Freelance Science Writer and Historian
By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project
May 18, 2022
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Wednesday, May 18, 2022. I'm delighted to be here with Jeff Hecht. Jeff, it's great to be with you. Thanks for joining me today.
JEFFREY HECHT: Thank you, David.
ZIERLER: To start, would you please tell me a little bit about your career in writing and some of the affiliations you've had over the years in journalism and publications?
HECHT: I had been on the student newspaper at my high school, and I was only there for two years in Nutley, New Jersey. I was in 14 schools from grade 1 through 12.
ZIERLER: Army brat?
HECHT: My father was in the hotel business. It was an unusual background. Then, I came to Caltech and got involved on the California Tech (student newspaper)., I was a news writer, then I was a news editor. I never particularly wanted to be the editor-in-chief. I don't remember exactly why. I know that when it came down to my junior year, it would've sort of been my turn if I wanted it. I really didn't, and I ended up becoming the business manager, which was sort of passed down by members of the staff. It would've earned me some money, and I needed some money, so I decided to try that. I graduated in engineering and was, at that point, rather burnt out. Caltech is a rather intensive place, which I didn't realize until I was doing another interview with Caltech many years later, and somebody asked me something. I responded that I was just burnt out at the end of my Caltech years . I got into graduate school at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and at the very end of my term at Caltech, I ran into a woman [Lois Gill] whom I married later. She was attending PCC [Pasadena City College] and working on some of the research projects at Caltech.
I spent two years at UMass in a doctoral program in higher education, as I'd gotten interested in the process of higher education during my years at Caltech. However that really didn't work out. I earned enough credits to receive M. Ed. degree after two years and took a leave, hoping to get an internship, but nothing turned up and I was out of work for six months. During that time I had a little part-time work helping edit a book for the dean of the UMass School of education, and my wife had a part-time job, but it wasn't enough to live on..
At the end of 1971 I got a job as a data technician and moved to the Boston area, where I was working on a research project on weather control for the Air Force Cambridge Research Labs, but I was employed by Regis College, which had a contract with the Air Force. I spent some time over the summer finishing editing the UMass book, which was finally published in 1974, with me listed as the co-editor.
I was basically kicking around, and in fall of 1972 got a job writing computer manuals for Honeywell, where I stayed for 20 months, but I could tell it was not working out for me. Then I saw a little ad at the bottom of the Boston Globe newspaper want ads for a job working at laser magazine as an assistant editor. It was a trade magazine, and I had seen trade magazines at Caltech. I thought that would be kind of interesting. And I actually had worked on lasers the summer after my junior year. It was an NSF grant, but I didn't do very much, I was burnt out, as I said, and Nick George, my faculty advisor whose laser lab I was working in, gave me a doctoral dissertation to learn all about lasers and holography from. It was way above my head, and I didn't learn much at the time, but the experience did get me a job at the laser magazine, and I did become friends with Milton Chang, who was a grad student in the lab who after getting his PhD went into the optics business and later became a Caltech trustee. Nick George long ago left Caltech.
The job at the laser magazine, named Laser Focus, put me into something for the first time that I really liked doing. My boss Howard Rausch was called the editor but was functionally the publisher and editor running it. As soon as I showed that I could write and work, I became the managing editor, so it was basically the two of us running the editorial side of the magazine. And that was a great place. He was a very good mentor.
He knew journalism, I knew something about lasers and engineering. Not as much as I thought I did when I walked in the door, but I knew a fair amount and could pick it up. And that got me back interested in science again. I spent seven years there, the magazine was bought, and my boss was fired by the new people. I was starting to go up the management chain, and I decided I didn't want to do that, I wanted to write . I didn't really like the way management was working. I left and started freelancing full time in mid-1981.
I had been doing some free-lance writing while I had the full-time job at Laser Focus. I started writing both articles on science and science fiction stories. I sort of landed in a time where there was a lot of opportunity in science-writing, but it took a while to find the opportunity I had friends who introduced me to science-fiction fandom, and those contacts led me to Omni magazine, which was just starting up. By that time, I had sold both non-fiction and fiction as a freelancer while I was still working at Laser Focus World. (The "World" was added to the name while I worked there.) In my typical disorganized fashion, my first fiction was sold to a computer magazine, and my first non-fiction was sold to Analog Science Fiction. I was not terribly systematic about anything. I would do what I was interested in where I thought I could make a living.
When I was thinking of leaving Laser Focus, my wife Lois and I had two daughters, and she was primarily at home caring for the girls while trying to finish her undergraduate degree. And I got in on writing for Omni, which was well-paying, high-visibility, and a magazine named High Technology, which was, at that point, a solid technology magazine. I don't know if there's anything quite equivalent to it now, maybe something like Technology Review, although that's much more business-oriented than High Technology was. My way to justify quitting [Laser Focus] was that Dick Teresi at Omni, who I'd been writing for, had called me up and said, "Do you want to write a book on lasers?" His agent had found a publisher who wanted a book on lasers, and he knew I was working at a laser magazine, and it seemed like a good idea to me. Basically, I did a memory dump of all the news stories I'd written for Laser Focus World, and Dick turned it into a book. That way I learned from Dick how to write a book. He turned the huge expository lump of 15,000 words I wrote for the introduction ,into a shorter but much more readable chapter on lasers and how they work. I learned and after I quit Laser Focus I started looking around for other magazines to write for..
