Tuesday, July 22, 2014
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Teaching Quantum Mechanics with Minecraft and Comics

Rewarding Inventions and Inventors

"Would Thomas Edison Receive Tenure?" This was the provocative title for a panel at the 2013 Annual Conference of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI), an organization founded in 2010 in partnership with the United States Patent and Trademark Office to support invention and innovation in universities and nonprofit research institutes.

Morteza Gharib, Caltech vice provost and the Hans W. Liepmann Professor of Aeronautics and Bioinspired Engineering, is a Charter Fellow of the NAI and was a participant in the 2013 panel discussing how Edison would fare before a contemporary tenure committee. That discussion led to a recent publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled "Changing the academic culture: Valuing patents and commercialization toward tenure and career advancement."

Edison makes an interesting test case. With more than 1,000 patents, Edison was a prolific inventor. He arguably created the very concept of a dynamic research laboratory, building a facility in Menlo Park, New Jersey, that was stocked with every conceivable material and staffed with scientists and engineers. However, Edison never published papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals, which is the standard marker for academic success in the sciences today. If we want more Edisons—and given the technological challenges of the 21st century, it is safe to say that we do—how will their research be evaluated and rewarded? Can three patents equal two academic papers? Is one start-up company worth the same as three academic papers, or five, or 10?

Gharib insists that while all universities need to recognize invention as a desirable outcome of research, no single metric will make sense for every academic or research setting. However, Gharib says, given its long experience partnering with industry, Caltech can take the lead in this area, helping other universities to place an appropriate value on invention.

Gharib recently sat down with us to discuss the role of inventions in evaluating faculty and the place of industry partnerships in the modern university.

Is Caltech facing new challenges in its relationship with industry?

At Caltech, we have been partnering with industry for a hundred years. We have had and still have very good relationships with large companies like Boeing, BP, and Dow, just to name a few. But there have been some historic changes in how academia and industry interact that have impacted Caltech.

For example, Caltech was really a pillar of the aerospace industry in its early years. It was due to innovations at Caltech, and the use of our wind tunnel here, that the industry really learned how to design better, safer, and more efficient airplanes. But after a while the big aerospace companies in Southern California began investing in their own R&D departments, giving them a lot of resources to do basic research. Caltech wasn't involved as much then.

That scenario has really changed in recent years, not just in aerospace, but in many industries dependent on scientific and technological innovation. Due to tighter budgets, industries have increasingly only taken on very targeted research, more like production R&D. Riskier and more basic research is being outsourced to universities.

Now the challenge to universities is to be mindful of which projects they pick up, choosing only those that are going to help them keep the quality of their research high and do work in keeping with their educational mission.

What does Caltech do to ensure that collaborations with industry partners are productive and appropriate?

It's really grass roots. We rely on the integrity of the faculty here.

Also, we don't expect faculty to go out and sell their ideas or inventions to industry. We have an office of corporate partnerships and an office of technology transfer, which I supervise, and that duo enables faculty to step forward and say, "I need to find a strategic partner for this project," or "I want to license this technology and then give it away," or "I need a start-up to develop the things my team has invented."

The offices of corporate relations and technology transfer actively involve faculty in the process of patenting their inventions and partnering with external corporations, so faculty gain experience in choosing the best solutions for their research groups.

Of course, we don't encourage faculty to build a shop to manufacture a specific device for industry. We do not allow our facilities to be used for routine manufacturing or the kind of research that does not benefit students.

Commercial partners understand this though. They're not going to come to us with a request to design a new bolt, because they know we'll say no. But if they come and ask, "Why do you think that 747 exploded?", then someone like Joe Shepherd [C. L. Kelly Johnson Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering and the dean of graduate studies] will take that question and turn it into basic research in his lab.

How does Caltech evaluate patents or the commercialization of inventions to determine career advancement for faculty?

This is something that many provosts and presidents are concerned with, and it's why we wrote the article for PNAS. But it's something we already do at Caltech. It's important to realize that you can't come up with a single external model and expect it to work everywhere. You have to tailor this to the culture of the faculty at each institution. At Caltech, I feel what's most important is not simply to consider patents as a marker of faculty success, but to ask about the nature of the process that results in a patent or a start-up company.

You see, we aren't looking for faculty who sit down and think, "Today, I am going to invent this." Such a person might be a genius, they might invent wonderful things, but we are looking for something more from faculty. We want faculty who have a process in place that encourages basic research as well as innovation and invention; faculty who encourage publishing and the protection of intellectual property, and who create an atmosphere that promotes entrepreneurship.

