The Caltech Institute Archives

Interview with Thomas A. Tombrello

Tombrello, Thomas A. (2012) Interview with Thomas A. Tombrello. [Oral History]

See Usage Policy.


Use this Persistent URL to link to this item:


Interview in nine sessions (December 26–December 31, 2010) with Thomas A. Tombrello, the Robert H. Goddard Professor of Physics, Caltech. Each session is organized around a central topic or theme: (1) early years through college, (2) fifty-year career overview, (3) undergraduate students, (4) Kellogg Radiation Laboratory years, (5) work with Schlumberger research laboratory, (6) Caltech people and personalities, (7) work with national weapons laboratories, (8) ten-year tenure (1998–2008) as chair of Caltech’s Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy, and (9) graduate students and miscellaneous topics. Tombrello opens with his family history, youth, early life, and education, primarily in Texas and Alabama, and his undergraduate (BA 1958) and graduate (PhD 1961) years at Rice Institute. He talks at length about his years in Caltech’s Kellogg Radiation Laboratory, including his research into nuclear physics, materials science, and applied physics, and about the science, culture, people, personalities, politics, and economics of Kellogg and the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy (PMA) over fifty years. There is extensive discussion of his mentoring work with Caltech undergraduate and graduate students, including his innovative undergraduate course Physics 11 and his perspectives on student life at Caltech. Of particular note is the discussion of his relationship with S. E. Koonin, who went from being Tombrello’s undergraduate advisee to his provost. Tombrello provides a wide-ranging, in-depth look at his ten years as division chair of PMA, covering research, recruitment, fundraising, collegial relationships within and beyond the division and with JPL, and the evolution of PMA under his oversight. He talks about his involvement in the design and construction of the Cahill Center for Astrophysics (dedicated in 2009) and the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project. He describes his interactions with five decades of Caltech presidents and provosts, institute trustees, and various donors. Tombrello recaps his two years as research director at Schlumberger research and his several decades of consulting work on weapons, national security, energy, and climate change issues at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories. He talks about his foray into earthquake prediction research, his research collaborations in China, his years as Caltech’s technology assessment officer, and the emergence of entrepreneurism at Caltech in the 1990s. Anecdotes and recollections of such notable Caltech figures as R. Bacher, J. Benton, H. Brown, L. DuBridge, R. Feynman, W. A. Fowler, M. Gell-Mann, B. Kamb A. Lange, C. Lauritsen, T. Lauritsen, R. Leighton, C. Patterson, R. Sharp, and F. Zwicky are also part of this oral history

Item Type:Oral History
Additional Information:The interview is partially restricted. Per agreement between Professor Tombrello and the Caltech Archives dated July 31, 2012, portions of this interview are closed for ten years. Closed portions are clearly marked in the transcript.
Keywords:Physics, nuclear physics, astrophysics, national security
Record Number:CaltechOH:OH_Tombrello_T
Persistent URL:
Related URLs:
URLURL TypeDescription HistoryInterview with Thomas A. Tombrello on LIGO
Official Citation:Tombrello, Thomas A. Interview by Heidi Aspaturian. Pasadena, California, December 26-31, 2010. Oral History Project, California Institute of Technology Archives. Retrieved [supply date of retrieval] from the World Wide Web:
Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
Subjects:Subjects > Physics
All Records
Subjects > Administration
ID Code:206
Deposited By: Oral Histories Administrator
Deposited On:27 Sep 2012 21:22
Last Modified:04 Oct 2019 15:23

Repository Staff Only: item control page