I kept writing for High Technology and Omni, and also found an opportunity writing for New Scientist magazine. They were based in England, and when I started writing for them I corresponded with London via email and eventually talking on the phone. I covered the 1981 Nobel Prize in physics for them, calling Arthur Schawlow in California first thing, going to a press conference with Nicolaas Bloembergen at Harvard in the late morning, and reading my story to an editor sitting at the printer in London at dinnertime, which was 11 p.m. in London. New Scientist would become a sort of partial professional home for most of my career. I found my name on the masthead one day in 1984. They didn't tell me in advance; they just did it. New Scientist was sort of an informal magazine in many ways, and I liked that. They also were happy for me to write about topics that interested me even if I didn't know much about them. I started following Luis Alvarez's theory that an asteroid impact had wiped out the dinosaurs, and got quite involved in it. I started covering paleontology. And I was working with people in England, and that was cool at this point, even if they didn't pay as much as Omni, and even if I wasn't all that sharp about watching what I was getting paid. Omni also was fun because they would take offbeat stories. I spotted a theory that one group of dinosaurs might have evolved intelligence, and they expanded it into a feature that got a lot of attention. I was making a living, I was writing another book I'd been solicited–in fact, I made the mistake of signing up to write different books for two publishers at the same time.
Getting all this work seemed like a good idea. Gradually, I learned how to write about science and technology for a much broader audience than readers of an industry trade magazine, for whom I wrote "laser geek speak". Even before my first pop science book with Dick Teresi, Laser: Supertool of the 1980s, came out, an editor called and asked me to write a book that became Beam Weapons: The Next Arms Race, which was the first book about directed-energy weapons ever published. It was on the editor's desk when Ronald Reagan gave the Star Wars speech, so I had to go back and update it a little, but I had been writing about laser weapons for magazines and knew what was happening. The topic was hot enough for the book was reviewed in the New York Times, and a best-seller in the Pentagon book store
Meanwhile, friends from Laser Focus (by then renamed Laser Focus World) had lured me into working with them to start up a competing laser magazine, Lasers & Applications. I became a contributing editor, writing a series of articles on lasers and getting paid part in stock and part in cash. I also started writing a tutorial laser book for McGraw-Hill based that expanded on the magazine articles. I was not an employee, so I kept on writing for other magazines as well, and I stayed with that magazine until late 1990. I followed that with other tutorial books for the old Sam's Publishing company, Understanding Lasers and Understanding Fiber Optics, updated editions of which are still in print in with different publishers. Understanding Fiber Optics gave me a nice sum of money when the technology bubble came on in the 1990s and 2000. I sold over 100,000 copies of the book, and they were selling in a big, fat textbook format at that point, so I was getting good royalties on that.
And I was writing for New Scientist, I was covering dinosaurs, I was covering the race to discover what had happened to the dinosaurs, to find the crater that was blamed for the death of the dinosaurs, which took me to two conferences where I covered important discoveries. I also wrote the first news story on the discovery of feathered dinosaurs in China. I'd seen something weird on the early internet that I couldn't understand that came from China, and I knew Larry Martin, a professor in Kansas who had had some Chinese grad students, so I called him and said, "What is this?" He said, "Call Phil Currie." He's a noted paleontologist in Canada, so I called Phil Currie, and asked what he had, and he replied \ "A little feathered dinosaur." And I thought, "I have got a story here." This kind of thing was great fun. My story came out in New Scientist on the day that Currie announced the discovery at a paleontology meeting in New York, where I was sitting in the audience.
I wrote a book on history of the earth with a geologist who was an expert on plate tectonics and would probably have sent me in another direction had Robert Maxwell not gone overboard with the pension fund of MacMillan Publishing, which was going to publish the book. That book was never published.
ZIERLER: Given how expansive and broad-ranging your publications are, is there something about your education at Caltech that you credit for how adventurous you've been in your publication career?
HECHT: I think I had been broadly interested in science before. And I learned a lot of background on things. And I wanted to investigate things on the level I could do as a journalist. And this was a lot more fun than doing it as a scientist. I gained a lot of tools on backgrounds of things from things like having worked in the laser lab. And it turned out that among the grad students there was Milton Chang, who you may have heard about. He was earned a PhD at Caltech, and eventually become a Caltech trustee. I wasn't particularly close to him at Caltech, but I was there, and I knew him. When I got into the laser business and ran into him at a trade show, "Oh, hi, Milton." He had decided he wanted to go into business because he thought he could do very good things there, better than he could as a scientist. He was one of those very hard-working, very diligent Asian students whom I came to admire for their ability to focus very effectively on goals and achieve them. Now that he is older, Milton has focused on sharing what he has learned with other people who want to build a business, and that's a good thing.
I took a different course. I found what I liked to do was to earn about things and write about them. I think we all have different types of things that come, in some ways, from our backgrounds, our genes, whatever. I didn't realize when I was at Caltech because I hadn't really learned very much about my family at the time, but it was full of engineers. Then I had only known that one of my mother's brothers was an engineer, and the other was an architect.
Later I learned that one of my father's uncles was a railroad engineer who became a colonel in the Army, and that my father's maternal grandfather was the night manager of the waterworks in Saratoga Springs, New York, which was an important job in a town full of big flammable wood buildings. Before that he had been a mechanic and worked on cross-country railroads. And my mother's father was a carpenter, and she'd learned building things from him. My grandmother on my mother's side was a schoolteacher, and I can remember her being very teacherly to us. I would stay with my cousins and learn a lot of things. I had all this in my background.