How do you create an atmosphere for entrepreneurship?

Entrepreneurship is not just about monetary gains; it's a lifestyle: to be bold, to be fearless in tackling the toughest science and engineering issues that industry and our culture as a whole face. Caltech wants to instill in its students a mentality of taking risks, questioning everything, not being afraid that you're wrong. These are the elements that make a dynamic research group, and a group like that will be productive, regardless of whether that is through basic science, published papers, patents, inventions, or start-up companies.

In fact, these research groups have a lot in common with start-up companies themselves. There's just a lot of dynamism and adrenaline, ideas always popping. Some of the research groups here at Caltech are like a pack of lionesses, hunting down their research prey. If something commercial comes out of it, good. If not, it will still impact other aspects of science and technology. This may not bring a penny back to us, but it's our social contribution, and we're happy with it.

We're never going to encourage faculty to drop basic research at the expense of making patents, but then we don't see those two undertakings as exclusive. They're really inclusive. The most productive faculty in patent innovation—not only at Caltech, but at other universities too—are also the most productive in terms of the papers they publish.

What role can Caltech play in the larger debate about the role of invention in scientific research?

Our culture at Caltech is already a model for other universities in terms of invention and discovery and its transmission to the wider world. We get more out of faculty and students and postdocs by allowing them to be free of some of the conventional limitations and constraints that other universities put around their research teams. We have been able to do this in part because we have a culture that encourages collaboration. If you look at breakthrough innovations, most of them come at the interface between different scientific fields.

It is our moral obligation—and that of other universities, or course—to keep our example of collaborative work and partnering with industry alive and present. We are small, but other universities with much more muscle can do the same kind of thing.

Cynthia Eller
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Tricking the Uncertainty Principle

Caltech researchers have found a way to make measurements that go beyond the limits imposed by quantum physics.

Today, we are capable of measuring the position of an object with unprecedented accuracy, but quantum physics and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle place fundamental limits on our ability to measure. Noise that arises as a result of the quantum nature of the fields used to make those measurements imposes what is called the "standard quantum limit." This same limit influences both the ultrasensitive measurements in nanoscale devices and the kilometer-scale gravitational wave detector at LIGO. Because of this troublesome background noise, we can never know an object's exact location, but a recent study provides a solution for rerouting some of that noise away from the measurement.

The findings were published online in the May 15 issue of Science Express.

"If you want to know where something is, you have to scatter something off of it," explains Professor of Applied Physics Keith Schwab, who led the study. "For example, if you shine light at an object, the photons that scatter off provide information about the object. But the photons don't all hit and scatter at the same time, and the random pattern of scattering creates quantum fluctuations"—that is, noise. "If you shine more light, you have increased sensitivity, but you also have more noise. Here we were looking for a way to beat the uncertainty principle—to increase sensitivity but not noise."

Schwab and his colleagues began by developing a way to actually detect the noise produced during the scattering of microwaves—electromagnetic radiation that has a wavelength longer than that of visible light. To do this, they delivered microwaves of a specific frequency to a superconducting electronic circuit, or resonator, that vibrates at 5 gigahertz—or 5 billion times per second. The electronic circuit was then coupled to a mechanical device formed of two metal plates that vibrate at around 4 megahertz—or 4 million times per second. The researchers observed that the quantum noise of the microwave field, due to the impact of individual photons, made the mechanical device shake randomly with an amplitude of 10-15 meters, about the diameter of a proton.

"Our mechanical device is a tiny square of aluminum—only 40 microns long, or about the diameter of a hair. We think of quantum mechanics as a good description for the behaviors of atoms and electrons and protons and all of that, but normally you don't think of these sorts of quantum effects manifesting themselves on somewhat macroscopic objects," Schwab says. "This is a physical manifestation of the uncertainty principle, seen in single photons impacting a somewhat macroscopic thing."

Once the researchers had a reliable mechanism for detecting the forces generated by the quantum fluctuations of microwaves on a macroscopic object, they could modify their electronic resonator, mechanical device, and mathematical approach to exclude the noise of the position and motion of the vibrating metal plates from their measurement.

The experiment shows that a) the noise is present and can be picked up by a detector, and b) it can be pushed to someplace that won't affect the measurement. "It's a way of tricking the uncertainty principle so that you can dial up the sensitivity of a detector without increasing the noise," Schwab says.

