From Animal House to Prufrock House: Memories of Caltech in the ’60s
An excerpt from Michael Gazzaniga’s “Tales From Both Sides of the Brain.”
It was a grand adventure to go from the Animal House to the so-called J. Alfred Prufrock house, across the street from the Caltech biology building. Helping me to get settled was one of [Roger] Sperry’s senior graduate students at the time, Charles Hamilton, who soon became my best friend there, and had urged me to live at the Prufrock house. By the time I got there, it had a huge reputation for smarts, for parties, for just about everything. Chuck’s roommates, who already graced the rented two-story home, included Howard Temin, who went on to win the Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking work on viruses, and Matt Meselson, who coauthored with Franklin Stahl one of the most famous experiments in all of molecular biology.* When I moved in, Sidney Coleman and Norman Dombey, two theoretical physicists—one studying with Richard Feynman, the Nobelist and celebrated populizer of science, and one studying with Murray Gell-Mann, another Nobelist, who coined the term quark—were living there. Coleman went on to a distinguished career at Harvard and became known as the “physicist’s physicist.”
* Their work supported the hypothesis that DNA replication was semi-conservative, using one strand of the original DNA helix and one newly minted one during replication. M. Meselson and F. W. Stahl, “The Replication of DNA in Escherichia coli,” PNAS 44 (1958): 671–82.
The weekend parties at the Prufrock house were of a different caliber than those at the Animal House. At one such party, Richard Feynman showed up. As he was leaving, Feynman came up to me and said, “You can split my brain if you can guarantee I can do physics afterwards.” Laughing, I said, “I guarantee it.” Quick as a flash, Feynman stuck out both his left and his right hand to shake on the deal!
Margaret Mead once remarked that she thought all Caltech men thought women had a staple in their belly button because the only time they viewed a women naked was in the foldout of Playboy. She was rough on them, and the student newspaper in April 1961 called her out:
Tuesday night, to an overflowing audience, Dr. Mead explored the question of “The College Man’s Dilemma: Four Years of Sexual Uncertainty.” With several barbs for the Techmen in the crowd, she considered the kind of culture in which Caltech exists and some possibilities for improvement. This culture, said Dr. Mead, believed that sex is really necessary for health. This attitude has led to early marriages, which are, according to Dr. Mead, incompatible with the development of the highest mental faculties. Her talk implied that perhaps Techmen should not marry until much later, if at all.
The mystique of the Caltech undergraduate life remains today, featured in the TV series The Big Bang Theory.
As a graduate student, I got to know many of the undergraduates and many remain fond friends today. For example, I came to know Steven Hillyard at Caltech, as he took an early interest in split-brain patients and is by far one of the best scientists I know. He lets the data do the talking and is a stickler for details. Steve and I have collaborated over many years, and to this day we remain in constant touch. His quiet demeanor masks a penetrating intellect and a firm sense about what is going on in any chaotic situation, whether it be a pile of scientific data or a barroom full of drunks. This skill has enabled him to produce a string of talented students, all highly successful. He set the benchmark.
Harvard, Stanford, Caltech, you name it, all have prestigious graduate schools in science. One unheralded fact in academic life, however, is that most graduate students couldn’t get into the undergraduate part of their graduate school. While there are always exceptions, such as my housemates in the Prufrock house, this tendency suggests that most privileged undergraduate schools don’t send their students off into science. Law schools, medical schools, and business schools seem to grab most of the students from the top schools. At Caltech, graduate students are smart, but astounding differences frequently occur between graduate students and the fabled undergraduates.
As soon as I arrived for my first day of graduate work, Sperry gave me my assignment. I was to implement the split-brain experiments I had designed with him during my senior year at Dartmouth, but on Caltech patients rather than Rochester patients. Before I knew it, I was in the thick of an exciting and consuming project, examining a robust and charming man, W.J., who was about to undergo cerebral commissurotomy, the so-called split-brain surgery, to control his otherwise capricious epilepsy. He was the sort of levelheaded person to instill respect, especially in a young, green graduate student like I was.
Joseph Bogen, a neurosurgical resident at the time, had critically reviewed the medical literature and was convinced that split-brain surgery would have beneficial effects. It was he who had launched the project. He enlisted Dr. Philip J. Vogel, a professor of neurosurgery at the Los Angeles–based Loma Linda Medical School, to perform the operation. My chore was to quantify the psychological and neurological changes, if any, in the way W.J. behaved once the connections between his hemispheres had been severed.
The conventional wisdom suggested that nothing would happen. As I have already mentioned, twenty years earlier Andrew Akelaitis had found that cutting through the corpus callosum in human subjects produced no behavioral or cognitive effects. It fell to me to test W.J. I was the luckiest man on earth.