I wasn't terribly well directed when I was at Caltech. My childhood had been kind of all over the map, not literally because I'd never been west of Detroit in my life when I went to Caltech, but that I had been in so many schools that I lost count until I dug through a pile of old report cards. I may have been hyperactive in grade school, and I was an only child until my sister was born when I was 10. Changing schools so often gave me an uneven background. By the time I got to Caltech, I struggled in some fields but did well in other areas. And I just really hadn't learned to study very well. One of my Caltech friends said, "You're still growing up." There were certainly a lot of resources at Caltech, some of which I benefitted from, many of which I wish I had paid attention to.
ZIERLER: How did you get into Caltech? How did you cobble together a sufficient application with all the moving around you'd done?
HECHT: I wonder that myself. Here I was in Nutley, New Jersey, and despite the fact it had IT&T Federal laboratories and Hoffmann-La Roche in its boundaries, the high school was not a very science-y school. I came in, and there was the valedictorian of my class, Geerat Vermeij, who is a blind paleontologist now, won a MacArthur Fellowship early on. I had a whole bunch of magazines in the house we rented in Nutley from somebody who had been working in ITT, a whole pile of Scientific Americans, and a whole pile of Sky & Telescopes, both of which I had discovered, so I'd been reading a lot. The school in Miami I had been in before was much better and more challenging than Nutley. I think I must've looked good because–I don't even know what my permanent record said about my background. I was in 12 schools from grades one through seven. I spent three and a third years in Miami in junior high and high school, then two years in high school in Nutley. I have no idea if there was any indication that I had been to so many other schools or not. I did do well in standardized tests, and I realized very early that I could do better in standardized tests than I really should be doing.
I think that may have gotten me in trouble. I fully expected to go to Case Institute of Technology. I had pretty much made up my mind, then I got the acceptance from Caltech. And everybody just said, "You're going there." [Laugh] I'd been interested in astronomy, and I came in thinking I would go into astronomy or electrical engineering, to the extent I had any direction at all because I didn't really understand what engineering was about. My uncle, the engineer, died when I was 7, so I really didn't know much about what engineers did. Maybe I had learned to be a survivor and talked my way through because I really did have to learn to be a survivor in grade school. That was a pretty rough time.
ZIERLER: Did you take any courses from Amnon Yariv? Who might've sparked an interest in lasers for you?
HECHT: I was interested in optics for a long time. When I was 10 or 11, my father brought a transistor radio, and this was 1957, so that was a neat and new thing. He brought home a little refractive telescope, about three feet long, single-eye telescope. I still have it. And that got me interested in the sky. About that time, my vision had been getting very bad, and I didn't realize it until the school noticed I was having problems. . They said, "The kid can't see anything." [Laugh] And I got glasses, and I was suddenly able to see, "Hey, those are wires. What are they doing up there? I never saw them before." Telephone wires, things like that. And that was about the time of Sputnik, so there was that. My father was an accountant and in the hotel business. He was a math guy, not a tech guy. That was from the other part of the family. That was what got me interested in optics. At the time, I really didn't think optics was going to lead to jobs. And it's been interesting because I'm so involved in optics now. I'm working on and editing a history of the Optical Society. It's sort of interesting to see how I fit into optics, but I didn't know it. And I didn't catch the laser thing until after I'd graduated. Nick George, when I was working for him the summer after my junior year, made the mistake of handing me a doctoral thesis from one of his students and saying, "You could learn about lasers and holography."
That is what a doctoral thesis is supposed to be, to teach you about what they're doing. It just put me to sleep. At that time, when I was at Caltech, I was having a problem going to sleep in the afternoon in class and snoring loudly. I would fall asleep in the back room in the laser lab, trying to read this stuff. But once I started working at the laser magazine, my interest started coming back. I looked at the stories I was writing and editing at the magazine and see how things were advancing. All of a sudden, I was in a field that, by sheer good luck, was advancing at a rapid pace. I was right there writing about it, doing just what I would've wanted to do if I'd had the wits about me to understand what I wanted to do. Certainly, I assimilated some things at Caltech, but most of the math is gone now. I couldn't follow the proofs and theory in the Apostol calculus books. I vaguely remember matrices, but the theory of linear algebra was horribly complex and beyond me. It was that kind of thing made me think of transferring out, but I never did anything about it. Looking back, I think it was hard for me to leave after such an unsettled childhood.
In my senior year, I decided both to go back east and to try to shift fields to study higher education. I was interested in education and thought colleges could be better managed, and I had picked up the notion that we needed to change our society to make a better world from Joe Rhodes. The smog was burning my eyes and hurting my lungs, and I wanted to leave southern California for my health.
ASCIT had funding for two student research projects the summer after my senior year, and I was interested in the one on education. I met my wife at one of the planning sessions in April 1969, we started as friends working together and fell in love. If she had not been willing to come back east with me in the fall, I might have stayed around Caltech and tried to get a job at JPL and worked on some sort of engineering thing. Engineering and optics would probably have been where I would've gone. That was where my interest was. I figured, with my luck, I would've ended up managing something like the Mars Observer that went kaput.
ZIERLER: I should orient our readers, the basis for our coming together today was, you reached out to me because you were at Caltech at a time when, institutionally, Caltech was just beginning to think about what we now call diversity and inclusivity, although probably those terms were not in use at that point.
