Steven C. Frautschi, professor of theoretical physics, emeritus, at Caltech, has been awarded the Richard P. Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching—Caltech's most prestigious teaching honor.
Named after Caltech physicist Richard P. Feynman, the prize is awarded annually to a Caltech professor "who demonstrates, in the broadest sense, unusual ability, creativity, and innovation in undergraduate and graduate classroom or laboratory teaching."
This is the first time the Feynman Prize has been awarded to an emeritus faculty member and also the first time it has been awarded to a teaching assistant.
After screenings around the world, filmmaker
Iram Parveen Bilal (BS ’04) returns to Caltech to speak about her first feature, Josh: Against the Grain.
Following Caltech, Iram Parveen Bilal traversed disciplines to become a filmmaker and activist. For her first feature, Bilal returned to her home country to film Josh: Against the Grain, a mystery thriller set in Karachi. The award-winning film comments on class structures, social movements, and patriotism in Pakistan. Since its first showing in Mumbai in 2012, the film has screened around the world. Bilal speaks about her unique story, and the surprising connections she finds between science and art.
Caltech Alumni Association: What was it like to attend Caltech as an international student?
Iram Parveen Bilal: I came to Caltech when I had just turned seventeen. It was a huge culture shock. I remember going back home after the first term and saying “I want to transfer out,” because it was really hard. I was alone and had no family in the US. But I usually put myself against the harder odds and then I try to win people over. It’s just how my life has been. And Caltech is the kind of place that if you rise to the challenge, it makes you stronger. I eventually found my place at Caltech.
CAA: How did you make the leap from engineering to filmmaking?
IPB: I got into USC and I didn’t know what I was in for. Being this kid who had grown up on Bollywood, and then sitting alongside classmates talking about Citizen Kane, I had this steep learning curve.
And now I’ve gotten to a point where I think, “You don’t have to know all the classic films in order to be a filmmaker. You have to make films.” That’s not arrogant; I just feel like I have my own point of view, now.
CAA: Tell us about the film.
IPB: I was working on a documentary about Benazir Bhutto [the 11th Prime Minister of Pakistan] when I heard about a woman who runs food kitchens in Karachi. My producing partner at the time wanted to also make a documentary about her, but I I felt Pakistan had enough documentaries—I wanted to make a fiction film. The script eventually evolved into something different, but that was the genesis.
Josh is a mystery thriller set in Karachi that follows an upper class woman who becomes determined to find out what happened to her missing caretaker. Her journey takes her to a nearby village run by a feudal lord, and in the process endangers herself and others. The story tackles themes of feudalism, youth movements, poverty, and the challenges of trying to do good amidst social unrest.
CAA: What was it like to film in Pakistan?
IPB: It was tough because there was no infrastructure for film, really. There were no equipment houses where you could easily rent. I had access to resources in the US. But as a Pakistani, I was tired of people coming in with foreign crews only to leave. So we took a lot of local media students and trained them. After we wrapped, a lot of films started shooting, hiring many of the crew members we trained. I’m proud that Josh is at the forefront of a new Pakistani wave.
CAA: How have audiences responded to the film?
IPB: When our film was screened in Melbourne, one audience member was so moved by the story of the food kitchen (and the woman who was the genesis of the film), that he launched a fundraiser. He solicited donations from around the world, enough to provide food for a 140 families in Pakistan. I was able to go and help ditribute the food. It was a powerful moment of real humility. I thought, “I had no idea where this story would go and here it is actually translating into change. Here are all these women who are going to be feeding their kids and they have no idea or care who I am. They just want their food ration bags.” That’s the power of story.
CAA: You started in science, but transitioned to art. Do you see any connections between them?
IPB: Both science and art are really about curiosity of the world, and curiosity of human behavior. I think that in making a film—just like in science—your gut instinct is very important. The research that you go through when you’re writing a screenplay, when you’re thinking about characters, and when you’re thinking about emotions, is so similar. You’re absorbing from the world around you. Your evidence is the people you interact with. And then you put forth a hypothesis, which is a character in this environment and this circumstance. What happens? On that level, I feel that writing is very similar to research.