Although this experiment is mostly a fundamental exploration of the quantum nature of microwaves in mechanical devices, Schwab says that this line of research could one day lead to the observation of quantum mechanical effects in much larger mechanical structures. And that, he notes, could allow the demonstration of strange quantum mechanical properties like superposition and entanglement in large objects—for example, allowing a macroscopic object to exist in two places at once.

"Subatomic particles act in quantum ways—they have a wave-like nature—and so can atoms, and so can whole molecules since they're collections of atoms," Schwab says. "So the question then is: Can you make bigger and bigger objects behave in these weird wave-like ways? Why not? Right now we're just trying to figure out where the boundary of quantum physics is, but you never know."

This work was published in an article titled "Mechanically Detecting and Avoiding the Quantum Fluctuations of a Microwave Field." Other Caltech coauthors include senior researcher Junho Suh; graduate students Aaron J. Weinstein, Chan U. Lei, and Emma E. Wollman; and Steven K. Steinke, visitor in applied physics and materials science. The work was funded by the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the National Science Foundation. The device was fabricated in Caltech's Kavli Nanoscience Institute, of which Schwab is a codirector.

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Ditch Day? It’s Today, Frosh!

Today we celebrate Ditch Day, one of Caltech's oldest traditions. During this annual spring rite—the timing of which is kept secret until the last minute—seniors ditch their classes and vanish from campus. Before they go, however, they leave behind complex, carefully planned out puzzles and challenges—known as "stacks"—designed to occupy the underclass students and prevent them from wreaking havoc on the seniors' unoccupied rooms.

Follow the action on Caltech's Facebook and Twitter pages as the undergraduates tackle the puzzles left around campus for them to solve, and get in on the conversation by sharing your favorite Ditch Day memories. Be sure to use #CaltechDitchDay in your tweets and postings.

View photos from the day:


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Thursday, September 25, 2014
Location to be announced

2014 Caltech Teaching Conference

Tuesday, May 13, 2014
Avery Library – Avery House

Semana Latina Keynote Speaker – Dr. Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton

Friday, May 16, 2014
Center for Student Services 360 (Workshop Space) – Center for Student Services

The Role of Writing in Building a Research Career

Friday, May 30, 2014

Caltech Teaching Assistant Training for 2014-2015 Year

The Life of a Caltech "Lifer"

Some people stay at Caltech for years, others only briefly touch down as students or visitors. And then there are the Caltech lifers: those who come and stay . . . and stay, and stay . . . and whose presence leaves a lasting imprint on the Institute. Carver Mead is among those Caltech lifers: BS '56; MS '57; PhD '60, and still going strong as the Gordon and Betty Moore Professor of Engineering and Applied Science, Emeritus.

A recipient of the 2002 National Medal of Technology, Mead is celebrating his 80th birthday on May 1, 2014. He remains as passionate today about science and engineering as he ever was. "There isn't really a time when you're too old to have new ideas," Mead says.

Mead is best known for his pioneering work on VLSI (very-large-scale integration) circuit technology in the 1970s and 1980s, which made it possible to greatly increase the number of transistors placed on a single semiconductor chip. It is no exaggeration to say that the computer era we live in would not have been possible without VLSI technology. Thank Carver Mead when you turn on your computer today, or flick the screen on your smart phone! But don't expect him to be there waiting for applause, because Mead long ago moved on to something new.

Different decades have found Mead wrestling with different problems, from solid-state physics to VLSI to electronic circuits and systems that attempt to mimic the architecture of the human nervous system—so-called neuromorphic engineering, a concept Mead developed. "Retirement" finds Mead living in Seattle and working on the fourth phase of his storied scientific career: issues in fundamental physics, such as those that inspired his "little green book"—Collective Electrodynamics: Quantum Foundations of Electromagnetism—which derives the results for standard electromagnetic problems directly from the quantum nature of matter rather than in the traditional manner, via Maxwell's equations.

Mead recently reflected on his life at Caltech.


How did your relationship with Caltech begin?

It's an interesting story, actually. I was from the backwoods. I went to high school in the little town of Fresno, California. My parents wanted me to go to Fresno State because it was cheap, but I couldn't find anything there that I liked, so I applied to Stanford and Caltech. We went to visit each school after I was admitted. At Stanford we asked if there were any tours, and they said no, and gave us a map. We walked around a little, and it was very nice, but we didn't get to see any labs or anything.