HECHT: They were not. At Miami, the schools were segregated. I was aware of this. My mother was not very pleased with this. I came to New Jersey, and I found myself sitting beside Adrienne Hawkins, who later had a dance studio in the Boston area. I'd been sitting beside her due to alphabetical order, nothing more. When I got to Caltech and found a Black student in living in Blacker House with me and in my section for math, physics, everything, that was okay. Joe Rhodes was a kid from Pittsburgh. I kind of knew that because Pittsburgh was one of the place I'd lived. His father was a black steelworker who had met and married a Philipino woman when he was stationed in the far east during WWII. (Joe got a bit of teasing for his Philipino ancestry because the cooks in the student houses were Philipinos and many students didn't like the food.) Something I learned much later from him, Joe Rhodes, was that he really hadn't gotten very involved initially in the Civil Rights Movement. What hit him was, he had a crush on a very pretty white girl who went down to voter registration or something in the South and got beaten up. She came back, and this really hit him. "What is going on here?" He also had been admitted to the Julliard School of Music, he'd been admitted to Caltech, he was bright, very, very well-spoken.
And he was the only Black student on the campus. I don't know if there were any Black grad students because I had very little contact with grad students. And he began to get involved in student activities, but he also started getting involved in Civil Rights issues. And I didn't really get that involved with it. I was more involved in the student newspaper and trying desperately to survive. I came in with pretty poor preparation in math. And those were the times. And the next year–I hope I've got this right–there were two more Black students admitted. One was Charlie Creasy (Charles J. Creasy Jr. of Beaumont, TX according to a copy of the Little T student handbook), who left in his sophomore year, and sounded like he came from New Orleans. Bill Hocker [William C. Hocker, Richmond, VA], who was also in Blacker House, and I got to know him because we were in the same student house, where you became kind of a family of people. Bill and Charlie seemed more embedded in Black culture then Joe Rhodes, probably because they were natives of the south. But Joe started getting more involved in Civil Rights while he was at Caltech. Bill Hocker was much more of a writer and was writing poetry. I think he contributed to the Totem, the Caltech poetry magazine.
There was another Black student, Nick Smith (Nicolas D. Smith, Long Beach, CA), who became a friend because he worked on The California Tech, who was,, originally in the class two years behind me. Nick seemed much more middle class than any of the three others, and rather mild-mannered. At some point during the 1969-70 academic year, Nick stopped registering for classes but nonetheless hung around campus. Ed Schroeder could tell you more. Nick never returned. The last I heard of him was that he was in the Los Angeles area; I know he edited a fantasy magazine around the1990s or so.
(A matter that did not come up in the interview was interracial dating. Joe Rhodes had a white girl friend – the daughter of a woman official of the Caltech Y – and that was accepted by most of my friends. Nick Smith tried unsuccessfully to date a white woman from another college who Lois knew, and when Lois tried to mediate for Nick, the woman was seriously offended. I can't remember any details, but Lois might.)
Both Joe Rhodes and Bill Hocker came to Caltech thinking of majoring in physics, but they later moved away from science. Joe certainly moved much more into social issues. He became a history major, while he'd originally been a physics major. In a different time, he might've gone that way. Bill Hocker kind of reminded me of me in some ways, in that he was interested in writing. I was interested in writing fiction. In fact, I have written science-fiction short stories that have been published in Nature among other places. And Charlie Creasy was, I think, more like Joe, more into social issues already, when he got into Caltech. I don't know why he left, other than he supposedly left a thousand-dollar phone bill behind. I think that was communicating with people back in New Orleans or wherever.
Having grown up in the East, I tended to notice Asian students because in the 1950s and 1960s few Asians lived in areas where I lived. Some Asians born and raised in North America fit in very well with the White students, and seemed part of the crowd. Asians raised overseas tended to be much more reserved but still seemed to fit in. It's hard for me to tell how well they fit in because my childhood made me try to assimilate with conditions wherever I happened to be because I had learned to do that to get along.
ZIERLER: Overall, between the student body and the faculty, where was the push for diversity coming?
HECHT: I'm certain it came from somewhere other than the student body. There are two things here worth looking at. The direction for the admission of Black students, I'm virtually certain, came from somewhere within the faculty. Who, what, why? I don't know. I wasn't really aware of what it was. It was certainly an attempt at diversity. Maybe there was diversity trying to pick up scruffy white kids like me as well. I don't know. I supported the civil rights movement, but I wasn't an activist. Because I'd lived in integrated communities, I wasn't surprised to see Caltech integrated. "Okay, so there are Black students." I thought it was a good thing. I identified as an outsider, so I sympathized with their position. I knew integration could be a big deal in some parts of the country because I'd lived in a segregated area. And I think Caltech students were aware of the racial tension in the rest of the country, but the only teasing Joe would get was for the fact that his mother was Filipino, and the Filipino cooking staff was not highly regarded. And that's just sort of half-joking. "We're more worried about the Filipino side than the Black side," would be how I would phrase it if I was trying to make a joke of it. 50 years ago is a long time, so I can't remember all the details.
