Wednesday, August 24, 2016
Center for Student Services 360 (Workshop Space) – Center for Student Services

CTLO's Summer Short Course for Faculty: Re(Designing) Your Class

2016 Distinguished Alumnus: Neil Gehrels (PhD '82, Physics)

The 2016 Distinguished Alumni Awards were presented on Saturday, May 21, during the 79th annual Seminar Day. Each week, the Caltech Alumni Association will share a story about a recipient.

Every day or so, unseen by your eyes, a bright burst of light explodes in the sky. These bursts shine in gamma rays, the most energetic kind of light that's way beyond the visible part of the spectrum. Among the most explosive and violent events in the universe, these gamma-ray bursts produce as much energy in a few seconds as the sun will during its entire 10-billion-year life.  

And for decades, Neil Gehrels has been a pioneer in understanding these bursts and in exploring the gamma-ray universe. He's helped lead teams of researchers on multiple projects and missions, including as the principal investigator of NASA's Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission, which has solved long-standing mysteries about the powerful blasts. 

Read the full story on the Caltech Alumni Association website

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For decades, Gehrels has been a pioneer in understanding and exploring the gamma-ray universe.
Wednesday, September 21, 2016

SAVE THE DATE - 4th Annual Caltech Teaching Conference -- Details Coming Soon!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016
Noyes 147 (J. Holmes Sturdivant Lecture Hall) – Arthur Amos Noyes Laboratory of Chemical Physics

Teaching Statement Workshop

Gravitational Waves Detected from Second Pair of Colliding Black Holes

The LIGO Scientific Collaboration and the Virgo collaboration identify a second gravitational wave event in the data from Advanced LIGO detectors

On December 26, 2015 at 03:38:53 UTC, scientists observed gravitational waves—ripples in the fabric of spacetime—for the second time.

The gravitational waves were detected by both of the twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors, located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington, USA.

The LIGO Observatories are funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and were conceived, built, and are operated by Caltech and MIT. The discovery, accepted for publication in the journal Physical Review Letters, was made by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (which includes the GEO Collaboration and the Australian Consortium for Interferometric Gravitational Astronomy) and the Virgo Collaboration using data from the two LIGO detectors.

Gravitational waves carry information about their origins and about the nature of gravity that cannot otherwise be obtained, and physicists have concluded that these gravitational waves were produced during the final moments of the merger of two black holes—14 and 8 times the mass of the sun—to produce a single, more massive spinning black hole that is 21 times the mass of the sun.

"It is very significant that these black holes were much less massive than those observed in the first detection," says Gabriela Gonzalez, LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) spokesperson and professor of physics and astronomy at Louisiana State University. "Because of their lighter masses compared to the first detection, they spent more time—about one second—in the sensitive band of the detectors. It is a promising start to mapping the populations of black holes in our universe."

During the merger, which occurred approximately 1.4 billion years ago, a quantity of energy roughly equivalent to the mass of the sun was converted into gravitational waves. The detected signal comes from the last 27 orbits of the black holes before their merger. Based on the arrival time of the signals—with the Livingston detector measuring the waves 1.1 milliseconds before the Hanford detector—the position of the source in the sky can be roughly determined.

"In the near future, Virgo, the European interferometer, will join a growing network of gravitational wave detectors, which work together with ground-based telescopes that follow-up on the signals," notes Fulvio Ricci, the Virgo Collaboration spokesperson, a physicist at Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN) and professor at Sapienza University of Rome. "The three interferometers together will permit a far better localization in the sky of the signals."

The first detection of gravitational waves, announced on February 11, 2016, confirmed a major prediction of Albert Einstein's 1915 general theory of relativity, and marked the beginning of the new field of gravitational-wave astronomy.

The second discovery "has truly put the 'O' for Observatory in LIGO," says Caltech's Albert Lazzarini, deputy director of the LIGO Laboratory. "With detections of two strong events in the four months of our first observing run, we can begin to make predictions about how often we might be hearing gravitational waves in the future. LIGO is bringing us a new way to observe some of the darkest yet most energetic events in our universe."

"We are starting to get a glimpse of the kind of new astrophysical information that can only come from gravitational wave detectors," says MIT's David Shoemaker, who led the Advanced LIGO detector construction program.

Both discoveries were made possible by the enhanced capabilities of Advanced LIGO, a major upgrade that increases the sensitivity of the instruments compared to the first generation LIGO detectors, enabling a large increase in the volume of the universe probed.

"With the advent of Advanced LIGO, we anticipated researchers would eventually succeed at detecting unexpected phenomena, but these two detections thus far have surpassed our expectations," says NSF Director France A. Córdova. "NSF's 40-year investment in this foundational research is already yielding new information about the nature of the dark universe."