CAA: What advice can you offer to current Caltech students?
IPB: I think when one comes to an institute like Caltech, it’s important to give yourself space and the leverage to study a variety of things. Try and strive for as balanced of an education as you can get here and to expose yourself to as diverse an environment as you can. You never know what will ultimately resonate the most with you.
Where is the water on Mars?
What is inside of a giant planet?
Where might we look for life in and beyond the solar system?
The Science of the Solar System
Explore the solar system using concepts from physics, chemistry, biology, and geology. Learn the latest from Mars, explore the outer solar system, ponder planets outside our solar system, and search for habitability in the universe.
Brown is best known for his discovery of Eris, the largest object found in the solar system in 150 years, and the object which led to the debate and eventual demotion of Pluto from a real planet to a dwarf planet. In 2006 he was named one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People. At Caltech he teaches undergraduate and graduate students, in classes ranging from introductory geology to the formation and evolution of the solar system and has been awarded the Richard P. Feynman Prize, the highest teaching award at Caltech. He was also named one of Wired Online's Top Ten Sexiest Geeks in 2006, the mention of which never ceases to make his wife laugh.
Raymond Weitekamp, a PhD candidate in organic chemistry in Robert Grubb's lab, just released a trippy atmospheric track under the name ingMob. Spin.com calls it "a kaleidoscopic blend of bleeps, warbling keys, and echoing vocals... that may beget comparisons to Animal Collective's woozy day-dreams."
Check it out:
For the past three years, Caltech has sat atop the rankings of the world’s universities published by the Times Higher Education. This week’s cover story features an in-depth look at the Institute, asking the question, “How does a tiny institution create such outsized impact?”
The Caltech Library wants to publish your thesis online
For more than a decade, the Caltech Library has been converting its collection of theses to digital format, to share with researchers around the world. They just need your help.
From the Caltech Library:
The Caltech Library and the Grad Office have been supporting an electronic thesis program since 2002. All PhD graduates have been required to deposit an electronic thesis since 2003. In the print era, a heavily used PhD dissertation was one that was borrowed from the library more than once, EVER. Things have changed. Caltech theses were downloaded more than 1,000,000 times during 2013 and usage has been growing every year for more than a decade.
The library has been working under guidance of the Office of General Counsel to scan and make available all of the Caltech PhDs, regardless of the year in which you received your degree. The thesis database, CaltechTHESIS, has approximately 6,300 PhD theses online currently and more are added all of the time. Not all of the theses have been digitized yet and not all of those that are online can be accessed from off campus, in accordance with copyright law. You, the authors, hold the key to allowing your thesis to be globally available. Depending on graduation date, the Library must have permission from the author to make a thesis available from off campus.
Please consider helping the Library make this part of your Caltech legacy available to the world. Use this web form to provide the necessary permission and, perhaps, some additional information about your thesis, advisor, and committee. The Library will scan, if necessary, and remove access restrictions from theses as quickly as possible following the submission of your information. Depending on the volume of responses it may take several days to process all of the theses.
From the Caltech Archives: footage depicting the construction of the Palomar Observatory.
The Universe from Palomar, 1967
This first film, produced two decades after the opening of the observatory, covers the history of the telescope's construction and operation, featuring appearances by Ira Bowen (who also narrates), Edwin Hubble, Milton Humason, and Bruce Rule, plus additional voice-overs by George McCauley and Melvin Johnson.
The above film drew extensively on this archival 16mm footage taken during the construction.
For more on this and other treasures, visit the Caltech Archives.
Caltech alumna Laurie Leshin (MS '89, PhD '95), has been named the new president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Massachusetts. Leshin, previously the dean of the School of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), will be the first woman to lead WPI in the university's 150-year history.
Both of Leshin's Caltech degrees were in geochemistry. "Laurie did an important thesis measuring the deuterium/hydrogen ratios of martian meteorites that got her off to a strong start in her academic career. Her subsequent contributions as a professor, as a scientist and administrator at NASA, and as an academic leader at RPI have prepared her well for this leadership role," says Caltech interim president and William E. Leonhard Professor of Geology Edward Stolper, who, along with Sam Epstein (Caltech's first Leonhard Professor), coadvised Leshin during her time as a graduate student at Caltech.