In terms of women, I know there was a push coming from within the student community. I was part of it. I was so ill-prepared in going to college that I really hadn't thought about Caltech being all male. I just plain didn't think of it. I found myself missing having women around. My father was traveling a lot, I grew up around my mother and sister, and I was closer to my mother than to my father. I had seven cousins, five of whom were female, and we lived with some of them for a couple of summers. And I just enjoyed talking with women. I felt easier with them, I think, than with men because boys had beaten me up and would harass me more. I kind of liked having women around. And it just seemed to me also that I saw quite a few activities that bothered me in the way women were treated as sex objects in the dorms. And there was one idea going around Blacker House that never actually happened, but one of the guys who was a year ahead of me talked about going to bring a prostitute to campus and have her have relations with the guys who wanted to lose their virginity. I'm sorry, I'm a different person than that, and that made my skin crawl. That was what I saw as important, that women would've made Caltech a more humane place. You're seeing a more humane Caltech now than I did half a century ago.
When we had the first research projects on campus in the summer of 1968, there were five or six women – I'm not sure about the number – living on campus, and I got to know some of them. This was the summer after my junior year , before I met my wife,. One of my friends really just did not get women. He had talked about having five and a half dates in his whole life when he was, like, a junior. He just was terribly insensitive to women. He started following one of the women around. I thought he was just like a little puppy dog. I knew Marsha, and she was what you'd call statuesque, tall, well-built, probably about the same height I am. And having this guy following her unnerved her enough that she spoke to whoever was running the on-campus summer program, and he was PNG(persona non grata)-ed out of the dorm area for the summer. Persona non grata. Or just told to stay out. But he just didn't know what he was doing. He just didn't know how to relate to women. And there's something wrong when it gets to that point, when you have this kind of environment for people to grow up in. Most of us, in some ways, because of the backgrounds we had, were growing up there. That was what I was thinking. I was far less concerned with the discussion of merging Mount St. Mary's. I was less concerned with whether that was a competitive school and more concerned with just humanizing Caltech.
ZIERLER: Externally, were there women pounding on the walls? Was there this external demand to be admitted to Caltech?
HECHT: I don't know. I would suspect not because in that era, if you were a woman, you looked at what schools you might want to attend, and if they were male-only, you didn't try it. I'll tell you a story from my aunt, who lived in Philadelphia. Her boss had a daughter who, in the first year Caltech would even entertain female admissions, applied to Caltech without telling her parents and got in. And I forget now because this came through my aunt, who worked for her father, but she was in the first group of 5 or 10, whatever it was. She left for college at the end of the summer, And her parents didn't know where she was. I guess her parents thought she went somewhere else. But she hadn't want to tell her parents because she didn't think they would approve. But I just don't know if women were trying to get in. I don't know who within the faculty supported it. I was on a student committee that advocated for having women involved. I think Bob Enenstein was the chairman. He would be worth talking to because he would remember more of that than I do. But we were really trying to get women in, and we didn't sense a lot of interest within the faculty. We heard some of the faculty express concerns about women.
ZIERLER: Concerns that we did not have women?
HECHT: No, concerns that women would be a distraction to the male students. Remember, my viewpoint at that point was of a somewhat alienated 20-, 21-year-old.
ZIERLER: On the flip side, were there any far-seeing faculty who did not feel that way, who recognized the value in admitting women?
HECHT: I'm sure there were.
ZIERLER: But they were not so outspoken as to have made themselves known to someone like you.
HECHT: Yeah. And as I say, this was well into my senior year, when I was alienated. I fell asleep at a meeting of the committee. I put my feet up on the desk and sort of drifted off. In my stream of consciousness, there was a glass shelf with pitchers full of water on it, and then the shelf vanished and I started reaching up to grab them. I woke up, and the other members of the committee on each side of the table were looking at me and wondering what I had dropped or whatever. [Laugh] And I never had. I was not into that kind of thing. I don't know that I would've heard much from the positive. I'm sure there were some. The one thing I said at the time, and it's probably not quite fair, the most rational excuse I heard for not admitting women was that there weren't enough women's restrooms.
ZIERLER: Build more restrooms.
HECHT: Exactly. And that's the point of the way I tell the story. You can get a plumber, and they can fix it very quickly. The people who were worried about women distracting students were not making themselves heard to me.
ZIERLER: The committee for students to advocate for admitting women, how did that get started?
HECHT: I think that was somewhere within ASCIT. I can't remember how I got onto that committee. I was the business manager of The California Tech. That made me one of the sort of big people in certain niches on campus. I'd been in some other things. And Joe Rhodes and some of the other people knew me. I really wanted to be the chair of that committee, but they didn't do it.
ZIERLER: How formal was it? What kind of institutional imprimatur was there for the committee?
HECHT: I remember it was official but I don't remember how official, and don't know who would have the records if any were kept. This was not just a bunch of rabble-rousing students running around with signs. We had some official organizations within ASCIT. Somewhere, there may be people who better remember it than I. I can't remember who else was on the committee beside Bob Enenstein.
I want to mention one other thing in terms of attitude. There was a song that Professor J Kent Clark wrote about a freshman who came to Caltech and was a troll because he was always working really hard. At some point, he got into women, and they distracted him. There were lines in the song like, "The way she moved her hips, you knew she was from Scripps," and so on. That kind of attitude is one of the things, as I look back, that were problematic. And that was written by an English professor and a humanist who I took my summer literature study from. He was not a totally insensitive professor, but it was the kind of thing people would call humor. And I would laugh at it, too, at the time. I wouldn't now. I have two daughters, no sons, and we have no grandchildren.
