Doctor of Philosophy

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by Katie Neith

Growing up in a bookstore that his parents owned in New York City, Gideon Manning was drawn to the books he thought were the most difficult: philosophy texts. And although he started college as a math major, he quickly found his way back to the writings that had caught his eye as a teenager. He went on to earn both a bachelor’s degree and PhD in philosophy.

Manning, who has been on the Caltech faculty since 2007, typically studies the history and philosophy of science and medicine in the 17th and 18th centuries. He not only delves into the lives of important figures of those times—learning the views and thought processes of French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist René Descartes, for instance—but also tries to understand the context in which certain problems were undertaken and ultimately solved.

“I work on the interaction among three major fields—science, medicine, and philosophy—and at their intersection. I consider myself a historian of all three, looking at the ways they influenced each other, the ways they pushed each other forward, and some- times the ways in which they hampered each other,” he explains. “In the early modern period we associate with the ‘scientific revolution,’ you had many physicians who were philosophers, philosophers who were scientists, and physicians who were scientists. Part of what I’m interested in understanding is how these interactions ultimately led to what we recognize today as three very distinct disciplines.”

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Factoring in Behavior

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by Jessica Stoller-Conrad

New medicines may seem to pop up overnight on pharmacy shelves, but the drugs that make it to market have actually gone through a long period of testing. Today, one of the most important steps in this process—the gold standard for testing the efficacy of a treatment—is the randomized controlled trial, or RCT. By randomly assigning eligible patients to either an experimental group that receives the drug or a control group that doesn’t, researchers try to factor out some of the variables that differ among patients— and glean more accurate information about the actual effects of the drug. But the effects of human behavior can still seep into the results of such trials, says Caltech economist Erik Snowberg.

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Talking the Talk

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by Katie Neith

When you consider the transformation of modern human beings over the past 250,000 years, it is clear that both biological evolution and human invention have contributed to our ongoing development as a species. The use of complex language is, of course, a key skill that sets us apart from other animals, and one that many scientists believe is primarily a product of natural selection. But Caltech professor Fiona Cowie, who studies evolutionary biology and linguistics through the lens of philosophy, believes that language is a tool that was originally a product of human ingenuity.

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Tracing the Path of Corruption

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by Jessica Stoller-Conrad

When economic anthropologist Jean Ensminger started her research in a rural African village in 1978, she couldn’t have anticipated the surprising turn her work would take three decades later. Ensminger—who is interested in the impediments to development that stem from poor governance and weak economic institutions—began her work by studying society from the bottom up among the Orma people in Kenya.

This work involved several decades of quantitative data gathering on the economic fortunes and actions of the same households as they reacted to changes in their political economy and as they gradually engaged more with national political institutions and the global market.

Some years after her arrival at Caltech in 2000, a seemingly benign goat-restocking project in the area where Ensminger conducts her studies ultimately caused an unanticipated shift in her research. She was not then aware that the microproject was under the umbrella of a large $230 million World Bank project funding thousands of similar microprojects in villages over most of Kenya.

“This local project was small enough that it was not particularly on my radar, but I kept hearing from villagers that it was causing a lot of conflict because it was riddled with corruption,” she says. Based upon prodding from villagers, Ensminger decided to dig further. Fortuitously, she had just completed her once per decade survey of the local population. Armed with several decades’ worth of socioeconomic data on the same people, she was able to link people’s positions in the socioeconomic hierarchy, including their social network position, to the benefits received as a result of corruption in the project.

In collaboration with Caltech undergraduate Jetson Leder-Luis (Stamps Leadership Scholar), a double major in economics and applied math who graduated in 2014, Ensminger adapted and developed approximately one dozen statistical tests used to detect fraud in the reported data of the World Bank project.

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Valuable Decisions

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by Kimm Fesenmaier

You’ve just finished eating a healthy, balanced meal and are now faced with two dessert options: a slice of ooey, gooey chocolate cake or a nutritious fruit cup. After considering your choices, and with a bit of a sigh, you reach for the fruit cup. It’s not the most exciting decision you will ever make—you make many like it every day. Still, your brain received sensory information and, after a bit, you acted on it. But what happened in between? What transpired in your brain before you actually picked up the more healthful option?

