Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Center for Student Services 360 (Workshop Space) – Center for Student Services

Teaching Quantum Mechanics with Minecraft and Comics

Supernova Caught in the Act by Palomar Transient Factory

Supernovae—stellar explosions—are incredibly energetic, dynamic events. It is easy to imagine that they are uncommon, but the universe is a big place and supernovae are actually fairly routine. The problem with observing supernovae is knowing just when and where one is occurring and being able to point a world-class telescope at it in the hours immediately afterward, when precious data about the supernova's progenitor star is available. Fortunately the intermediate Palomar Transient Factory (iPTF) operated by Caltech scans the sky constantly in search of dramatic astrophysical events. In 2013, it caught a star in the act of exploding.

The iPTF is a robotic observing system mounted on the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope on Palomar Mountain. It has been scanning the sky since February 2013. The iPTF (and its predecessor experiment, the Palomar Transient Factory [PTF], which operated between 2009 and 2012) regularly observes a wide swath of the night sky looking for astronomical objects that are moving and developing quickly, such as comets, asteroids, gamma-ray bursts, and supernovae. Both the earlier PTF and the current iPTF collaborations are led by Shrinivas Kulkarni, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Astronomy and Planetary Science and director of the Caltech Optical Observatories.

Last year the iPTF discovered an object of special interest: a supernova with a spectral signature suggesting that its progenitor star was a Wolf-Rayet star. Massive stars are typically structured like an onion, with the heaviest elements in the core, while lighter elements are layered over them and then frosted, if you will, by a layer of hydrogen gas on the stellar surface. Wolf-Rayet stars, which are unusually large and hot, are exceptions to this rule, being relatively deficient in hydrogen and characterized by strong stellar winds. Astronomers have long wondered if Wolf-Rayet stars are the progenitors of certain types of supernovae, and according to a recent paper published in Nature this is just what the iPTF found in May 2013.

This supernova, SN2013cu, was picked up on a routine sky scan by the iPTF. The on-duty iPTF team member in Israel promptly sounded an alert, asking colleagues at the W. M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea to take a spectral image of the supernova before the sun rose in Hawaii.

When supernovae explode, they briefly ionize the sky immediately around them. The ionized materials rapidly recombine, producing unique spectral features that enable astronomers to get a full picture of the ambient material of a supernova event. This process lasts from minutes to a few days and hence is called a "flash spectrum" of the event. Flash spectrography is a novel observational method developed by Avishay Gal-Yam of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, leader of the team that published the Nature paper.

In the case of SN2013cu, the flash spectrum showed relatively less hydrogen and relatively more nitrogen, suggesting that perhaps the progenitor of the supernova was a nitrogen-rich Wolf-Rayet star. This finding will enable astronomers to better understand the evolution of massive stars and identify potential progenitors of supernovae.

"I could not believe my eyes when I saw those high-ionization features perfectly matching emission lines from a Wolf-Rayet star," says Yi Cao, a graduate student from Caltech who works with Kulkarni. "Our software pipeline efforts were paying off. Now we are working even harder so that we can get flash spectra of many more supernova flavors to probe their progenitor stars."

Above all, the observation of SN2013cu highlights the success of the intermediate Palomar Transient Factory at catching the universe in the act of doing something interesting, something that might merit a second look. Though especially intriguing, SN2013cu is only one of over 2,000 supernovae that PTF/iPTF has detected during its four and a half years of observations. As Kulkarni remarks, "I am proud of how the global iPTF network is working together to invent new techniques enabling entirely new science."

The iPTF is a collaboration between Caltech, Los Alamos National Laboratory, the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, the Oskar Klein Centre, the Weizmann Institute of Science, the TANGO Program of the University System of Taiwan, and the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe.

