Caltech References in Real Genius
Martha Coolidge's 1985 film
Genius takes place at "Pacific Tech", a thinly disguised version
of Caltech in Pasadena, California. Here are some elements of the film
that reflect actual elements of Caltech life at the time of filming.
(Most of the references
are due to alumnus Dave Marvit, who was a consultant to the director
and has a bit part in the film.)
Non-Techers may want to read this quick intro to the Tech Student House system.
(Note: I've used the past tense to describe some things,
not because they are necessarily
no longer part of Caltech life, but because I'm
less in touch with Tech undergrad life these days and I'm no longer sure.)
Thanks to Paul Sainte-Marie, Alan Blanchard, Al Petterson, Jason
Surace, Jim McBeath, Eve Andersson, Jon Hamkins, Greg Thain, Clare
Tector, Neil Lloyd, Joshua Harris, John Denker, Jeff Hartt,
Tom Perrine, Chris DiBona, Michael Backes, Brian Melody, Steve Allen,
Kevin Fisher, Martha Coolidge, Kevin Proops, Ram Basu,
and many other Techers (and others) for help on some of these items.
- The song which plays during the opening credits (which are
overlaid over plans for various weapons systems) is "You Took
Advantage Of Me", which brings to mind the statement of the Caltech
Honor Code: "No member of the Caltech community shall take unfair
advantage of any other member of the Caltech community."
- During the science fair scene, Dr. Hathaway mentions a
12-year-old student who was the youngest admitted to Pacific Tech, but
who "cracked under the pressure". This was inspired by an actual
student at Caltech.
- The campus looks nothing like Caltech's; many exterior and
interior scenes were filmed at Occidental College, near Caltech, and
Pomona, one of the Claremont colleges, in the L.A. area. Some dorm
scenes were shot in Pomona's Harwood dormitory. The "Tanning
Invitational" was shot in Oxy's Thorne Hall; some lab scenes used a
nuclear physics lab in Oxy's Fowler Hall. The "Darlington Electronics"
scenes were shot at General Atomics in San Diego. Rumor has it that
Caltech didn't allow filming on campus because the film's obvious
allusions to SDI research made the powers-that-be at the Institute
- Caltech student extras appear in some scenes, especially the
new student reception scene.
- The look of the dorm interior sets was inspired by that of Dabney House
at Caltech. The walls of Dabney were in fact covered with graffiti;
photos were taken of the graffiti in Dabney, set painters copied it from
the photos, then Caltech students added their own touches.
One graffito seen in the film ("Stills from the film: Gas") is a copy of
a piece in Dabney which
disappeared during the 1987 renovation of the House (the wall upon
which it was drawn was knocked out to expand a kitchen).
- When Mitch is first walking through the residence toward his room,
he passes a mural shaped like a man, wearing a bowler hat, facing
away from the viewer. Written on the man's back is "Caltech vs. MIT".
- Chris and Mitch's room has a mural of a Voyager image of Saturn on
one wall. This same mural existed in Dabney House room #50 at Caltech.
- Jordan, the "hyperkinetic" mechanical engineer, is another
character inspired by an actual student (whose nickname was "Tigger").
- "Smart People on Ice" is similar to a Page House practice,
discontinued around 1978, called "alley surfing", where one of the
corridors (cement-floored) in the house basement would be flooded
with a thin layer of soapy water and residents would practice
skidding down the hallway.
- Kent tells Mitch his brain will turn to "tapioca"; saying that
someone's brain had turned to or would turn to "purple tapioca" was a
popular figure of speech among Caltech undergrads.
- Reclusive supergenius Laslo Hollyfeld is yet another character
inspired by an actual student, one who did live for an extended period
in the basement beneath the South Houses.
- When Chris manufactures a slug out of dry ice for the coffee
machine, Mitch comments on his use of liquid nitrogen in the container
to keep it cool. (Even a freshman wouldn't refer to a solid
substance as "liquid nitrogen".) Caltech students could easily
purchase liquid nitrogen from the Institute's stocks for whatever
personal purpose they may have had (and charge the cost to their
student accounts, where it would often be paid for by their unwitting
- At one point when Chris is accused of being a "slack", he mutters
"moles and trolls". In Techer slang, a "Mole" is a resident of Blacker
House, and "trolling" referred to intensive studying (since someone
who trolls too much never gets the chance to see the light of day,
like a real "troll"; an alternate origin is suggested by the fact that
hardworking physics students would have to spend a great deal of time
in the basement of the Bridge physics building, and would thus be
living "under the bridge" like "trolls" do).
- The party Chris engineers is the "Tanning Invitational". A party
with this name was held annually at a Caltech-owned off-campus
apartment complex for students.
- The women at the party are students from "a nearby college", the
"Wanda Trossler School of Beauty". While there is no such school near
it, Tech is only a few blocks from Pasadena City College.
- Dr. Hathaway's TV show Everything is underwritten by
"Darlington Electronic Instruments", which is also the company Chris
is seen touring at the beginning of the film. This is an instance of
the initials "DEI" which, interpreted as "Dabney Eats It", have a long
history at Caltech, and are said to have been inscribed by Caltech
alumni at (among other places) the summit of Everest, on the Moon, and
on many satellites and space probes manufactured at JPL. (See
this page for more
- The prank where Kent's car is "parked" in his room is similar to
an actual incident where a car was disassembled, then reassembled in
working order inside a room in Ricketts House.
- While there is no secret elevator system leading from students'
rooms to steam tunnels, Caltech does have a relatively accessible set
of steam tunnels running under campus. Also, some of the student
houses are constructed so as to have a space between the outer walls
and room walls, called "hyperspace", which can be clambered around in.
- Laslo's literal interpretation of a sweepstakes offer to enter
"as often as you want" is reminiscent of two similar attempts by
Techers: one in 1969, when bulk entries were sent to a Frito-Lay
contest (resulting in changes to the contest rules), and another in
1975, by Page House students for a McDonald's sweepstakes.
- When Dr. Hathaway administers his exam, he reminds his class that
"we believe in the honor system here". Caltech's Honor Code has been
referred to above, but the amusing point is that, due to the Honor
Code, only a tiny percentage of exams at Tech were actually in-class
and proctored - most were take-home.
- The exam books in the exam scene look very much like the blue
books used for many Caltech exams, particularly the cobra which seems
to be on the back cover.
- At one point we see an event called "Decompression", where
students are screaming, beating on furniture, and playing with
toys. This was an actual event at Tech, held every term between the
end of classes and finals week.
- When Kent is being chloroformed in his room by the conspirators,
they are observed by a passerby who doesn't remark on their activities
at all. This wouldn't have been that unusual at Caltech, where student
pranks ("RFs") on each other were not uncommon occurences. (The
passerby happens to be Dave Marvit, the Techer consultant to the
- The truck the conspirators transport the popcorn in
is labeled "Drain Experts, Inc.", another "DEI" instance.
- When the conspirators break into Dr. Hathaway's house, Chris is
seen picking the lock. This in itself isn't unusual in the context of
the story, but it's worth noting that the study of lockpicking enjoyed
some popularity at Tech, especially in Blacker House. Also, Richard
Feynman, Nobel laureate and beloved Caltech physics professor, was an
accomplished lockpicker and safecracker.
If any of the above are incorrect, or you
know of references I have forgotten, please mail me!
More information on famous Caltech pranks can be found in the books
Legends of Caltech, More Legends of Caltech, and Legends of Caltech III: Techer In the Dark,
available through the Caltech bookstore. (The third volume contains information from this page!)
(Updated March 26, 2013)