That mysterious in-between is the focus of a fledgling field known as neuroeconomics, or decision neuroscience. Neuroeconomists recognize that while decision making is complex and a bit messy, it is also so central to our daily lives that a better understanding could greatly enhance our grasp of human nature.

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The Write Stuff

Launched in 2007 by English professor Cindy Weinstein, the creative-writer- in-residence program most recently welcomed Irish poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Muldoon to campus, as a complement to English professor Kevin Gilmartin’s course on modern and contemporary Irish literature. The program, which has existed through support from the Provost’s Innovative Teaching Fund, now has ongoing support from the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences through the James Michelin Distinguished Visitor Program.

“Students know the challenges of understanding the universe, from the point of view of chemistry or physics. The writers who come to Caltech will show students how literature addresses these challenges as well,” says Weinstein. “The creative process is both different from and analogous to doing an experiment in a science lab,” she adds. “Students welcome the opportunity to meet someone like Paul who explains how one writes poetry.”

For Muldoon, who visited Gilmartin’s classes and met with students in humanities classes, the experience was equally rewarding. “For writers the idea that anyone might be interested in reading their work at all always comes as a bit of a surprise, and the idea that some of these students might actually have been prepared for the visit is quite heartening,” he says.

Weinstein hopes to have a few visitors each year—one per quarter— to teach or sit in on classes, do public readings, or come for a week and write. “My hope is that Caltech will become known as an excellent place for writers to come and be exposed to really smart students. The goal of this program is that Caltech becomes a destination for creative writers, especially writers whose work demonstrates a link between science and literature,” says Weinstein.

–Andrew Allan

A Webby Universe

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Look up at the sky on a moonless night, and what do you see? If you are feeling poetic, you see “the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow). In a different mood—or if you’ve spent much time around Caltech—you might be more likely to say that you see galaxies, nebulae, quasars, binary star systems, supernovae. But let’s face it: to the naked eye, it’s just stars and more stars, so matchless in their beauty that it is easy to imagine that we see the entire universe spread out before us. The past century of astrophysics has taught us that what we see is but a tiny fraction of what is out there. Dark matter and energy compose 96 percent of our universe. “Bright matter”— the stuff we see—is no more than 1 percent. The rest lies in the intergalactic medium (IGM): what Caltech physicist Chris Martin calls “dim matter.”

Over the past several decades, theorists have predicted that the dim matter of the IGM is a “cosmic web,” with gas flowing through its filaments to feed matter into galaxies. Now, courtesy of Caltech’s Cosmic Web Imager (CWI), designed and built by Martin and his team, we have seen it. Mounted on the 200-inch Hale Telescope at the Palomar Observatory, the CWI has already delivered some appetite-whetting images of the IGM swirling around a quasar and a Lyman-alpha blob (a protogalaxy filled with hydrogen gas). A new, improved version of the CWI is being prepared for the 10-meter telescopes at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. Using these CWI enhancements, Martin hopes to point the imager at what looks like nothing, and see there the filaments of the cosmic web spread far and wide.

—Cynthia Eller

The Humanists: Dehn Gilmore

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Gilmore specializes in 19th-century British and European literature and has a special interest in the relationship between Victorian literature and visual culture. This focus is evidenced in her first book, The Victorian Novel and the Space of Art: Fictional Form on Display (Cambridge, 2013), and her book-in-progress, Large as Life: The Victorians’ Disproportionate Reality, which considers the Victorians’ avid interest in the “ life-sized.” In 2013, Gilmore won the Nineteenth Century Studies Association Article Prize for the best article from any scholarly discipline focusing on any aspect of the 19th century. She came to Caltech in 2009.

When I began teaching, I was a graduate student at Columbia University, where undergraduate students are required to undertake a rigorous “great books” curriculum. This meant that by the time they entered my literature sections, they were primed to murmur knowingly at references to Shakespeare or Herodotus, Euripides or Austen, and to make such references themselves.

Arriving at Caltech, I rapidly discovered that my new students’ knowledge base was entirely—and, in retrospect, unsurprisingly—different. Their most rigorous preparation had usually been scientific and mathematical, so it no longer helped to compare a particular poem to an Elizabethan sonnet, or to say that a novel had been inflected by the author’s reading of Greek tragedies. Though from the outset I appreciated Caltech students’ intense concentration and focus, I initially had difficulty figuring out how to build a web of context and recognition for them. In time, however, I came to appreciate a wholly new set of avenues along which to make connections, and from which I have learned a great deal myself.

