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Caltech: secrets of the world’s number one university

10 FEB 2014

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If one were to reduce the story of the California Institute of Technology to numbers, it would be difficult to know where to start.

It is 123 years old, boasts 57 recipients of the US National Medal of Science and 32 Nobel laureates among its faculty and alumni (including five on the current staff).

It is the world’s number one university – and has been for the past three years of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings – and has just 300 professorial staff.

In short, it is tiny, and it is exceptionally good at what it does.

Ares Rosakis, chair of the Division of Engineering and Applied Science, describes Caltech as “a unique species among universities…a very interesting phenomenon”. “Very interesting” may be something of an understatement.

Caltech’s neat and unassuming campus sits in a quiet residential neighbourhood in Pasadena, in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Although it is only 15 miles away from Hollywood, the Tinseltown razzmatazz seems a world away.

But Caltech can lay claim to its own galaxy of stars. Among a long and illustrious list of former faculty is Charles Richter, inventor of the scale that quantifies the magnitude of earthquakes (handy in Southern California) and Theodore von Kármán, the first head of what is now Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He nurtured the pioneering “rocket boys” who risked ridicule in the 1930s as they brought space rockets from the pages of science fiction comics into the real world. The heavy hitters on the current staff include Mike Brown, the man who “killed Pluto” (when his work led to its being downgraded to a dwarf planet), and John Schwarz, who in December 2013 was named a joint winner of the $3 million (£1.8 million) 2014 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.

It is clear that Caltech is a special place, but how has it achieved this success? Rosakis’ first answer focuses on its size.

“I always refer to this small size as being very similar to the size effect that exists in materials – there are special properties that exist when you are extremely small,” he explains in his airy office, the winter sun streaming through a bank of windows on to a chalkboard filled with mathematical formula.


Read full article: Times Higher Education