After earning her doctoral degree from Caltech in 1995, Leshin worked as a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA, followed by a faculty position as a professor of geological sciences at Arizona State University (ASU). Her research and administrative contributions led to her appointment, in 2005, as director of science exploration at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Leshin joined the faculty at RPI in 2011.
In her administrative position at RPI, she increased the size of the institute faculty while also supporting curriculum changes and interdisciplinary academic initiatives. She also continued her research as a geochemist and space scientist, and served as a member of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Science Team that analyzed data collected by the Curiosity rover to find the evidence of water on the surface of Mars.
"She is a natural leader," says Curiosity project scientist John Grotzinger, Caltech's Fletcher Jones Professor of Geology. "Laurie Leshin is a first-rate scholar with tremendous energy and a deep understanding of planetary science. Her involvement in MSL has been substantial even as she worked as dean at RPI, engaging as a member of two different instrument teams and also serving as a mission strategic planner, helping to integrate Curiosity's complex activities."
When Leshin begins her term as WPI's 16th president on July 1, 2014, she will join a list of at least 11 other Caltech alumni who are currently serving as presidents of colleges, universities, and research institutions around the world.
Written by Jessica Stoller-Conrad
Tech entrepreneur and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian visited Caltech to promote his book Without Their Permission. Caltech students and guests turned out to Hameetman auditorium to hear Ohanian speak about his experience building Reddit into one of the internet's top news sharing sites, with more than 100 million users.
"As Caltech students, you have the tools and the skills to cut out the middle man and change the world," Ohanian said.
Ohanian engaged in a "fireside chat" with former student Greg Tanaka, founder of the startup Bay Sensors in Palo Alto, to speak about how Tanaka's Caltech education has helped to shape his experience as an entrepreneur.
Last winter, Mike Edwards finished his four-year career as Caltech’s career-leading scorer with 1,581 points.
Now he has gone pro.
Edwards, 23, signed a contract with a team known as the Pee Dee Vipers of the Premier Basketball League, based out of Florence, S.C.
He played his first game on Saturday against the West Virginia Angels, coming off the bench to score four points and make two blocks.
The Vipers won the game 123-69.
“It’s all kind of led up to this and now it’s kind of my turn to show what I’ve got and keep improving and to make an impact and learn a lot and have fun too,” said Edwards.
On Monday, when it seemed all eyes were on the Bowl Championship Series national title football game at the Rose Bowl, 100 Caltech undergraduates performed a two-part prank. Early in the morning, the group erected a 2,000-square-foot sign that spelled out "Pasadena" on a hillside overlooking the Rose Bowl. Then, just before the game's halftime, they used 6,300 orange lights to illuminate and transform the sign so that it read "Caltech."
"The scale of this prank is really what makes it amazing," said Caltech senior Julie Jester. "The design had a lot of us, including myself, very worried that we'd be unable to make it so big. On top of the sheer size, we had to figure out how to actually transport everything up the steep, thin, long, and winding trail to the top of the mountain. By putting our heads together we managed to work through all of the issues."
Written by Allison Benter
Martin Karplus was one of three scientists awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for pioneering work on computer programs that simulate complex chemical processes and have revolutionized research in areas from drug discovery to solar energy.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the prize of 8 million crowns ($1.25 million) to Karplus, Michael Levitt, and Arieh Warshel, noting that their work had transformed the modeling of chemical reactions, once done using plastic balls and sticks, and moved it into the computer age.
Born in Austria in 1930, Karplus was a child when his family fled the country's Nazi occupation, emigrating to the United States. He received a BA from Harvard University in 1950, and a PhD from Caltech in 1954, working with two-time Nobel Prize laureate Linus Pauling.
Karplus has made significant contributions to many fields in physical chemistry, including nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, chemical dynamics, quantum chemistry, and, most notably, molecular dynamics simulations of biological macromolecules.
"The work of Karplus, Levitt, and Warshel is ground-breaking in that they managed to make Newton’s classical physics work side-by-side with the fundamentally different quantum physics," the Royal Swedish Academy said in its announcement. "Previously, chemists had to choose to use either or."