ZIERLER: A broader political overlay type of question. Of course, you were at Caltech in the late 1960s. Nationally, we have the Civil Rights Movement, we have women's lib, we have the antiwar movement. Caltech famously was not nearly as political a place as your Berkeleys or Columbias. Did that inform or inspire some of these discussions among students?
HECHT: I think so. It certainly would've made us more aware of things going on. We would joke about having one Student for a Democratic Society and one Young American for Freedom, and I believe that was the actual count of self-identified people at some point. My wife was involved in a protest march to keep Star Trek alive. Mike Meo, who was the editor of the campus newspaper in '67, '68, was a raving Marxist and would put little ears on the student newspaper, obviously rooting for the Vietcong. There was that, too. There were people who were left, but weren't out running around on campus with signs. I think Mark Jackson had a protest sign, "Send napalm, not me." And there was some of that irreverence as well. But some of the politics was serious. There were people very unhappy with Reagan getting elected governor. But there were people as upset about Harold Brown being brought in from the Pentagon. Of course, nobody was really aware then of all the issues that people like Millikan had. That came later.
ZIERLER: Was there a faculty liaison to the student committee? How would you communicate your discussions to the powers that be?
HECHT: I've forgotten that. The master of student houses, Robert Huttenback, tended to do a lot of the interaction with the students. But who was actually in charge of what from the faculty side, I don't know. There was a dean of students, a David Smith, or something like that. And then, maybe Huttenback got to be dean of students at some point. That's probably who it would've been. But I was dealing mainly with students and a handful of faculty in the EE lab and with the people in the student newspaper. Caltech was a small enough campus I could get around comfortably with, with 700 students at that time. Also, it was not just competitive with other students, it was competitive insofar as not flunking out. We were told at freshman camp, "Look at the guy on the left. Look at the guy on the right. One of the three of you is not going to graduate in four years." That's how it was.
ZIERLER: How often would the committee meet? Was it an ad hoc kind of thing? Did it have a formal structure to it?
HECHT: It had a somewhat formal structure to it. I think it was probably weekly, biweekly, or monthly.
ZIERLER: Were there opposing views? Was it purely agitating for women to be admitted? Or were there some students who were there to express the feeling that women should not be admitted?
HECHT: I'm ashamed to admit that I've forgotten most of that. The way memory work is funny. I remember some things from 50 years ago. I remember when I met my wife.
ZIERLER: Do you remember arguing at all, debating the merits of women's admission? Was the overall thrust of the committee, "How do we get women admitted?" or "Should women be admitted?"
HECHT: I think it was mainly, "How do we get women admitted?" As we talk, it sort of brings back some memories. I don't know that there was a lot of discussion within the committee. The way committees like that tended to work was, they were the people who wanted to make something happen. And there was the Caltech Y, that was another nexus. These were people who felt that women should be admitted. I don't claim to be a leader in that. I was part of it. But I don't know to what extent we were ever really led. It was just a general feeling of, "This would be a good thing." And I wouldn't be surprised if some people wanted women on campus so they could date them. But that was on the level. and that's just the biology of the 21-year-old male. There's some of that. It was a very interesting environment.
ZIERLER: Who in the administration did you communicate your recommendations to? Where would that have gone?
HECHT: Probably Huttenback, now that I think of it. But I wasn't involved in it. I know we must've talked to faculty members, but I can't remember talking to them. I'm assuming it was Huttenback or Smith because those were the people I remember as the contacts. But I didn't spend a lot of time arguing with them. I can't even remember who I was talking with because we had problems with checks coming into The California Tech being deposited by the Institute, and I had to go attempt to read the Riot Act to the administration and say, "You're stealing our money." [Laugh] I don't know if I was consciously polite so much as just trying to make them listen to me. And I'm not one who jumps up and down on desks and screams usually, if something like that happens.
ZIERLER: Of course, women did get admitted the year after you graduated in 1970. Clearly, there are some connecting lines to be drawn between the committee's work and this ultimate decision. What insight do you have on that?
HECHT: I think there must've been another committee in the year '69 to '70. The only people I remember offhand are Bob Enenstein and myself. My friend, Ctein [?OK], who went by Alan Stein [?] as a student, (Ctein was a nickname coined by Consuelo E. Stacey, one of the research-project women (who married Jim Woodhead, class of 1969, and later went by Woodhead; he died a few years ago but you might want to talk to her, she was last known to be living in Pasadena), one of the research-project women who worked he got from The California Tech that he uses professionally now, was certainly active in a lot of that. Peter Szolovits, a professor at MIT now, was a year behind me but was also active. Mike Garet and Dick Rubinstein [OK- probably, it's in the Caltech Alumni directory, but I have also seen Rubenstein I have an email address. ?] were in my class and close to Joe Rhodes. Because Joe had connections around the country. He would show up at U Mass when I was there. I made contacts through Joe Rhodes that led me to go to grad school at UMass Amherst school of education. I was in a PhD program in higher education, studying how colleges work. It didn't work out for me; I took the booby prize of a master's degree and left. Some of those people would have been more aware of who was doing what. Whether they would remember it better or not, I don't know. Being an outgoing senior that year when things really started happening, meant that I missed the action. I know that things had changed because I came back in 1970 for the summer. My wife's parents were living in Pasadena, and we didn't have anything else to do for the summer. Anything to help pay the rent was welcome because at that point, we were living in an apartment in the back of a barn in rural Massachusetts near U Mass. I wish I could give you more on that. The dean of students or master of student houses must've had paperwork on who was doing what, and ASCIT probably did, too.