Advanced LIGO's next data-taking run will begin this fall. By then, further improvements in detector sensitivity are expected to allow LIGO to reach as much as 1.5 to 2 times more of the volume of the universe. The Virgo detector is expected to join in the latter half of the upcoming observing run.

LIGO research is carried out by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC), a group of more than 1,000 scientists from universities around the United States and in 14 other countries. More than 90 universities and research institutes in the LSC develop detector technology and analyze data; approximately 250 students are strong contributing members of the collaboration. The LSC detector network includes the LIGO interferometers and the GEO600 detector.

Virgo research is carried out by the Virgo Collaboration, consisting of more than 250 physicists and engineers belonging to 19 different European research groups: 6 from Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France; 8 from the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN) in Italy; 2 in The Netherlands with Nikhef; the MTA Wigner RCP in Hungary; the POLGRAW group in Poland and the European Gravitational Observatory (EGO), the laboratory hosting the Virgo detector near Pisa in Italy.

The NSF provides most of the financial support for Advanced LIGO. Funding organizations in Germany (Max Planck Society), the U.K. (Science and Technology Facilities Council, STFC) and Australia (Australian Research Council) also have made significant commitments to the project.

Several of the key technologies that made Advanced LIGO so much more sensitive have been developed and tested by the German UK GEO collaboration. Significant computer resources have been contributed by the AEI Hannover Atlas Cluster, the LIGO Laboratory, Syracuse University, the ARCCA cluster at Cardiff University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and the Open Science Grid. Several universities designed, built, and tested key components and techniques for Advanced LIGO: The Australian National University, the University of Adelaide, the University of Western Australia, the University of Florida, Stanford University, Columbia University in the City of New York, and Louisiana State University. The GEO team includes scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute, AEI), Leibniz Universität Hannover, along with partners at the University of Glasgow, Cardiff University, the University of Birmingham, other universities in the United Kingdom and Germany, and the University of the Balearic Islands in Spain.

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Gravitational Waves Detected from Second Pair of Colliding Black Holes
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Live Webcast: LIGO, Virgo Scientists to Discuss Continued Search for Gravitational Waves

The latest research in the effort to detect gravitational waves will be discussed in a press briefing at the 228th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in San Diego, California. The public can view the briefing during the live webcast, scheduled to begin at 10:15 am Pacific Daylight Time on Wednesday, June 15, 2016. The panelists for the briefing are Caltech's David Reitze, executive director of LIGO; Gabriela González, LIGO Scientific Collaboration spokesperson, from Louisiana State University; and Fulvio Ricci, Virgo spokesperson, from the University of Rome Sapienza and the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare in Rome.

The first detection of gravitational waves, announced on February 11, 2016, confirmed a major prediction of Albert Einstein's 1915 general theory of relativity, and marked the beginning of the new field of gravitational-wave astronomy.

LIGO, a system of two identical detectors located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington, was constructed to detect the tiny vibrations from passing gravitational waves, was conceived and built by Caltech and MIT with funding from the National Science Foundation and contributions from other U.S. and international partners.

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Newborn Exoplanet Discovered Around Young Star

Planet formation is a complex and tumultuous process that remains shrouded in mystery. Astronomers have discovered more than 3,000 exoplanets—planets orbiting stars other than our Sun—however, nearly all are middle-aged, with ages of a billion years or more. For astronomers, attempting to understand the life cycles of planetary systems using existing examples is like trying to learn how people grow from babies to children to teenagers, by only studying adults. Now, a team of Caltech-led researchers have discovered the youngest fully-formed exoplanet ever detected. The planet, K2-33b, at 5 to 10 million years old, is still in its infancy.

The first signals of the planet's existence were measured by NASA's Kepler space telescope during its K2 mission. The telescope detected a periodic dimming in the light emitted by the planet's host star—called K2-33—that hinted at the existence of an orbiting planet. Observations from the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii validated that the dimming was indeed caused by a planet, later named K2-33b. A paper detailing the finding appears in the June 20 advance online issue of the journal Nature.

"At 4.5 billion years old, the Earth is a middle-aged planet—about 45 in human-years," says Trevor David, the first author on the paper and a graduate student working with professor of astronomy Lynne Hillenbrand. "By comparison, the planet K2-33b would be an infant of only a few weeks old."

"This discovery is a remarkable milestone in exoplanet science," says Erik Petigura, a postdoctoral scholar in planetary science and a coauthor on the paper. "The newborn planet K2-33b will help us understand how planets form, which is important for understanding the processes that led to the formation of the earth and eventually the origin of life."