Complex chemical reactions, such as how a drug couples to its target protein, were generally understood at the molecular level. To learn what happens at the atomic scale, however, computers are needed to perform mathematically intense quantum theoretical simulations. Karplus, Levitt, and Warshel helped to bridge those models, offering researchers tools to gain a complete view of such interactions at all levels.
“This year's recipients have done important computational and mechanistic work on protein and enzyme catalysis,” said Rudolph Marcus, the Arthur Amos Noyes Professor of Chemistry at Caltech and the 1992 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. “That Karplus was a student of Pauling brings the prize this year close to home.”
Karplus is the Theodore William Richards Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus, at Harvard University and director of the Biophysical Chemistry Laboratory, a joint laboratory of the French National Center for Scientific Research and the University of Strasbourg, France.
This colorized movie from NASA's Cassini mission shows the most complete view yet of Titan's northern land of lakes and seas. Saturn's moon Titan is the only world in our solar system other than Earth that has stable liquid on its surface. The liquid in Titan's lakes and seas is mostly methane and ethane.
The data were obtained by Cassini's radar instrument from 2004 to 2013. In this projection, the north pole is at the center. The view extends down to 50 degrees north latitude. In this color scheme, liquids appear blue and black depending on the way the radar bounced off the surface. Land areas appear yellow to white. A haze was added to simulate the Titan atmosphere.
Kraken Mare, Titan's largest sea, is the body in black and blue that sprawls from just below and to the right of the north pole down to the bottom right. Ligeia Mare, Titan's second largest sea, is a nearly heart-shaped body to the left and above the north pole. Punga Mare is just below the north pole.
The area above and to the left of the north pole is dotted with smaller lakes. Lakes in this area are about 30 miles (50 kilometers) across or less.
Most of the bodies of liquid on Titan occur in the northern hemisphere. In fact nearly all the lakes and seas on Titan fall into a box covering about 600 by 1,100 miles (900 by 1,800 kilometers). Only 3 percent of the liquid at Titan falls outside of this area.
Scientists are trying to identify the geologic processes that are creating large depressions capable of holding major seas in this limited area. A prime suspect is regional extension of the crust, which on Earth leads to the formation of faults creating alternating basins and roughly parallel mountain ranges. This process has shaped the Basin and Range province of the western United States, and during the period of cooler climate 13,000 years ago much of the present state of Nevada was flooded with Lake Lahontan, which (though smaller) bears a strong resemblance to the region of closely packed seas on Titan.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, DC. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The radar instrument was built by JPL and the Italian Space Agency, working with team members from the United States and several European countries.
Henry Schwarcz (PhD ’60) has been made a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for his pioneering development and application of stable isotope analysis for environmental Earth sciences, geoarchaeology and the reconstruction of human history. Schwarcz studies isotopes to better understand everything from temperature to diet during ancient times.
From JPL's Slice of History Blog | Julie Cooper
This photo was taken in November 1960 to show the lightweight balsa wood impact limiter that was to be used in the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Ranger Block II spacecraft design (Rangers 3, 4, and 5). The woman holding the sphere is Systems Design secretary Pat McKibben. The sphere was 65 cm in diameter, and it surrounded a transmitter and a seismometer instrument that was designed by the Caltech Seismological Laboratory. The sphere would separate from the spacecraft shortly before impact and survive the rough landing on the moon. The capsule was also vacuum-filled with a protective fluid to reduce movement during impact. After landing, the instrument was to float to an upright position, then the fluid would be drained out so it could settle and switch on.
In the 2013 issue of Nature, Rob Phillips celebrates Feynman's seminal series as it nears its 50th anniversary.
Over the past three decades, I have asked hundreds of people to name the five or ten books that have meant the most to them. Although Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice tops the list, The Feynman Lectures on Physics is the science title most often cited. That may say something about the kind of readers I talk to, but it is an accurate reflection of the broad reach of this half-century-old scientific classic.
