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Which pillar of the campus community began his scientific career dissolving his mother's clothes in acid, earned his first successful patent when he was barely out of high school, and was (fleetingly) featured in the Caltech Catalog as Caltech's first and only "Chem-mate of the Year"? Renowned for research at the frontiers of chemistry and biology, he recruited three future Nobelists onto Caltech's faculty, presented lectures in a horse's head, and received the National Medal of Science 30 years after he won hometown notoriety for scoring a newspaper interview with a very young Elvis Presley.
The answer of course is Harry Gray, Caltech's Beckman Professor of Chemistry and head of "Gray's Solar Army," a global network of high school and college students working on solar energy research. His oral history, chronicling his colorful life and career, is now online. Check out the photo gallery "There's Something about Harry" and enjoy some excerpts, below, from the oral history." -HA

Bonding with "the King"

I interviewed Elvis Presley. This was before he became super-famous. I was probably eighteen; he was probably nineteen. I worked nights at the newspaper keeping books. And the city editor calls me because I was the only guy at the newspaper at night. He said, "Harry, Elvis Presley is at the Manhattan Towers [the local nightclub]. Drive out there and interview him." I went out and barged into the Manhattan Towers. There must have been thirty women surrounding him. I said, "Elvis, I'm from the newspaper. I'd like to interview you." He says, "Okay, come on out to my car." We sat in his car, in his Cadillac, and we talked for an hour. He was a nice guy, a very nice guy. The one thing I remember is that he said, "I feel that things are getting away from me. It's going to be too big for me; I'm not sure I can handle all this." And so I wrote it up. It was on the front page of the Park City Daily News the next day.

Serving Up Science

I was elected to National Academy of Sciences five years after I came to Caltech. I was thirty-five years old—the youngest member for a while after that. I remember that my wife, Shirley, and I went to the Academy for me to be inducted in 1971, and I was wearing this tuxedo. And essentially everybody there thought I was a waiter. Several people asked me for a drink.  And I said, "I'm a member." And somebody would say, "Sure. And I'm Abraham Lincoln." Nobody believed me.

Campus Theatrics

One day I decided, "Well, what the hell, I may as well get a horse costume and lecture as a horse." Which got me the part in the TACIT [Caltech Theater Arts] musical Guys and Dolls.  I was a natural for "Harry the Horse" because I was already known as "Harry the Horse." So that led me to become really good friends with Dick Feynman because he was also in the thing. I'd sit up there every night with Dick, and TACIT's director Shirley Marneus would yell at us. She'd say, "Harry and Dick, you may be great scientists, but you can't act, you can't sing, you can't dance."

The Beckman Institute

We came up with this idea of building an institute that would be devoted to completely revising the infrastructure for chemistry and biology research at Caltech. It would be devoted to developing instruments, methods, and technologies that would support basic research in chemistry and biology, help bring them together, and make the research more interdisciplinary. In other words, ramp chemistry and biology up from single laboratory test tube-like sciences to much bigger science-type models that had been around in astronomy and physics for a long time.

Solar Solidarity

In 2008, we started all of this work with kids and high schools, searching for new catalytic materials. Real hands-on research activities, working on a problem that is perceived to be one of the great problems of this century —renewable energy— really motivates these kids. We've been a main source of recruiting bright kids for STEM subjects so that's one of the great outcomes of the Solar Army. And also our mentors now occupy top academic jobs all over the Country.

Explore the complete oral history here. Posted 05-22-2017

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