When stars form, they are encircled by dense regions of gas and dust, called protoplanetary disks, from which planets form. By the time a young star is a few million years old, this disk has largely dissipated and planet formation is mostly complete.

The star orbited by K2-33b has a small amount of disk material left, indicated by observations from NASA's Spitzer space telescope, demonstrating that it is in the final stages of dissipating. K2-33b was previously identified as a planet candidate in a survey of stars done with the K2 mission, the extended mission phase of the Kepler Space Telescope.

"Astronomers know that star formation has just completed in this region, called Upper Scorpius, and roughly a quarter of the stars still have bright protoplanetary disks," David says. "The remainder of stars in the region do not have such disks, so we reasoned that planet formation must be nearly complete for these stars, and that there would be a good chance of finding young exoplanets around them."

K2-33b, like many other exoplanets, was detected due to the periodic dimming in the central star's light as the planet passes in front of it. By studying the frequency of dips in the star's light and measuring by how much the light dimmed, the team was able to determine the size and orbital period of the planet. K2-33b is "a remarkable world," according to Petigura. The exoplanet, which is about six times the size of Earth, or about 50 percent larger than Neptune, makes a complete orbit around its host star in about five days. This implies that it is 20 times closer to its star than Earth is to the Sun. 

K2-33b is a large planet like the gas giants in our solar system. In our solar system these giant planets are all far from the Sun. As it turns out, the proximity of the giant planet K2-33b to its star is not too out of the ordinary for planets in our galaxy—many have been discovered "close in," often completing an orbit around their parent star in weeks or even days. The explanation for this is that large planets can be formed far from their star and migrate inward over time. The position of K2-33b so close to its parent star at such an early age implies that if migration occurred, it must have occurred quickly. Alternatively, the planet could be evidence against the migration theory, suggesting that giant planets can in fact form close in to their stars.

"Discovering and studying K2-33b required using several of the most powerful astronomical instruments available, both in space and on Earth," says Sasha Hinkley, now a senior lecturer at Exeter University and co-author on the study. As a NASA Sagan Postdoctoral Fellow at Caltech, Hinkley acquired data from the Keck telescope which was later used to help confirm the existence of the planet.

K2-33b is fully formed, but it may still evolve over time. The next step is to measure the planet's mass and determine its density. These measurements will offer insights into the planet's fate later in life—whether it will stay roughly the same size or if it will cool and contract.

"In the last 20 years, we have learned that nature can produce a staggering diversity of planets—from planets that orbit two stars to planets that complete a full orbit every few hours," Petigura says. "We have much to learn, and K2-33b is giving us new clues."

The findings are detailed in a paper titled, "A Neptune-sized transiting planet closely orbiting a 5–10 million-year-old star." The work was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and included data funded by NASA. Professor Lynne Hillenbrand, staff scientist David Ciardi, and senior faculty associate in astronomy Charles Beichman were additional Caltech coauthors on this paper.

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Newborn Exoplanet Discovered
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Newborn Exoplanet Discovered Around Young Star
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The discovery of an exoplanet that is essentially still in its infancy is an important step to understanding how planets, including the Earth, form.

The Next Big Thing

To get a glimpse into the future, what better place is there to look than the minds of those about to become Caltech's newest alumni? After all, our 2016 graduates have been at the forefront of research in vastly different fields for the past few years. Their unique perspectives have informed their ideas of the future, and their work will reach far beyond the confines of a lab.

With that in mind, in the Summer 2016 issue of E&S magazine, we talked to a handful of undergraduate and graduate students prior to commencement to find out what they think will be the next big thing in science and engineering and how their plans after graduation reflect those ideas.

 

I believe that the future of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) will place a greater emphasis on implementation and impact of research. While rapid economic growth and globalization have introduced numerous difficult challenges, society has acquired powerful new tools and technology to develop and implement solutions for these issues.

I will be working as a management consultant after graduating to expose myself to business and strategy. That way, I can perhaps one day help new discoveries and ideas produce a tangible impact on people's lives."

Aditya Bhagavathi
BS in Computer Science

 

I believe the future of planetary and space exploration will follow two paths—one, the search for life beyond Earth within the solar system, and two, the characterization of exoplanets.

For the solar system, the initial survey of its major worlds was just completed with the New Horizons flyby of Pluto, and therefore a new focus will likely emerge. That initial survey has revealed several worlds to be potentially habitable, including Mars, Europa, and Enceladus, with the former two already targets for future missions. These new missions will not only reveal more about these worlds but also force us to reevaluate what life is, how it arises, and how it endures.