Coauthors on the paper, "A Wolf-Rayet-like progenitor of supernova SN 2013cu from spectral observations of a wind," include Kulkarni, Cao, Mansi Kasliwal, Daniel Perley, and Assaf Horesh of Caltech; Gal-Yam, I. Arcavi, E. O. Ofek, S. Ben-Ami, A. De Cia, D. Tal, P. M. Vreeswijk, and O. Yaron of the Weizmann Institute of Science; S. B. Cenko of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center; J. C. Wheeler and J. M. Silverman of the University of Texas at Austin; F. Taddia and J. Sollerman of Stockholm University; P. E. Nugent of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; and A. V. Filippenko of UC Berkeley.

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Cynthia Eller
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Research News

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.

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Walter Burke Institute for Theoretical Physics Established at Caltech

Sherman Fairchild Foundation’s $20 million gift will support pioneering fundamental research

Caltech is strengthening its programs in fundamental science with the creation of a new center for theoretical physics named in honor of Caltech life trustee Walter Burke, longtime chairman and president of the Sherman Fairchild Foundation. With the mission of enabling investigation of the most enigmatic workings of nature, from the birth of our universe to the mysterious matter and energy that make up most of the cosmos, to the elusive world of quantum phenomena, the new institute will strengthen Caltech's efforts to attract and cultivate new leaders in theoretical physics. It also will promote innovative thinking and the exchange of ideas through support of research, fellowships, workshops, a distinguished visiting scholars program, and other activities to enhance theoretical physics research and education.

"This is a significant milestone for theoretical physics at Caltech," says Tom Soifer, the Kent and Joyce Kresa Leadership Chair and chair of the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy (PMA), where the new institute will have its academic home. "We expect that the Walter Burke Institute for Theoretical Physics will energize us to make great discoveries and sustain our leading contributions in science." Its inaugural director will be Hirosi Ooguri, Fred Kavli Professor of Theoretical Physics and Mathematics and PMA deputy chair.

Among the institute's first scientific programs will be a workshop on theoretical implications of the BICEP2 telescope observations that captured the world's attention on March 17, 2014, providing a glimpse of the first fractions of a second in the birth of the universe. The BICEP program had its origins at Caltech in 2001, when BICEP2 co-principal investigator Professor Jamie Bock, then a research scientist at Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Brian Keating, a postdoctoral scholar at the Institute, brought their idea for a new telescope to the late Andrew Lange, then Marvin L. Goldberger Professor of Physics at Caltech. The workshop is scheduled for May 16-17.

"During my tenure as a trustee of Caltech, I spent considerable time working with the chairs and faculty of the PMA division and attended a variety of meetings," says Burke. "The back and forth among PMA faculty is amazing to watch: there is a great interchange of minds. With this background, I am especially honored to have my name on this institute."

The Walter Burke Institute for Theoretical Physics has been made possible by a $20 million grant from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation, augmented with $10 million from the Gordon and Betty Moore Matching Program. The new institute also will benefit from the foundation's previous gift of $10 million to endow the Sherman Fairchild postdoctoral fellowship program at Caltech. Since 2001, these fellowships have helped launch the careers of some of today's most successful theoretical physicists.

In addition, Caltech has committed more than $34 million to the Walter Burke Institute for Theoretical Physics from current endowed funds, including eight faculty chairs. This brings the new institute's total endowment to more than $70 million.

The Sherman Fairchild Foundation has partnered with Caltech to advance science research and education for more than 40 years. For example, from 1973 to 1994, the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Scholars Program brought more than 300 outstanding scholars to campus to exchange ideas with Caltech scientists. Over the past 10 years, foundation funding has enabled Caltech to host visits by Stephen Hawking, who developed seminal work on black hole radiation while visiting the Institute as a Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Scholar in 1974.

The foundation also has supported bricks-and-mortar projects, including the construction of Caltech's Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics and Sherman Fairchild Library of Engineering and Applied Science. Additional foundation contributions have advanced path-breaking research initiatives such as Simulation of eXtreme Spacetimes, a Caltech–Cornell project that carries out simulations of warped-spacetime phenomena.