Our experience at Caltech was very different. We showed up at the admissions office—it was in Throop Hall at the time—and met a very nice lady there . . . one of the Caltech ladies who know how to do everything. She called the Caltech branch of the YMCA [now the Caltech Y] and they sent over a young man to give us a tour of the campus. We got our own private tour, my parents and I. As we walked by the astronomy building, I asked our tour guide if we could get a look at the 20-inch telescope. This was the 1/10th scale model for the 200-inch telescope on Palomar Mountain. It was up on top of the Robinson building [now Linde + Robinson].

Our tour guide went into Robinson and he asked the lady at the front desk, "Is there any chance I could let these people see the 20-inch telescope?" She said, "Oh sure, here are the keys." We went up, and of course this telescope was the most fantastic thing in the world. I was going around explaining what everything was, because I had studied up on it.

When we went to return the keys, I got my courage up and asked if there was any chance that we could go down to Palomar and see the real thing.  And this very nice lady told me, "Well, they don't give tours there. But if you were to go down toward the end of the day, but when it's still light, and bang on the door of the dome, there might be somebody in there getting ready for observing that night. If they're not too busy they might just let you look at the telescope."

My parents were intrigued too, so we thanked our guide and got in our car and drove down to Palomar. I very bravely walked up to the dome and banged at the door, but no one answered. We waited an hour and knocked again, and just as we were about to leave, a big tall guy with blue eyes opened the door and looked at me. I told him I had just been admitted as a freshman at Caltech and wanted to see the telescope. You could tell he was trying to decide whether to be annoyed or compassionate. Finally he looked at me and said, "Sure, come in." That was Alan Sandage. He was Edwin Hubble's graduate student and became famous for doing the Hubble survey plots for many, many years. Once I got to Caltech, first as a student and then as a faculty member, I attended all his seminars. Unfortunately, we don't have Alan with us anymore, but he was a wonderful man, and the real reason I got to Caltech.

If Sandage is what got you to Caltech, what made you stay?

The most important thing to me about Caltech is that if you're working very hard to understand something, when somebody asks you why you're doing it, you can say, "I really want to get to the bottom of this," and that's enough reason to be doing it. I don't know that there's any other place in the world where that's sufficient reason to take on something new.

When you started at Caltech did you know that you wanted to do engineering?

I knew I wanted to do technical things and I was very interested in electronics. Even then it was clear to me that there was a lot of technology in astronomy. That is even more true today than any of us imagined back then. But I ended up doing electronics and related things and maintaining an interest in astronomy.

Was teaching an acquired taste, or did you like it from the beginning?

Oh, I loved it from the beginning! I started as a teaching assistant when I was an undergraduate: I made up an exercise on electromechanical transducers for a lab course. I taught all the way through graduate school, and I have always made sure that my grad students teach at least one year. I push them pretty hard to teach more than that, because I've learned so much from teaching. It's just so neat when you see people light up when they finally get it. That's the fun part for me.

But I could only teach the stuff I was interested in. If I wasn't interested, I just couldn't teach it anymore. So it was great being at a place like Caltech where I could teach the stuff that I was good at. When you're excited about something and you get all charged about it, then the students pick up on that.

Have there been any major changes in the Caltech culture from the time you arrived as an 18-year-old in 1952 until now?

I think the basic Caltech ethic is still there. I think the biggest single thing that has made life at Caltech more reasonable was the admission of women. I was always a big proponent of having students of both genders. I was the advisor for the first female EE [electrical engineering] student, Louise Kirkbride. She's now on Caltech's Board of Trustees. And I've always had women in my research group. It makes a big difference, just in the whole tenor of things. It's wonderful that we've been able to find so many outstanding women and that they've been doing so well here.

You've explored several fields in depth. Do you have a favorite? Is there any work that you would describe as your greatest source of pride?

Oh, I don't know. They were all great fun at the time. You know though, when you're working on something, you are stuck most of the time because you're trying to figure it out. I've spent my entire career being stuck. People don't find that very interesting, and they don't give you the time of day about it. But then 20 years later when it starts to look like a good idea, they start calling you. By that time, I'm working on something else.

For example, I've gotten three or four calls in the last month asking me to give big talks at big conferences on neuromorphic circuits. But I haven't done it for 15 years, or maybe 20! I tell them to talk to my students, because they are current in the field and doing leading-edge work right now. My students are really what I'm most proud of.