The book was based on a course the Nobel- prizewinning theoretical physicist and polymath Richard Feynman taught from 1961 to 1963, in an attempt to reinvigorate ‘freshman physics’ at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena. In 1964, the course was published as the three-volume The Feynman Lectures on Physics, by Feynman and fellow physicists Matthew Sands and Robert Leighton. With his lectures, Feynman joined a long tradition of famed physicists — such as Max Planck, Arnold Sommerfeld, Wolfgang Pauli and Lev Landau — providing personal grand vistas. Unlike those, Feynman’s vista is ‘elementary’ and joyous — a joy deeply magnified in the audio version.
What makes these lectures timeless? Elementary physics has been taught to undergraduates for nearly a century with relatively little change. Over the past 50 years the subject has been even more static. Textbooks and introductory courses have largely targeted those planning to study medicine and engineers with a focus on formulaic problem-solving and exam preparation, rather than cultivating a wonder for nature and the development of physical intuition.
Superficially, Feynman’s primer touches on the same topics that others do: mechanics, thermodynamics, optics, electricity and magnetism, and modern physics. Beneath this veneer of common cause, his introduction to elementary physics seems to have higher aspirations — the love of nature and a grasp of it through experimentation and reasoning. In Feynman’s hands, even a topic as mundane as projectile motion becomes the story of how Galileo and Newton unlocked the secrets of planetary motion. Feynman’s physics is about simplicity, beauty, unity and analogy, presented with enthusiasm and insight that bursts from the page.
He works this magic even in areas often thought to be the most boring parts of the curriculum. For example, his fascination with the way that Newton's second law of motion, F = ma, can describe the motions of large, composite objects such as galaxies leads intuitively to the profound idea of the centre of mass. Feynman also repeatedly appeals to 'variational' principles based on minimizing quantities such as travel time (pictured). This is seen nowhere more impressively than in the way he develops optics by thinking about the transit of light rays as they pass through various media, whether lenses or the atmosphere. These same ideas return in his treatment of the elliptical motions of planets. When talking about Brownian motion (the random movement of particles in a gas or liquid as they collide with molecules of that medium), he elegantly teaches us the fluctuation–dissipation theorem, which relates how rapidly particles diffuse to the drag force they experience, without ever naming it as such. And he similarly provides an advanced but accessible introduction to elasticity — the likes of which, unfortunately, advanced physics students rarely see even now.
Rob Phillips, Fred and Nancy Morris Professor of Biophysics and Biology
Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature, 2013
Niniane Wang (BS ’98)
To you, it's a holiday greeting card. But to Niniane Wang, it’s a social-media canvas.
Wang is the chief technology officer of Minted, a social-commerce company that discovers artists and graphic designers, curates their creations through online competitions, and then connects them with customers who can personalize these designs to their own tastes and have them produced in the form of wedding invitations, framed art, and more.
We met with Wang near Minted’s headquarters in San Francisco to ask a few questions about her company, her career, and her time at Caltech.
Caltech Alumni Association: Why did you choose Caltech?
Wang: I’m one of those annoying people who loved everything about Caltech, starting with the day I first heard of it, which was when I received the informational brochure called “Ten Little Reasons to Choose Caltech.” It listed the usual things—strong academics, beautiful campus, etc. But inside, it also had a poster that when unfolded read “Ten Big Reasons to Choose Caltech.” Kip Thorne took up a third of it. I remember thinking that was so quirky, different, and adventurous. I knew I wanted to go there.
CAA: Why did you pick computer science?
Wang: A friend of mine said that God “hit her with a brick” one day, and she suddenly knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life. I remember thinking, “I want a brick, too.” But it was a little more subtle for me.
I had just turned 15 when I got to Caltech, so I was young. Before my second term, I sat in my room in Dabney trying to pick courses from the catalog. There were so many in computer science that I wanted to take. To fit them all in, I looked at the schedule and actually tried to calculate the exact time it would take to walk between classes. It was then that I realized I should probably be studying computer science.
CAA: Was there one mentor or one particular class that inspired you?
Wang: Peter Schroeder at the time was quite an imposing professor. His first assignment to us was, “If you don’t know C++, learn it now.” People rise to the level of expectations that you have for them. If you expect they’ll be strong, then they’ll be strong. And I learned C++.
