The desire to come to America ran river-deep into my soul. My sight was fixated on it like Neil Armstrong’s on the moon, and just like space, it was alien territory. Marvelous, but alien, harboring some familiarity but equal strangeness. The United States was something I saw all the time — in movies, music and books — but could never experience. So, in 2011, a few tumultuous months after the Egyptian revolution which flipped the country on its head, I pulled the trigger. I packed everything I owned in two suitcases, pulled the entirety of my life with its tangle of roots and moved everything I knew into new soil. With several scholarships and grants under my belt, I would study journalism and build dreams of one day becoming a hard-bitten reporter who would take the world by storm.
I think about all of this as I walk through a loggia that runs along the Seeley W. Mudd Laboratory of the Geological Sciences on the California Institute of Technology’s campus. Though I spent my college years at a much humbler, less prestigious school, I still can’t help thinking about those moments. Like, the first time I opened the door to my dorm room where I’d spend hours hunched over books, willing my brain to focus and my heart not to miss home. If you’re an immigrant who had to leave everything you’ve ever known in your life — your friends, family, favorite places and foods — behind, you’re probably familiar with the process of mourning. You also probably know that grief makes every task — studying, socializing, assimilating — that much more laborious. Remember when I said America felt like the moon? College, well, felt like a distant planet.
The college experience was stressful, at least for me and at least for the first year or two that I stumbled my way through it like a newborn colt. Which is why I thought that being on a college campus, on any campus, would bring about that old sense of queasiness. Instead, I feel more at ease than I do in the comfort of my own home. In looking around the sun-dappled courtyards and beautifully landscaped gardens, I can’t spot a single stressed face! With classes now held online, the campus is largely overtaken by a different breed of learners: couples, friends and families with their totos learning to escape the pandemic on a beautiful West Coast February day.
Caltech, which stretches across 124 acres in Pasadena, is inarguably one of the world’s finest science and engineering institutions. You can feel its sprawling, 130-year old history, and also the weight and force of its influence. As we walk past dark office room windows, I become quite alive to the fact that so many bright minds studied, worked and (hopefully) played here. That these buildings cast the same shadows on my face as they did on the faces of the luminaries who waded through here. Frank Borman, who commanded the Apollo 8 mission in 1968, waded through these halls. (This was the first manned mission to the moon — how incredible is that?) William Shockley, physicist and inventor, and Linus Pauling, chemist, biochemist, peace activist and author. So many Nobel prize winners. Heck, both Albert Einstein and Madame Curie spent nights on this campus. I’m missing plenty, I’m sure; it’s a pretty hefty lineup of people who’ve left a deep impress in their respective fields.
But aside from the people who called this place (second) home, Caltech’s campus itself is an attraction in its own right. Think about it: When founder and astronomer George Ellery Hale first set out to plan what Caltech would look like, he was looking at 22 acres of orange groves — and somehow that stretch of rural Pasadena would eventually turn into a mecca of science and technology! So, of course, if it were a different year, a different situation, I would’ve probably opted for the campus architectural tour. I would’ve loved to promenade through Caltech, with other like-minded architecture enthusiasts and a running commentary provided by an expert. But given that all tours are now suspended, we’re doing this do-it-yourself style — and we’re starting with the oldest, 100-some year old building on campus, the Parsons-Gates hall.
Originally built as a chemistry laboratory in 1917, the Parsons-Gates building was designed by architect Bertram G. Goodhue, who was hired by Hale to dream up a master plan for the university. Goodhue tapped into the Spanish palaces of the Renaissance as inspiration for this ornate facade, which boasts details that bring to mind the “exuberant hybrid classical orders and ornamental excess of the Mexican Baroque.” In a commentary on Goodhue’s impact on California’s architectural history, architect Stefanos Polyzoides wrote that Goodhue’s renderings of the Gates building “stunned the professorial elite at Caltech because its design was erudite … composed to specifically address the search for a new cultural identity for the American Southwest.”
Aside from its age, the building is perhaps Caltech’s most resilient, having weathered the 1971 Sylmar earthquake — but barely. After suffering severe damages, the building had to undergo a major renovation on the inside, but the outside front was preserved. In 1983, it reopened with a new name and purpose. Now, administrative offices — including the president, provost and other senior staff members — occupy the building. But there’s a quirky little feature I’m here to see, something a friend of mine pointed out on social media.
Right there near the entrance, if you listen closely, if you really perk your ears up, you’ll hear a quiet trickle. The water pours forth from the open mouth of a carved head and then cascades from basin to basin. It’s a really small fountain, one that’s easy to miss, especially given the grand size and the intricate architecture of the Parsons-Gates Hall of Administration itself. From what I heard, the fountain turns on and off at random times. Sometimes, it’ll remain dry for a few days, and turn on for a couple of hours only to be shut off again. Rumor has it that it’s turned on when the president’s in the building and off when he leaves — which I think would be so cool if it were true.
From there, we stroll past the Arthur Amos Noyes Laboratory of Chemical Physics and a lily pond, where a woman sits cross-legged meditating. Her eyes are closed, and I can tell she’s having such a peaceful moment. Quietly, I squat near the pond, trying to spot any signs of life flitting underneath the waxy, round leaves. (Anton only finds a lonely snail.) At this point, I’m beating myself up for not bringing a book, a small mat or a blanket for a little picnic — because that seems to be what the other visitors are doing.
People are scattered all over the place, posted up at tables scribbling away, sprawled on the grass thumbing through books. So many perfect perches. If I had that book and if I had that picnic blanket, would I be able to decide? Which view would I want to sit by? The space-age Beckman Auditorium? The Athenaeum where Einstein himself once slept? Perhaps one of the plazas and courtyards that Goodhue specifically designed to resemble old Spanish towns? While I’ve never been much of a picknicker (I’d rather be walking, strolling or hiking through a place), I could see myself whiling away the afternoon like this.
Before we know it, it’s about that time of day when our dog starts to get antsy at home. We take a shortcut, skirting past the reflecting tiled pool that sits in front of the Beckman Institute’s Spanish-style building. The staccato-ing sound of water spouting into the air fills the gaps between noises. In the institute’s central courtyard, under the dark of fruit trees, an older gentleman is studying something with precise intensity. “It doesn’t feel like we’re in the middle of a pandemic, does it?” Anton verbalizes what I’ve been feeling all along. For the past hour or so that we’ve been here, I’ve been exploring this place not just with my eyes, but with my heart. I’ve been in Pasadena so many times before, but this is the first time I’ve ventured into the heart of Caltech — and I can’t imagine it will be the last!