For exoplanets, the diversity of worlds is immense. From giant planets that orbit their host stars in less than a day to habitable planets with permanent daysides and nightsides, exoplanets offer a tremendous opportunity to understand the planets in our own solar system. With the rapid development of technologies, instruments, and observing techniques, the flood of data regarding exoplanets will only continue. I plan to be among the scientists who will analyze this data and combine their results with theoretical models to investigate what these distant worlds are like. By doing this, we will be exploring our place in the universe and whether we are alone within it."

Peter Gao
PhD in Planetary Science

 

When asked what he would do with his degree in philosophy during a routine dentist appointment, David Silbersweig, MD at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Academic Dean at Harvard Medical School, responded with a single word that spoke volumes: 'Think.' Simply put, I too want to think.

I want to learn how to think at a complex level such that my ability to think and subsequently solve problems allows me to change lives. The history and philosophy of science degree at Caltech has given me exactly this. According to Silbersweig, 'If you can get through a one-sentence paragraph of Kant, holding all of its ideas and clauses in juxtaposition in your mind, you can think through most anything.' In my first History and Philosophy of Science class, I read Kant. I also find immense happiness in working with and helping other individuals, a sense of euphoria matched by little else in life. I learned this lesson through tutoring students and coaching younger athletes. And finally, as a collegiate athlete myself, I have undergone multiple orthopedic surgeries that ignited an interest in the musculoskeletal system and its ability to suffer injury yet recover remarkably. Together, these three aspects of life are central to my vision of the future. Becoming an orthopedic surgeon is the perfect combination—the career that will give me these components and a lot more.

One of the major developments in medicine will be 3-D printing, primarily in order to provide individuals with replacement bones and organs. Combining new progress in computer science will facilitate immense progress in 3-D printing, which also aligns well with the use of robotics in surgery. As an athlete who has torn my ACL and had bone spurs in the past year, I'm excited to be a part of this field in the future and hopefully help other athletes succeed in pursuing their passions."

Harinee Maiyuran
BS in History and Philosophy of Science

 

My personal hunch, and perhaps a somewhat common one, is that all disciplines—and not just STEM ones—are moving toward being increasingly data driven, a phenomenon rooted in freer dissemination and greater influx of research data. Correspondingly, computers and programming drive data processing in all disciplines; a common joke is that every scientist is automatically a software engineer. Statistical and machine learning techniques that are designed to tackle vast quantities of data are increasingly common in academic papers and will probably continue to climb in popularity.

I am planning to go into computational astrophysics research because I believe that the recent influx of data from new detectors will drive a huge surge of research questions to be investigated. And as a physics/computerscience double major, I'm uniquely equipped to analyze big data and extract scientific meaning from it."

Yubo Su
BS in Physics and Computer Science

 

Many aspects about future climate are unclear, such as how cloudiness, precipitation, and extreme events will change under global warming. But recent progress in observational and computational technology has provided great potential for clarifying these uncertainties. I plan to continue my research and utilize new data and models to develop theoretical understanding of these problems. I hope that such new insight will be helpful for assessing climate change impacts and designing effective adaptation and mitigation strategies."

Zhihong Tan
PhD in Environmental Science and Engineering

 

The future of science and engineering depends on closing the huge gap between the general public and scientists and engineers. I think this stems from a good deal of ignorance about what it is we do and hope to achieve, which leads to misconceptions about our work and community, and the separation between 'us' and 'them.' But if we're trying to understand and solve problems that affect everyone, shouldn't everyone be more involved?

When I graduate, I'm going to take a year off to try and bridge this gap in my own life. I don't know what I'll do yet, but it will be decidedly nonacademic. I want to travel, work odd jobs, and pursue hobbies I've set aside to finish my education. If I want to help people understand why I do what I do, I need to be certain that I understand first. After only four years surrounded almost exclusively by scientists and engineers, I want to get away a little. That way, when I inevitably return, I'll have a bit more perspective."

Valerie Pietrasz
BS in Mechanical Engineering and Planetary Science

 

Driven by the goal of reducing fossil fuel use and pollution, clean energy research plays and will play a pivotal role in America's energy future. Clean energy research spans disciplines such as biological and environmental sciences, advanced materials, nuclear sciences, and chemistry. Therefore, multidisciplinary efforts are not only necessary but also crucial to develop and deploy real-world solutions for energy security and protecting the environment.