As best as I can figure out, luck is a big part of a life in science. Most people have the intellectual horsepower to do science, and most scientists are smart people. It is also true that most academic scientists toil at their fields, making contributions, teaching their courses, and living fulfilled lives. Some, however, get lucky. Their experiments reveal something not only interesting but important. The spotlight falls on them for a while, and they either revel and enjoy it or simply accept it and continue on their way in hopes of doing something else of interest.
Sperry had more luck than most. For example, in the early 1960s, the histology technician Octavia Chin apologized to Roger because she couldn’t get the regenerating fibers of gold fish to stain the same color as normal fibers. Just then, Domenica “Nica” Attardi, a young Italian postdoctoral fellow, came in asking for some part-time work. Nica took on the question of why the fibers didn’t stain and there followed an elegant study by Attardi and Sperry of the pathway taken by a regenerating axon in the fish visual system, which became a classic example of Sperry’s ideas on neural specificity. Pure serendipity. I know this kind of thing happens, as I have come to experience it in my own life on several occasions.
Once I began my graduate work the days were long and electrifying. One time I got home late, around four in the morning, and I noticed Sidney Coleman’s light was on. There he was lying on his bed, staring up at the ceiling. I asked him what was up. Sidney barked back, “Shut up! I am working.” Newly appreciative of the gap between physicists and biologists, I once asked Norman Dombey what he was thinking about when he walked around the house with a somewhat dazed look on his face. “Oh,” he said, “I am usually wondering if there is a Coke in the house.”
Even back in those relatively simple days, the normal nine-to-five workday became hectic, way too short, and endlessly interrupted, and so the work stretched late into the night. To solve the problem, I took to going to work at midnight and going home the next afternoon to sleep at six. The nights were wonderful times to work, no interruptions, time to think and time to build the new devices I needed. I kept this schedule for a long time.
Another one of the many things I had learned was the importance of staff. Everyone used to joke how the dishwashers for the molecular biology labs would come in on the holidays and weekends if a graduate student needed them. It was true. Everyone had some version of the fever. After all, Meselson and Stahl had just carried out their famous experiment, and Howard Temin was being launched by Caltech’s Renato Dulbecco* and beginning to work on viruses. Throw Bob Sinsheimer, Max Delbrück, Ed Lewis, Ray Owen, Seymour Benzer, and a dozen or so other world-renowned molecular biologists into the mix and you can begin to get a sense of the place.
* Delbucco, from a small town in Calabria, Italy, was a virologist who won the 1975 Nobel Prize for his work on oncoviruses, which are viruses that can cause cancer when they infect animal cells. He had been a member of the Italian Resistance during World War II before moving to the United States.
I had discovered the importance of the shop technician, Reggie, when he helped me make my animal training device. The backbone of the Sperry lab was another technician, Lois MacBird, who prepared everything for surgeries, among other chores, such as running the whole show. The senior postdoctoral fellow at the time, Mitch Glickstein, recently reminisced, “Lois was the steady bedrock of technical help. She trained monkeys and prepared and assisted in surgery. Sperry never reproached people, he needled them. Harbans Arora, a research fellow who had trained at a fishery in India, had very little ability to tell when Sperry was teasing. Sperry came in while Harbans was operating and noted that his white surgical gown was not color coordinated with a green surgical pack. Not realizing that Sperry was teasing him, Harbans found Lois after the surgery and said, ‘Lois! You must never put a white gown in to sterilize with a green surgical pack. Roger was very angry.’ ” Lois had a wonderful ability to smile this off and life went on.
Of course, it was people like Mitch who really made the atmosphere intoxicatingly different. The postdoctoral layer is crucial in scientific training. Postdocs arrive at a lab, already deeply knowledgeable about some aspect from the science at hand. Swooping up the graduate neophytes, the postdocs offered not only intellectual but social aid. Mitch, a student from Boston Latin High School and University of Chicago, was eager to share his deep sensitivity about life, both the work and the fun. We used to steal off together during the week and go to the horse races at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita. Among the many things Mitch taught me was the racing form.
Joe Bogen was also in this category. Yet it was difficult to think of him as a postdoc, as Joe was a neurosurgical resident, a real medical doctor, who had spent time at Caltech as a postdoc but was now fully immersed in his medical-surgical training at White Memorial Hospital, then affiliated with Loma Linda University. Joe and his terrific wife, Glenda, brought a rare, exuberant gusto to the more sedate Caltech. I was always going over to their apartment for dinner and discovered the trick of having a bottle of frozen vodka in the freezer. Left-wing politics were always being discussed, which I enjoyed, even though my leanings were growing conservative at the time. He used to talk about his father, a lawyer, who Joe said was famous for the Bogen line at the draft board. He said that his father had won a landmark case on a conscientious objector who claimed he had never taken the oath to serve. After Bogen’s father proved his point, the Selective Service made recruits physically take a step forward across the “Bogen line” to prove their commitment. It’s one of those stories that are too good to check.
