Understanding the Earth at Caltech

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Understanding the Earth at Caltech
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Understanding the Earth at Caltech
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Credit: Courtesy J. Andrade/Caltech

The ground beneath our feet may seem unexceptional, but it has a profound impact on the mechanics of landslides, earthquakes, and even Mars rovers. That is why civil and mechanical engineer Jose Andrade studies soils as well as other granular materials. Andrade creates computational models that capture the behavior of these materials—simulating a landslide or the interaction of a rover wheel and Martian soil, for instance. Though modeling a few grains of sand may be simple, predicting their action as a bulk material is very complex. "This dichotomy…leads to some really cool work," says Andrade. "The challenge is to capture the essence of the physics without the complexity of applying it to each grain in order to devise models that work at the landslide level."

Credit: Kelly Lance ©2013 MBARI

Geobiologist Victoria Orphan looks deep into the ocean to learn how microbes influence carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur cycling. For more than 20 years, her lab has been studying methane-breathing marine microorganisms that inhabit rocky mounds on the ocean floor. "Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so tracing its flow through the environment is really a priority for climate models and for understanding the carbon cycle," says Orphan. Her team recently discovered a significantly wider habitat for these microbes than was previously known. The microbes, she thinks, could be preventing large volumes of the potent greenhouse gas from entering the oceans and reaching the atmosphere.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Researchers know that aerosols—tiny particles in the atmosphere—scatter and absorb incoming sunlight, affecting the formation and properties of clouds. But it is not well understood how these effects might influence climate change. Enter chemical engineer John Seinfeld. His team conducted a global survey of the impact of changing aerosol levels on low-level marine clouds—clouds with the largest impact on the amount of incoming sunlight Earth reflects back into space—and found that varying aerosol levels altered both the quantity of atmospheric clouds and the clouds' internal properties. These results offer climatologists "unique guidance on how warm cloud processes should be incorporated in climate models with changing aerosol levels," Seinfeld says.

Credit: Yan Hu/Aroian Lab/UC San Diego

Tiny parasitic worms infect nearly half a billion people worldwide, causing gastrointestinal issues, cognitive impairment, and other health problems. Biologist Paul Sternberg is on the case. His lab recently analyzed the entire 313-million-nucleotide genome of the hookworm Ancylostoma ceylanicum to determine which genes turn on when the worm infects its host. A new family of proteins unique to parasitic worms and related to the early infection process was identified; the discovery could lead to new treatments targeting those genes. "A parasitic infection is a balance between the parasites trying to suppress the immune system and the host trying to attack the parasite," Sternberg observes, "and by analyzing the genome, we can uncover clues that might help us alter that balance in favor of the host."

Credit: K.Batygin/Caltech

Earth is special, not least because our solar system has a unique (as far as we know) orbital architecture: its rocky planets have relatively low masses compared to those around other sun-like stars. Planetary scientist Konstantin Batygin has an explanation. Using computer simulations to describe the solar system's early evolution, he and his colleagues showed that Jupiter's primordial wandering initiated a collisional cascade that ultimately destroyed the first generation population of more massive planets once residing in Earth's current orbital neighborhood. This process wiped the inner solar system's slate clean and set the stage for the formation of the planets that exist today. "Ultimately, what this means," says Batygin, "is that planets truly like Earth are intrinsically not very common."

Credit: Nicolás Wey-Gόmez/Caltech

Human understanding of the world has evolved over centuries, anchored to scientific and technological advancements and our ability to map uncharted territories. Historian Nicolás Wey-Gόmez traces this evolution and how the age of discovery helped shape culture and politics in the modern era. Using primary sources such as letters and diaries, he examines the assumptions behind Europe's encounter with the Americas, focusing on early portrayals of native peoples by Europeans. "The science and technology that early modern Europeans recovered from antiquity by way of the Arab world enabled them to imagine lands far beyond their own," says Wey-Gómez. "This knowledge provided them with an essential framework to begin to comprehend the peoples they encountered around the globe."