As a graduate student, I have focused on understanding nanoscale energy transport in novel energy-efficient materials. In the future, I plan to further advance and apply my expertise to solve real-world problems in an integrated and multidisciplinary approach. I hope this effort will eventually lead to developing advanced clean energy technologies that could not only ease today's energy crisis but also improve our quality of life."

Chengyun Hua
PhD in Mechanical Engineering

 

I believe that in the next decade, the behavioral and computational subfields of neuroscience will work together seamlessly. I think this change will be primarily fueled by the development of new tools that allow us to measure the activity of large populations of neurons more precisely.

A prominent behavioral method of research, in mice at least, is to activate large structures in the brain and observe the aggregate behavioral effect. However, it is unlikely that all of these neurons are responsible for the same signal, so this approach may be too crude. I think new measurement techniques will enable behavioralists to collect large-scale population activity that computationalists can use in order to find subtle differences of function within these structures. Hopefully this collaboration will lead to generating and validating fundamental theories underlying how the brain works.

Currently, I am in the process of developing a method to measure the activity from over 10,000 neurons simultaneously. I hope to validate this technique before I graduate and then apply it to studying large-scale population activity during various behaviors. My future aim is to work closely with computationalists with the hope of discovering fundamental theories of brain function."

Gregory Stevens
BS in Biology

 

I think the future of planetary science is to discover and characterize more and more extra-solar planets, including their orbital configurations, atmospheres, and habitability. This is a challenging task because it requires a solid understanding of how chemistry and physics work on a planetary scale. Learning more about the planets closest to us paves a way toward the understanding of exoplanets that are far beyond our reach, since we can send missions to them. So after graduation, I will join the team for Juno—the spacecraft that will arrive at Jupiter in summer 2016—at JPL. New discoveries about Jupiter will also tell us more about what other planets beyond our solar system could look like."

Cheng Li
PhD in Planetary Science

 

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The Next Big Thing
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We hear from a handful of graduating students to learn what they think will be the next big thing in science and engineering and how their plans reflect those ideas.

Shou Receives Fellowship for Graduate Studies in Germany

Laura Shou, a senior in mathematics, has received a Graduate Study Scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) to pursue a master's degree in Germany. She will spend one year at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München and the Technische Universität München, studying in the theoretical and mathematical physics (TMP) program.

The DAAD is the German national agency for the support of international academic cooperation. The organization aims to promote international academic relations and cooperation by offering mobility programs for students, faculty, and administrators and others in the higher education realm. The Graduate Study Scholarship supports highly qualified American and Canadian students with an opportunity to conduct independent research or complete a full master's degree in Germany. Master's scholarships are granted for 12 months and are eligible for up to a one-year extension in the case of two-year master's programs. Recipients receive a living stipend, health insurance, educational costs, and travel.

"As a math major, I was especially interested in the TMP course because of its focus on the interplay between theoretical physics and mathematics," Shou says. "I would like to use mathematical rigor and analysis to work on problems motivated by physics. The TMP course at the LMU/TUM is one of the few programs focused specifically on mathematical physics. There are many people doing research in mathematical physics there, and the program also regularly offers mathematically rigorous physics classes."

At Caltech, Shou has participated in the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program three times, conducting research with Professor of Mathematics Yi Ni on knot theory and topology, with former postdoctoral fellow Chris Marx (PhD '12) on mathematical physics, and with Professor of Mathematics Nets Katz on analysis. She was the president of the Dance Dance Revolution Club and a member of the Caltech NERF Club and the Caltech Math Club.

Following her year in Germany, Shou will begin the mathematics PhD program at Princeton.

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Shou Receives Fellowship for Studies in Germany
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Senior Laura Shou has received a Graduate Study Scholarship to pursue a master's degree in Germany.

2016 Distinguished Alumnus: Eric Betzig (BS '83)

The 2016 Distinguished Alumni Awards were presented on Saturday, May 21, during the 79th annual Seminar Day. Each week, the Caltech Alumni Association will share a story about a recipient.

In the fall of 1994, Eric Betzig contemplated what he thought might be the end of his scientific career. He had an intriguing idea of how to capture images at incredibly small scales that were beyond the limits of what was then possible—but, having left a successful research position at Bell Labs to focus on raising his newborn child, he lacked the resources to pursue it.

"I decided to publish the idea, just put it out into the scientific world," Betzig said. "And I thought that would pretty much be the end of it. I thought I was done with science."

Hardly. Twenty years later, Betzig's paper, along with a number of significant achievements afterward, was cited in his being awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Read the full story on the Caltech Alumni Association website

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Distinguished Alumnus: Eric Betzig (BS '83)
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Betzig pioneered a method known as single-molecule microscopy, or “nanoscopy,” for which he shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014.

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