With all of this richness and activity, the unquestionable driving force behind the lab was Roger Sperry, or Dr. Sperry, as we all called him. He was both elusive and omnipresent. He could be aloof, such as when he wouldn’t come out of his office to meet Aldous Huxley, or utterly engaged with a lesser mortal who seemed at sea to others. Soft-spoken, yet prodding the status quo in so many ways, he was not reluctant to needle his rivals. After one of his lectures, a particularly aggressive questioner wound up with a whimsical stare from Sperry, who then simply said, “Boy, it sounds like you got something going for you.” And then he turned away.
Upon my arrival for my graduate years, I started studying patients and immediately began to spend approximately two hours a day speaking with Sperry, a habit that lasted throughout my stint at Caltech. We talked about everything. After my frequent solo trips to the patient’s home for testing, I always came back to give a full report in debriefs that could last as long as the actual testing session. Sperry always took copious notes, and it was obviously a time when our ideas became mixed and fortified. I was the novice and he was the pro. But because he was not yet a pro in this new field of human research, I also served as his scout. Together we hashed things out in dozens upon dozens of such meetings. Glickstein claims that I am the only person alive who could ever get Roger to smile. While I am not so sure about that, we did have a wonderful relationship that was largely built during these sessions. James Bonner, the distinguished biologist, once quipped, “Maybe we should keep Mike around so Roger can have someone to talk to.” It was easy for me, as I was devoted to the work, the man, and his mind.
Of course the memorable peaks of life come scattered among the many hard and often dreary days of work. On one bright Sunday afternoon, Steve Allen, whom I’d gotten to know, brought his entire family over to the lab to see exactly what we do. Steve, who became a lifelong friend, was like that: utterly unassuming, endlessly curious, and always positive—like Tom Hanks, he was considered one of the good guys in Hollywood. His family was suitably intrigued and polite. At the end of the visit Steve asked, “What percent of the work is exciting?” After thinking for a moment, I replied, “Oh about ten percent. The rest is routine.” As I have learned in life, 10 percent is a good number for most professions. I know it has been enough to keep me going to work every day with a smile on my face.
It was the occasional meeting of public figures like Allen that slowly made me realize that nonscientists want to know about basic research, too. Back in the 1960s, “outreach programs” were nonexistent. The Ivory Tower mentality dominated intellectual discourse, and as a result, the natural social isolation of researchers only intensified the two cultures. When Steve, one of the top comics of the day, wanted to know more about the fibers of the corpus callosum, it started to become clear to me that public communication of science is a good thing, so long as it is done with accuracy.
In recounting the past, we tend to concentrate on the positive times. There were plenty of negative experiences, but I didn’t dwell on them. Aside from the hugely disappointing emotions that accompany the failed experiment, the useless finding, or the bumbled test, there is always personal conflict, such as academic bullying, in science. For the life of me, I don’t know why, but smart people like to point out how stupid someone else seems to be. The common belief is that greater education leads to a greater tolerance and appreciation of human individual variation. If only it were true. People are constantly flexing and showing their prowess and absolutely love one-upping each other. Take Max Delbrück.
Delbrück was a legendary figure at Caltech and remains, deservedly, an icon in the history of biology. While his own research was of high quality, his fame was really based on his critical powers. It’s commonly said that during the heyday of molecular biology, not a single noteworthy paper was published unless Delbrück approved of it.
The event where people showed off was the weekly Caltech biology seminar. Max would always sit where he could be seen and not let anything slip by. Among his many skills, Mitch Glickstein is a superb historian of neuroscience and recounts a typical scene when he was challenged.
When I first got to Caltech I was urged to give a seminar. As a psychology student I knew very little of interest, but I had worked in the Kleitman lab for a year, and I spoke about REM sleep. I made a fourfold table: REM/not REM Dream reported/not reported. Max got up immediately and said “Oh no that’s wrong.” I looked again and said “That’s right,” whereupon he said, “Oh yes, that’s right.”
In my experience, the tough guys are not tough all the time. Max, for example, took students and fellows out camping at Joshua Tree National Park. Max loosened up on these trips, and they tended to be full of wit, knowledge, and adventure. Invitations were coveted, and everyone always came back raving about the experience. The social psychologist Leon Festinger once told me that in order to keep the French Foreign Legion in line, they only had to shoot a few deserters, not three hundred. A periodic bit of nastiness might go a long way to keeping the ship on a straighter line and everybody on their toes.
Excerpt of Tales From Both Sides of the Brain © 2015 by Michael S. Gazzaniga. Reprinted courtesy of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Michael Gazzaniga is author of Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience (Ecco, 2015) and director of the SAGE Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara in Santa Barbara, California.