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At Caltech, researchers study the Earth from many angles—from investigating its origins and evolution to exploring its geology and inner workings to examining its biological systems. Taken together, their findings enable a more nuanced understanding of our planet in all its complexity, helping to ensure that it—and we—endure. This slideshow highlights just a few of the Earth-centered projects happening right now at Caltech.

Exclude from Caltech Today: 
Yes
04/08/2015 17:23:22
Lori Dajose
Andrei Faraon (BS '04) has received a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant from the National Science Foundation. The grant is the NSF's most prestigious award for junior faculty members.
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Caltech seniors Adam Jermyn and Charles Tschirhart have been named 2015 Hertz Fellowship winners. Selected from a pool of approximately 800 applicants, the awardees will receive up to five years of support for their graduate studies.
2015 Hertz Foundation Fellows Charles Tschirhart (left) and Adam Jermyn (right)
04/03/2015 10:04:24
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Thirty two students from around the world converged on campus to test their space mission design skills. Their task? To design the best manned mission to an asteroid placed in orbit around the moon . . . in just five days.
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Caltech professors share their thoughts and experiences on creating new technologies and methods that have changed our world.

Contest Unleashes Aquamania in Millikan Pond

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Contest Unleashes Aquamania in Millikan Pond
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Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech Office of Strategic Communications

A robot enters the water during the first round of the competition. During the first 30 seconds of each round, the robots had to operate completely autonomously—meaning they had to be able to enter the water without any human intervention. Once the 30 seconds were over, the students were able to direct the robots through the water via remote control.

Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech Office of Strategic Communications

Teammates Joaquin Gabaldon and Melissa Chang prepare to send their robot into the water. Because the students had to build their robots within a limited budget, many teams came up with inventive and affordable solutions—such as the duct tape and chicken wire seen on the front of the team KOOPAS robot here—to help resolve design and engineering challenges.

Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech Office of Strategic Communications

Joaquin Gabaldon (in blue) from team KOOPAS drives his team's robot using a remote control while Dan Chui, Jalani Williams, and Margaret Lee from team T.O.A.D. look on. In the first two rounds of the Aquamania, teams paired up to compete against other pairs of teams for the most points.

Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech Office of Strategic Communications

Rob Anderson, Anup Kishore, and Naveen Tadepalli celebrate a victory for their team's robot.

Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech Office of Strategic Communications

Basith Fahumy uses a remote control to guide team AXOLOTL's robot toward a small red ball. In the competition, teams scored points by moving balls their color past a gate.

Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech Office of Strategic Communications

The audience, including students from several local elementary and middle schools, watches as two robots enter the water and begin their battle.

Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech Office of Strategic Communications

KATS, the winning team, poses with their trophy in Millikan Pond. (Left to right: Tammer Eweis-Labolle, Kristin Eliason, Sheila Lo, and Auggie Nanz)

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Amphibious robots took to Millikan Pond on Tuesday, March 10, each one hoping to come away with the title "Aquamania champion." At the event, teams of students tested their robotic athletes in the 30th annual Mechanical Engineering 72 (ME72) competition—a campus tradition that also serves as a final exam for mechanical engineering students enrolled in the two-term ME72 design lab in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science. In this year's competition, the student teams were tasked with designing and building robots that could successfully drive down a ramp into Millikan Pond and then navigate through the water to move inflatable balls of various sizes past a series of gates. At the end of each round, points were tallied based on how many balls each robot successfully moved past each gate. Eight teams competed for this year's title, and after three intense (and very wet) rounds, team KATS—named for teammates and Caltech juniors Kristin Eliason, Auggie Nanz, Tammer Eweis-Labolle, and Sheila Lo—walked away with the trophy.

Exclude from Caltech Today: 
No
Friday, April 10, 2015
Noyes 147 (J. Holmes Sturdivant Lecture Hall) – Arthur Amos Noyes Laboratory of Chemical Physics

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Tuesday, April 7, 2015
Dabney Hall, Lounge – Dabney Hall

Caltech Roundtable: Writing Popular Books about Science

Tuesday, March 31, 2015 to Thursday, April 16, 2015
Center for Student Services 360 (Workshop Space) – Center for Student Services

Spring TA Training

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