At The California Institute of Technology


I don’t care how God-damn smart
these guys are: I’m bored.

It’s been raining like hell all day long
and there’s nothing to do.


Richard Brautigan, “At the California Institute of Technology” from The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster. Copyright © 1968 by Richard Brautigan. 

This short poem was written by Richard Brautigan when he was poet-in-residence at the California Institute of Technology in 1967, and it is one of my favourite poems because it completely shatters the illusions of what both science and poetry should be.


Richard Brautigan: Last of the Beats (Photo Credit: Oliver Dalmon).

When I talk to students (especially undergraduates) about poetry and science they have such preconceived notions about what they should and shouldn’t be, that it can be disheartening. Poetry has to rhyme. Science is really difficult. Poets are fops and dandies in tie-dyed T-shirts and berets. Scientists work in laboratories and all have white coats and lab specs.

I am a scientist and I haven’t done any laboratory work for over a decade, since my undergraduate days. Likewise, as a poet I have never owned a tie-dyed T-shirt. Although to be fair I do own a couple of berets…

Berets aside, the preconceptions of what scientists and poets look like and what science and poetry can and cannot do is extremely limiting, especially to those people who are still finding their way in their world. Brautigan’s poem is only four lines long and yet it is so effective; you can really imagine Brautigan sat in the back of a lecture hall or seminar room falling asleep as one of the ‘brilliant’ Caltech scientists holds court on their latest research findings.

To Brautigan science is not the be-all-and-end-all, it is the modern equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes, and he is not afraid to say so. Not even to the people who are sponsoring his residency. Science can be really exciting, but it can also be utterly tedious. Poetry can rhyme, but it doesn’t have to. These four lines read like a two-fingered salute to the establishment, and remind me why I fell in love with both science and poetry in the first instance, and for that reason I will be forever grateful to Caltech’s 1967 poet-in-resident.

Sam Illingworth

What do you think of the poem? Did you enjoy it? Could you identify with it? Do you think that my own appreciation of Brautigan is reminiscent of the Emperor’s New Clothes?



8 thoughts on “At The California Institute of Technology

  1. First I love that you’re a scientist who uses poetry. I was a scientist – who moved across to study literature. I never thought the two worlds were that separate – but programme planners did and I was forced to choose. So I chose one – and then the other…

    Second – I love this poem. I cannot see it as an attack on science – but on as an attack on stuffy academia per se. Academia where it is pompous and exluding – and dull and boring when it does not have to be. I love the angry punchiness of the poem. It exactly captures what a *confident* person might say when faced with all that pomp and certainty…


    • Thank you for your kinds words and for your insightful thoughts. 🙂

      I agree, that it Brautigan does a wonderful job of taking academics down off their high horses, and I hope that inspires others to do the same, as well as inspiring some academics to get out of their ivory towers. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Becoming An Educationalist and commented:
    #becomingeducational W5: It’s poetry on Fridays!
    Following on from that Webinar I told you about – where we explored how to use poetry in our HE teaching – people were so fired up by experiencing that poetry and those thoughts – that a whole new project was born: poetryfeedhe
    And so – here’s an invite to talk about the very shot poem included in the blog. Have a think – share a thought – wonder how you might use it in your own teaching – respond with a poem of your own…
    Pass it on!


  3. Thanks for this – an excellent thing to think about while eating lunch. I really like this poem: it says so much in two lines.

    Brautigan may be aiming at an Emperor’s New Clothes analogy, but it could be interpreted as being an honest admission that science isn’t all whizz-bang-excitement – just like anything else you spend a lot of time doing. I also like the separation of being smart and bring interesting. I wonder what the scientists thought of him?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s