Building on Caltech's leading position in fields such as general relativity, astrophysics, quantum computation, superstring theory, elementary particle theory, and condensed matter theory, the Walter Burke Institute for Theoretical Physics will train generations of theoretical physicists and enable new discoveries that will change not only our view of the world, but also, through their practical applications, our everyday lives.

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Walter Burke Institute for Theoretical Physics Established
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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

50 Years Ago: The First Look at a Dry Mars

In 1964, Caltech astronomy professor Guido Münch and Jet Propulsion Laboratory space scientists Lewis Kaplan and Hyron Spinrad pushed the world's second-largest telescope to its limits and dashed—at least for the next few decades—any hopes of finding liquid water on Mars.

Back in the late 1800s, it was widely assumed that Mars was a planet with abundant water, just like Earth. Astronomers were mapping Mars's polar caps, which advanced and retreated as the seasons changed; a dark "wave," apparently of vegetation, which swept from the pole toward the equator every spring; and even ruler-straight lines that might have been canals dug by an alien civilization. Today, we know that the ice caps grow larger because the winters are cold enough to freeze carbon dioxide right out of Mars's thin air; the seasonal darkening is a wind-driven redistribution of the dust that blankets the planet; and the canals were optical illusions enhanced by wishful thinking.

The notion of a moist Mars began to evaporate at the turn of the 20th century. In 1909, Lick Observatory dispatched a team of astronomers to climb Mount Whitney—whose summit, at 14,500 feet, rises above some four-fifths of Earth's atmospheric water vapor. Pointing a small telescope at Mars, the team measured no water vapor in excess of that in the rarefied air around them, although observatory director William Wallace Campbell cautioned the Associated Press that their technique, "the only method known, is not a sensitive one." Campbell diplomatically noted that "the question of life under these conditions is the biologist's problem rather than the astronomer's."

Bigger telescopes make for more sensitive measurements, and by the 1920s the world's largest telescopes were just north of Pasadena at the Mount Wilson Observatory. In 1926, observatory director Walter Adams and Charles St. John wrote in the Astrophysical Journal that "the quantity of water-vapor in the atmosphere of Mars, area for area, was 6 per cent of that over Mount Wilson . . . This indicates extreme desert conditions over the greater portion of the Martian hemisphere toward us at the time." The 60-inch telescope they used was second in size and power only to the adjacent 100-inch Hooker telescope, with which Adams revisited the question in 1937 and 1939 and revised his figures downward. In 1941 he wrote, "If water vapor lines are present . . . they cannot be more than 5 per cent as strong as in the earth's atmosphere and are probably very much less."

The "lines" Adams referred to are spectral ones. The spectrum of light contains all the colors of the rainbow, plus wavelengths beyond, that we can't see. Every gas in the atmosphere—both Earth's and Mars's—absorbs a specific collection of these colors. Passing the light from a telescope through a device called a spectrograph spreads out the rainbow and reveals the missing wavelengths, allowing the gases that absorbed them to be identified.

In those days, spectra were usually recorded as shades of gray on glass plates coated with a light-sensitive emulsion—essentially the same technique photographer Matthew Brady had used to document the Civil War. Once the plates were developed, the missing wavelengths showed up as black lines that were painstakingly analyzed under a microscope. Each line's location indicated its wavelength, while its darkness and thickness were related to the absorber's abundance. And therein lay the problem: the wide, black blots left on the plate by Earth's dense blanket of air made the thin, faint lines from the tenuous atmosphere of Mars hard to see, let alone measure. The best opportunities to find the lines occur at approximately two-year intervals. Earth travels in a tighter orbit around the sun than Mars does, and as we pass Mars on the inside track our close approach maximizes the apparent difference in our velocities. This shifts Mars's spectrum ever so slightly away from Earth's—if you have an instrument powerful enough to discern the separation.