ZIERLER: Obviously, this would've had to be a decision that came before both the president and the board. Of course, you were just an undergraduate, but did you have any sense who needed to sign off on this? Was this purely an executive decision of the president? Would the board of trustees also have had to agree?
HECHT: I would think it would've had to go through the board just by the nature of the thing. Maybe the Provost was involved. I don't know the legal issues. I would've thought it would have to go through the faculty, however the faculty voted on things. Because I remember faculty voting on things. I was studying higher education and kind of aware that the faculty did things, but I never sat in on the faculty. Apparently, there were faculty who were doggedly against women undergraduates. They must've somehow been overwhelmed or overridden. I was out of that and in another world by that time, all the way across the country.
ZIERLER: Do you recall any legal arguments? In other words, was Caltech concerned about liability? Of course, Title IX is 1972, but I wonder if there were any discrimination concerns. Caltech's a private university, but it gets so much of its funding from the federal government. Was there a legal aspect to this as well as a social justice aspect?
HECHT: I would suspect, if there were any legal issues, they would be with race more than gender. Thinking back to that time what I would think that a master of student houses might have been worried about sexual issues. When I arrived at Caltech in 1965, visiting women had to be out of dorm rooms by 11 p.m. on weekends; I think the rules were stricter on weekdays, but don't remember. I think those rules were gone by 1968 but am not sure.
Caltech did sponsor some strange social events. When I arrived in 1965, it was a tradition to bring a stripper to campus to put on a show for the freshman class, who as I recall were all supposed to attend. I don't remember who was officially responsible, but it was official.
Whether they had enough sense to realize the possibility of sexual abuse of women by students I don't know. I can remember boasts of sexual conquest but not of non-consensual sex. There were some bad attitudes. Page 25 of the 1967 BigT includes a woman in the photo of Blacker House freshman, with a black mark over her face, and underneath, she was described as a "single prong female receptacle." That term is used in engineering for an electrical plug that fits into a receptacle, but the implication was that she was having sex with many men. She hung around Blacker a lot and such was her reputation.
Before I was working on the California Tech, the faculty advisor, Ed Hutchins, stopped the California Tech from publishing a photo showing a clothed women being dragged into a shower in one of the student houses accompanied by a caption something like "A sexy young thing from Oxy [Occidental] is raped by students." The photo dated from an incident a few years earlier in which one or more women from Oxy did get showered, probably when they were involved in a prank, and I think the photo was published in the California Tech with an appropriate caption. The Tech often published old photos when they needed to fill space in the paper, and somebody must have found the photo and inserted the "rape" caption as a gag. Some copies were printed before the advisor stopped it and had the photo replaced with something innocuous. As I was told, he was worried that the woman might sue if she saw the photo. (I could understand his concern about a lawsuit, and wouldn't have blamed the woman for suing.)
Another potential legal concern was the open use of alcohol and drugs in the student houses. Alcohol was wide open; you couldn't buy it if you were under 21, but students over 21 would buy it for you, and the student houses would buy kegs for beer parties. The Institute ignored it. The master of student houses and the institute took the same attitude to drugs when they arrived on campus around 1966-67. Marijuana became widely available, and LSD and other hallucinogens were not far behind. The Institute started to worry about drug problems around 1968 and banned from campus a former undergraduate (class of 1967) alleged to be dealing drugs. I do not recall any warnings from the Institute of the dangers of drugs, or offers of treatment for alcohol or drug abuse, but that might have been done quietly. I heard rumors the Institute was worried police might raid the campus for drugs, but I never heard of anyone being arrested on campus. One graduating member of the class of 1969 supposedly was busted on Colorado Blvd. trying to sell marijuana, but I never heard what happened to him.
I came to think of these things more when I was studying higher education at UMass. An important policy issue at the time was where colleges should draw boundaries on student behavior, drinking and drugs. I can remember some changes when I was at Caltech. There was an initiation ritual when I arrived in 1965. That vanished. Somebody was awake and aware.
ZIERLER: Because it was too close to hazing?
HECHT: It was hazing. It was hazing. As a freshman, I had no idea how it was permitted. And it wasn't until afterwards I realized it went away. I might've gotten dragged into participating in it as an upperclassman, but it certainly was not something I thought was a good thing. But the whole question of how much the school should be controlling, there are a lot of legitimate questions in there because some of the students are 21 and will do stupid things. One of my drunk friends was throwing water balloons out from the sleeping porch at Blacker House and hit a passing Pasadena police cruiser. A cop came stomping through the house, "Who threw that water balloon?" Of course, nobody knew. That's not a greatly harmful thing, but what do you do? I don't know the answer to that, but I imagine women on campus would be a thing they thought about. I know they thought about where to place women.
In the summers of '68 and '69, women who were not attending Caltech but were involved in one of the research projects lived in alleys they had to themselves in the student houses, and the men had alleys to themselves. Other than the one incident I mentioned earlier, I never heard of any harassment, but I don't know what would have been considered as harassment then. How do you deal with this? Those are the things I think the Caltech faculty should've been thinking about. Whether they were or not, I don't know. But I'm sure somebody must've thought of that. And there were other people who did think women were distractions to students. Kent Clark's song was jokingly about that, but in some cases, it could be true. Sometimes students get lovesick.
ZIERLER: For the last part of our talk, I want to ask a few retrospective questions that focus on what you think was achieved as a result of the committee and your contributions to it. First, have you kept up with Caltech over the years? Have you followed all the progress that's been made?