If you could go back in time, what would you tell your 18-year-old self when he first stepped onto the Caltech campus and asked to see the 20-inch scale-model telescope?

I'd tell him that when you're in groups of people, whether they're groups of undergraduates or people at conferences, there will always be somebody who makes sure you know that they know a lot more than you do. I always felt very inferior to those people.

Gradually I learned that those aren't the people who really know interesting things. The people who really know things are people like Kip Thorne. You have a hard time getting it out of him sometimes, but there's a lot of knowledge stored in his head. Gordon Moore is like that; John Bardeen was too. The people I've gotten to know who are really on top of what they're doing aren't the ones who are out bragging and beating their chests. They're the ones who are thoughtful and just doing their work.

It took me too long to learn this. Even as a faculty member, you find this attitude everywhere, especially if you're doing things a little differently from other people. So I would advise people, don't let the know-it-alls put you down. Just follow what you believe is right, and you'll get there.

Cynthia Eller
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Carver Mead Looks Back on His Caltech Life
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Caltech Faculty Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences has elected three Caltech faculty members as academy fellows. They are John F. Brady, Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering and executive officer for chemical engineering; Kenneth A. Farley, W. M. Keck Foundation Professor of Geochemistry and chair of the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences; and Fiona A. Harrison, Benjamin M. Rosen Professor of Physics.

"It is a privilege to honor these men and women for their extraordinary individual accomplishments," said Don Randel, chair of the academy's board of directors, of the 204 newly elected fellows and 16 foreign honorary members. "The knowledge and expertise of our members gives the academy a unique capacity—and responsibility—to provide practical policy solutions to the pressing challenges of the day. We look forward to engaging our new members in this work."

Brady works in the area of complex fluids and active matter that includes microstructural elements such as suspensions, colloidal dispersions, and self-propelling particles. Understanding these materials led Brady to develop a novel computational method called Stokesian dynamics. He won the 2012 Fluid Dynamics Prize from the American Physical Society and was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1999.

Most of Farley's research has focused on terrestrial geochemistry, but he is now increasingly interested in planetary science and especially exploration of the geochemistry, geology, and geomorphology of Mars. In his laboratory on the Caltech campus, Farley and his group measure noble gases such as helium and neon in rock and mineral samples. One major objective of this work is determining the ages and surface exposure history of Earth's geological features. Farley was recently involved in the first-ever experiments of this type carried out on the surface of Mars, via an instrument on board the Mars Science Laboratory's Curiosity rover. He has received the Day Medal of the Geological Society of America and the Macelwane Award of the American Geophysical Union, and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2013.

Harrison specializes in observational and experimental high-energy astrophysics. She is the principal investigator for NASA's NuSTAR Explorer Mission and uses this satellite, along with other satellites and ground-based telescopes, to understand black holes, neutron stars, and supernova remnants. In her labs at Caltech, Harrison's group develops high-energy X-ray detectors and instrumentation for future space missions. She was elected to the American Physical Society in 2012 and won a NASA Outstanding Public Leadership Medal in 2013.

Also named to the academy this year is Katherine T. Faber, the Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University, who will be joining the Caltech faculty on July 1 as the Simon Ramo Professor of Materials Science. Faber's research focuses on understanding fracture and toughening of brittle materials such as those used for high-temperature coatings for power generation applications. She also works on the fabrication of ceramic materials with controlled porosity. She is cofounder and codirector of the Northwestern University-Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS), which employs advanced materials science techniques for conservation science. Faber is a Distinguished Life Member of the American Ceramic Society (2013), and became a National Science Foundation American Competitiveness and Innovation Fellow in 2010.

The total number of Caltech faculty named to the academy is now 97.

The academy was founded in 1780 by John Adams, James Bowdoin, John Hancock, and other scholar-patriots "to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people." The academy has elected as fellows and foreign honorary members the finest minds and most influential leaders from each generation, including George Washington and Ben Franklin in the 18th century, Daniel Webster and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 19th, and Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill in the 20th. The current membership includes more than 250 Nobel laureates and 60 Pulitzer Prize winners.

A full list of new members is available on the academy website at https://www.amacad.org/content/members/members.aspx.

The academy will welcome this year's new fellows and foreign honorary members at its annual induction ceremony at the academy's headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 11, 2014.

Cynthia Eller
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