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06/13/2001 07:00:00

Caltech senior heads for graduation with 4.2 GPA,record of leadership, and is only 18

When 18-year-old Chris Hirata packs away his Caltech diploma this month to enter Princeton's prestigious graduate physics program, some of his professors and associates on campus think he'll take with him much more than a 4.2 grade point average.

Unlike other mathematics prodigies who are often stereotyped as loners with no real peers, Hirata has been active socially and athletically since he arrived at Caltech at the age of 14. In fact, one of his prime goals was to avoid being stigmatized as the youngest kid in the group.

Hirata, a slim and athletic young man who looks and talks like a typical 18-year-old, is clearly a standout among a student body of standouts. Upon arriving at Caltech in 1997, he registered one of the highest scores in history on the Institute's mathematics diagnostic tests, thereby foregoing freshman calculus and sophomore differential equations for a more difficult upper-division class. And his early mastery of physics, his chosen field, is even more impressive. On the Graduate Record Exam advanced subject test in physics, he scored a perfect 990.

Hirata has encountered few if any academic challenges he couldn't rise to during his four years at Caltech, which is famous for its notoriously tough undergraduate curriculum. But he especially prides himself on having been accepted as a peer by his fellow students—and even on occasion a leader—despite his being younger than everyone else.

"I can think of myself as being 18, or as a college senior," says Hirata. "I prefer the latter."

Though he admittedly felt his age when he began college four years ago, he thinks he had pretty much overcome the stigma of being a young student by the time he was 16. Probably the most significant effect his age had for a while was on his performance on the Caltech varsity swim team. But he says he became more competitive toward the end of his undergraduate career.

The amazing thing is that almost everyone else on campus also seems to think of Hirata in the sense of a graduating senior rather than an 18-year-old. In terms of social maturity and leadership ability, planetary science and geology professor Bruce Murray thinks Hirata is an exceptional Caltech product.

"He's an extraordinary young man, of whom we are very proud," says Murray, a former Jet Propulsion Lab director who co-founded the Planetary Society with Carl Sagan and Louis Friedman. "Most students here consider him the unquestioned expert in physics, mathematics. . . almost anything else he talks about. He's the one who other students just assume will know the answer."

Murray never had Hirata in class, but got to know him through the campus Mars Society, of which Murray is the faculty adviser. The society works on various projects associated with the exploration of Mars—some through the Johnson Space Center in Houston—but is particularly interested in helping pave the way for human exploration of Mars, Murray says.

"These kids are unbelievable," he says. "In most cases, they'd like to go themselves. Of course, I have to explain that human exploration of Mars is not imminent, but that there are certain alternatives that can get us there faster than others.

"Chris is the one who listens most carefully, and others in the group generally defer to him on mission analysis."

Mathematics instructor Markus Keel is also impressed that Hirata exhibits such a distinct combination of ability and maturity.

"He does not come across as a pain-in-the-ass Doogie Howser type," says Keel, who taught Hirata differential geometry two years ago.

"Chris was pretty spectacular—clearly the best in the class," Keel said, adding that the class of 22 physics and mathematics majors included a couple of graduate students.

Keel's favorite anecdote about Hirata concerns a difficult problem on the final exam. Before putting the problem on the test, he had consulted two colleagues in the department. One colleague said he didn't see right away how to solve the exercise, while the other said—at terrific volume—that he didn't even believe the conclusion of the problem.

On the final itself, Hirata not only solved the problem as Keel had framed it, but left a note saying that he knew of an easier way to solve it, and wrote the easier solution on the back of the page.

"He's the strongest undergraduate I've ever encountered, either in my personal experience at the University of Chicago or in the years I've taught at Princeton, UCLA, and Caltech," Keel says.

Caltech astrophysics and planetary physics professor Peter Goldreich has a similar assessment of Hirata's performance in his planetary dynamics class.

"He's a terrific student," says Goldreich. "He was the best in the class, even though it was a graduate course and he was the only undergraduate."

Fellow Mars Society member and friend Derek Shannon says he has been particularly impressed by Hirata's diligent work toward the human exploration of Mars.

"He's quite a bit different from a lot of Caltech geniuses I know in that he really has a selfless motivation to make space exploration happen," says Shannon, a Caltech junior. "He's redesigned NASA's own human Mars exploration plans three times, and hopes to complete a fourth version before he leaves this summer—he's team leader on that project.

"Chris has really been a teacher when it comes to getting people up to a level where they can contribute to the plans to send humans to Mars."

David Baltimore, president of Caltech, notes that Hirata's parents are also significant to his success.

"We rarely encounter a scholar so young who is able to take advantage of Caltech," says Baltimore. "It is a credit both to Chris's brilliance and to his parents' commitment that he could be so successful."

Contact: Robert Tindol (626) 395-3631