HECHT: I followed it from afar because we settled down in Massachusetts. My wife's parents died shortly after our older daughter was born. We would go back once in a while, but not very often and not when Caltech was in session. And all my friends graduated. But I would keep track of the alumni stuff. As more women were admitted, I thought, "Yeah, this is good." The only thing I really shouldn't complain about is, sometimes I think they make a point of showing nine women for one white male. You don't need to do that. You just need to show that there are people mixing together. But I think it's great that there are women there. I think Caltech, as far as I can tell, has done better than I would've expected in changing the culture because you wouldn't be able to do what you're doing if you had the culture we had.
ZIERLER: There's the social justice aspect, admitting women and underrepresented people because it's the right thing to do. What about the fact that because Caltech's mission is science and engineering that diversity is good to advance those?
HECHT: I think diversity is good. I'm working with the Optical Society on that. I would say one thing I would caution about diversity, and I speak from my experience and others, if students do not have an adequate background and preparation–I came in from a school that didn't even have anything they called pre-calculus, although it was kind of pre-calculus. I was in Math 1. There was Math 1.5 and Math 2. I was in Math 1. There were about 130 out of 200 in Math 1. This was the basic math, entry-level calculus. Brock Fuller stood up and said, "How many of you have had the basics of integration and differentiation?" and about two-thirds of the hands went up. I knew I was in trouble. My high school, from my point of view, was mediocre because I'd come from one with a very good math program in Miami. But this was an ordinary suburban school that pats itself on its shoulder. What you don't want to do is bring in kids who don't have enough background. A friend I knew at Caltech, Carroll Boswell, who was a couple years behind me, was white and came from rural Georgia.
He had taken every science class the school had. He finished in his junior year. He went on to Caltech. He struggled through, but he was struggling. If you struggle through, you're not going to benefit from Caltech. I got burnt out because I had to struggle. I had to go away from science for a while to come back. What you don't want to do is bring in kids white, green, male, female, other, or whatever, who aren't prepared adequately. I would suspect that was probably what happened to Charley Creasy. I think one of the things you should try to do–Joe Rhodes is dead. Some of my friends knew him better later on than I did. I didn't keep in touch with him. But talk with Charley Creasy, Bill Hocker, Nick Smith, if they're willing. Ask what they thought of Caltech and what it should've done better for them. Those of us who ran away because this place was crazy or who just plain flunked out will have thoughts about it. And that's what I think is important. And I was talking with one of the women from the alumni association, and she was saying they were trying to have pre-preparation classes, which is a good step. Whether it's adequate or not, I have no idea. One of the problems is that sometimes you get people who just sort of obsess with competing, and that almost becomes a problem within itself. And I can't say I have any kind of normal background I can speak from because I had a pretty disrupted childhood.
ZIERLER: What are you most proud of with regard to what Caltech has achieved all the way from when you were an undergraduate?
HECHT: I think it has become a more human and welcoming place. It's wonderful to see Caltech become a place that can attract such a large female contingent who can benefit from the good things Caltech can offer. That should help make men better people, too. .
ZIERLER: People will vote with their feet, for sure.
HECHT: That's what you want. Yeah, I get a kick out of Mike Brown and his stuff about killing Pluto, the astronomy stuff. I've written about a number of science things from Caltech. But I think humanizing the place and making it accessible to more people–at this point, we rent apartments to two single women with teenage children, one with a son, the other with a daughter. One is Black, the other is Hispanic. Caltech may not be the right place for those two individuals, but it's great to see Caltech available to others like them.
ZIERLER: What you're saying is, these two kids specifically might not be ready for Caltech, but the more important story is that Caltech would be ready for them.
HECHT: That's the idea, that Caltech should be ready for them. Maybe, if you really want to do a lot of things to bring people in who are interested, find somewhere to have a Caltech pre-freshman year, a preparation year. Or that may be too much. Maybe that belongs in high school. But it's a problem for the public schools, too. How do you deal with people coming out of different high schools? When I was moving every year or every six months, I went from no science class in seventh grade to a science class in April. That's a problem that can happen. You want to have some kind of buffer zone that would help people deal with that. One of the other things I learned from being at Caltech was that we had one guy who'd spent four years in the Air Force after high school, spent two years in community college, and got admitted to Caltech as a sophomore. That's something else that should be open. He ended up getting a PhD and working at Livermore National Lab.
I knew another guy who had flunked out or left, may have been in the Army–actually, there was one who wasn't in the Army, had been living in Canada, came back, tried to graduate, and had to go back to Canada because of the draft. But people who come in at an older age or more mature can benefit, too. Sometimes the younger students can benefit from somebody who's older. My older daughter went to a local high school and then Boston University. She was studying deaf education and was bored. Then, she worked as a medical technician and wanted to work in medicine. She got herself into Yale, where they had a nurse practitioner program, and now she's working at one of the Harvard hospitals. She was 28, 29 when she did that. That's the kind of adversity nobody seems to think of now, but there are older learners. It's a thought. I've looked at that. And the thing that impressed me was, as a student, how mature these two guys were who had been out in the world and doing other things and were not just horsing around. They were just more mature. I knew I wasn't.
ZIERLER: Jeff, on that note, it's been a great pleasure spending this time with you. Thank you so much for reaching out to me and sharing this history. It's wonderful to have this perspective. I really appreciate it.