Unfortunately, some passes are closer than others. When Earth overtook Mars in 1963, the latter was at the point in its orbit most distant from the sun. Although the two planets were as close to each other as they were going to get that time around, the velocity effect was minimized—imagine looking out the window of a moving train at a distant farmhouse instead of the nearby telephone poles. But the Hooker's spectrograph had recently been upgraded; Kaplan and Spinrad were expert spectroscopists; and Münch was a wizard at making very sensitive emulsions, so the trio decided to look for the lines anyway. With little prospect for success, the experiment was allotted a set of low-value nights that began more than two months after Earth had passed Mars and started to pull ahead. At its closest approach, Mars had been 62,000,000 miles away; by the time Münch and company got their turn at the telescope, that distance had nearly doubled. Their telescope was no longer the best available, having been overtaken as the world's largest by the 200-inch Hale telescope at Caltech's Palomar Observatory. Even the weather conspired against them; four nights of work yielded exactly one usable exposure.

But as Münch wrote in the January 1964 issue of the Astrophysical Journal, that "strongly hypersensitized" plate gave "a spectrogram of excellent quality which shows faint but unmistakable lines which have been ascribed to H20 in Mars' atmosphere . . . After comparing our plate with other ones found in the Mount Wilson files, we have convinced ourselves that ours is the spectrogram of Mars with the highest resolving power ever taken."

Even so, the lines were barely strong enough to be usable. The preliminary water-vapor calculation, announced in May 1963, had an error factor of 10. It would take another six months to work out the definitive number—a figure equivalent to 0.01 ± 0.006 per cent of the amount of water vapor over Mount Wilson, and 100 times less than the 6 percent Adams and St. John had referred to as "extreme desert conditions" 40 years earlier. Furthermore, a slightly stronger carbon dioxide line enabled a direct estimate of Mars's atmospheric pressure: 25 millibars (2.5 percent of Earth's surface pressure)—one-quarter of the best previous estimates. (Munch and his collaborators noted in passing that although their value for carbon dioxide was not itself surprising, "what would appear indeed surprising is that the . . . value for the atmospheric pressure [is] so low that CO2 itself becomes a major constituent"—entirely unlike Earth, where nitrogen and oxygen make up 99 percent of the air we breathe.) Based on these results, Mars was now officially as arid as the moon, and nearly as airless.

Confirmation would follow in 1965, when JPL's Mariner 4 became the first spacecraft to visit Mars. The behavior of Mariner's radio signal as the spacecraft passed behind Mars revealed that its actual atmospheric pressure was lower still: 5 to 9 millibars, or less than 1 percent of Earth's. And the 20 televised pictures of Mars's cratered, moonlike surface—some shot from as little as 6,000 miles above it—cemented the comparison.

Professor of Physics Robert Leighton (BS '41, MS '44, PhD '47), who had been the principal investigator on Mariner 4's Television Experiment, as it was called, and Associate Professor of Planetary Science Bruce Murray, a member of the TV team, would use Münch's and Mariner's data as cross-checks on a detailed thermal model of Mars that they wrote for Caltech's IBM 7094 mainframe computer—a pioneering feat in its own right. Their results, published in 1966, correctly predicted that most of Mars's carbon dioxide was actually not in the atmosphere, but instead lay locked up in the polar caps in the form of dry ice; the paper also made the unprecedented suggestion that seasonal advance of each polar cap would freeze out so much carbon dioxide that the atmospheric pressure would drop by as much as 20 percent twice every Mars year. These predictions have since been confirmed many times over, and form part of our basic understanding of how Mars works.

And what of water on present-day Mars, which is where this story began? Leighton and Murray wrote that "considerable quantities of water-ice permafrost may be present in the subsurface of the polar regions" just a few tens of centimeters down—permafrost that was finally discovered in 2002 by JPL's Mars Odyssey mission. 

Writer: 
Douglas Smith
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Friday, May 30, 2014

Caltech Teaching Assistant Training for 2014-2015 Year

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