administrator for it who was a senior named Jay Freeman. Jay and I are still very close friends and in contact regularly. We hit it off immediately and as his graduation approached Jay asked if I'd take over as the student sponsor. I did. I got to work with Dick Feynman for three years at Caltech, and it had nothing to do with physics. [laugh] It was about art. We pushed it, and we ended up getting money for it, a grant, and eventually got a major program that never became academically accredited, which was ultimately its downfall. Among the faculty, most of them were in favor, but again, there were conservative forces in the administration that just wouldn't go that far.
There was an old greenhouse that we took over and turned into sculpture rooms and studios and classrooms, and we hired an artist-in-residence, and they even got a secretary. We brought in guest artists to talk and teach. We had an ongoing arts program with multiple classes for the students who wanted to join. I was the student who ended up being in all this. I'd say that was bigger than anything else I did at Caltech. It ran for years.
I'm going to pass on a piece of wisdom. I got this from Dick Feynman. I did pick up some things from Dick. One of them was learning how to think sideways, which is the only way I can describe it. TWe're going to his office one weekend to get some stuff for the art program. He goes up to the office, pulls out his key, looks at the door, and says, "We've built an entire civilization which is dependent on funny little twisted pieces of metal." That's sideways thinking, and I learned how to use that. Turn a problem on it's side, find a new angle.
The other thing was, once I asked him, "Dick"—I didn't call him, I'm sorry—Dr. Feynman [laugh] I said, "Dr. Feynman, I know why I'm doing this, why I think it's important, but why are you doing this? Why is it important to you?" Very seriously, he replied, "Because nobody ever created anything new knowing only one thing. The only way you create something new is to take two different things, and put them together, and something new comes out of that. What the students are studying here, the science, this is one thing. The art is another thing."
I think that's a hugely valuable insight. If you think about Feynman diagrams, it totally describes what got him his Nobel Prize. What I'm proudest of is the Caltech arts program, for however long it lasted.
ZIERLER: It's still here.
CTEIN: Is it? Oh, yay.
ZIERLER: In a much different form, but visual culture is alive and well at Caltech.
CTEIN: There are classes and things like that?
ZIERLER: I can get you the specifics if you're interested.
CTEIN: Actually, I am. If I ever gave money to Caltech, I would give it to that. Let me put it this way. If I ever had enough spare money to give to Caltech, I will give some to that.
ZIERLER: I won't sic the development officers on you quite yet.
CTEIN: Oh, please don't.
CTEIN: But if David and I sell the novel we wrote, if I sell the new book I'm working on, well, maybe I'll have some spare money again. But I'm thrilled. We actually built something that endured—well, also, Caltech environmental quality labs, but that really wasn't my doing. But, oh, thank you. That makes me very happy.
ZIERLER: That's my pleasure. Ctein, this has been such a fun conversation.
CTEIN: It has.
ZIERLER: I knew it would be a fun conversation. I didn't know what kind of fun conversation. It certainly has you delivered. Thank you so much.