CAA: What’s your favorite memory of Caltech?
Wang: That’s easy. One day, a 20-foot-tall palm tree toppled in the courtyard of Dabney. Someone came up with the bright idea that we could replant it across campus in the middle of Beckman Lawn. So a bunch of us gathered around and picked the tree up. It was incredibly heavy and awkward; the bark of the trunk scratched our hands. As we moved across campus, people would stop and laugh—then 30 seconds later they’d join in. We enlisted almost everyone we saw. We were like this growing amoeba of students drifting our way to Beckman Lawn.
It turns out that it’s really difficult to get a 20-foot tree to stand up. We spent a lot of effort trying to figure out the mechanics—should we use a lever, or have a fulcrum, what physics would be involved? In the end it was pure brute force—and we got the tree to stand up again.
That’s what I love about Caltech, people really celebrate and support one another’s uniqueness. If you want to carry a palm tree across campus, you can find someone to help you.
CAA: What were your first steps after graduation?
Wang: I started my career at Microsoft, where I worked on the game Flight Simulator. I developed rendering mechanisms for clouds, rains, snow, the sky, and other features that were applauded by reviewers and contributed to the success of the game.
I then went to work at Google, where I helped to start their Desktop Search product and led the Gmail ads team. Taking advantage of the company’s “20 percent time” [through which employees were encouraged to devote 20 percent of their time to personal projects], I started Lively, an avatar- and room-building project. Users could create avatars and virtual spaces that they could decorate with wall art made from their Picasa pictures or YouTube videos. Lively was eventually discontinued during one of Google’s refocusing initiatives, but it was a terrific experience.
CAA: Tell us about Minted.
Wang: Minted is a social-commerce company. We are a platform for a global community of artist and graphic designers who submit work into our competitions voted on by customers. It could be in the form of framed art, holiday cards, wedding invitations—almost anything that has a design. The top pieces are then made available for people to customize and purchase, and the original designer gets a commission for every sale.
I met the founder and CEO, Mariam Naficy, through Jeremy Stoppelman [founder of Yelp]. I was originally going to help Minted find a new engineering leader, but I ended up falling in love with the company and decided to do it myself.
CAA: What are the technical challenges that you have had to face?
Wang: Our demographic is very savvy and has high expectations about design. So we want the technology to be smooth, seamless, and fast. On the user-interface side, artists come up with very elaborate elements, such as curvilinear text, that need to be customizable and work in every Web browser. Then, when outputting the high-resolution art file, it needs to be pixel perfect. In the community-and-competition model we employ patent-pending algorithms we have that make sure we get the best crowd-source results.
CAA: How has the response been?
Wang: It’s been very gratifying. Artists have been able to use these tools to produce incredible work, and our customers love the products that they’re able to purchase. In October, we announced a $41-million round of investments. This will enable us to expand our technology capabilities, create new tools for designers, expand product offerings, and reach new audiences.
CAA: What advice do you have to offer entrepreneurs or those interested in pursuing computer science?
Wang: There are two aspects that are important to building a company: First, it’s very important to understand your customer—what types of books they read, their favorite magazines or websites, where they shop, how they interact with their friends and colleagues. You want to understand them as well as you would a relative. Then you can supplement with metrics, measure their behavior, and see how they actually interface with your product.
Computer science has been and remains a very hot field. Skilled programmers are in demand and can have their choice of jobs. I think if someone really enjoys programming they can work to make themselves an attractive engineer for others to hire and partner with.
CAA: Are there resources that Caltech graduates can take advantage of?
Wang: Techers have a very warm bond and will try to help one another out when possible. The Caltech Career Development Center was very helpful to me in lining up interview opportunities. One of my Caltech classmates is working with me at Minted right now.
CAA: It seems that you like being at an intersection of art and technology.
Wang: I just feel a personal calling toward enabling storytelling and self-expression. I think that humankind relates to one another through telling stories. I think that I’ve often wanted to work on products in which people are able to express who they are and tell their own stories.
It's important to focus on something you love. You do your best work that way.