It may have been the memorable day when a discussion of Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” turned from consideration of themes of aging and poetic immortality to heated talk of automata, and whether one could in fact make a nightingale “of hammered gold and gold enamelling / To keep a drowsy Emperor awake.” Or it may have been the time a student knocked on my door to shyly admit that he had been trying to work out how Dickens’s complicated multiplot novels would work as computer programs. But regardless of exactly when it happened, at some point the works studied in all my classes—often works I had taught many times before, or even written about—started to seem newly alive to me, full of new dimensions, dynamics, and correspondences.

The results of these teaching experiences have become embedded in my syllabi. My class on major British authors has migrated, over time, into a survey of “the scientific imagination” from Marlowe to McEwan, with stops along the way for writers like Darwin and books like Frankenstein. And my 19th-century classes now always include Sherlock Holmes, whom my students all invariably know better than I do myself.

I have come to appreciate and to value highly my students’ affinities with the great detective of Baker Street—their insatiable curiosity and mastery of what to the outsider can seem like arcane knowledge, and their restless determination to crack the case and to nose out all the clues they can along the way. With the classroom as mystery space and the game afoot we plunge on together.

-D. Gilmore

Making A Splash

If you were to visit the swimming pools on campus any weekend last spring, you would have found a team of Caltech students diligently preparing for competition—but they weren’t tweaking their flip turns and backstrokes. Instead, the members of the Caltech Robotics Team were meeting to fine-tune their latest project—a robotic submarine named Bruce—for the 17th Annual International RoboSub Competition. At the competition, which took place in San Diego in late July, the team was scored based on how many tasks Bruce could complete in 25 minutes. The complex challenges—such as traveling through an underwater gate, finding and hitting different colors of buoys, firing a tiny torpedo at a target, and tracking down the location of a sonar pinger—required collaboration between Bruce’s programming, electrical, and mechanical subteams.

As an added challenge, instead of acting as a remote-controlled vehicle, Bruce had to perform all of these tasks completely autonomously—meaning that the students couldn’t have any communication with their robot during the competition. Before the competition, Bruce was handed over to a professional diver, who switched the robot on and placed it in the water. Then the team had to sit back and wait to see how many tasks Bruce would complete—and if those hours of practice in the Caltech pool were going to pay off. Although Bruce wasn’t a finalist this year, the rookie Caltech team did well, earning the title of “Best New Team” at the competition. And because Bruce is a reusable robot, team members hope that with another year of programming and pool practice they can achieve an even better result next year.

—Jessica Stoller-Conrad

Beating the Heat–and the Stacks

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It’s not every day that you find a group of students traveling through campus dressed as minions from the movie Despicable Me. However, such sightings are par for the course on Ditch Day, an annual spring tradition at Caltech. On that day, Caltech seniors challenge underclass students to solve puzzles or complete complex tasks, called stacks, while the seniors leave campus for the day. This year’s challenges included calibrating a catapult to fling tomatoes at a target, rappelling off the side of Firestone Laboratory, and solving a complex vertical version of sudoku. In the stack pictured above, the underclass “minions” had to fashion a raft out of nothing but cardboard boxes, balloons, and duct tape—and the raft had to successfully float one passenger down the entire length of the Gene Pool. Although falling in the pool meant failing the stack, it was a welcome cooldown: the temperature on May 15—this year’s Ditch Day—was a sweltering 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

—Jessica Stoller-Conrad

Click here to see Caltech’s Ditch Day 2014 photo album on Flickr.

The Humanists: Christopher Hunter

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Hunter came to Caltech in 2010 as an assistant professor of English with a specialization in American literature of the 18th and 19th centuries. He is interested in how the genre of auto- biography developed historically, and is preparing a book titled A New and More Perfect Edition: Reading, Editing, and Publishing Auto-biography in America, 1787–1850. Hunter has been heavily involved in the study of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, which he describes as “the most published, read, and studied memoir of all time.” Hunter is part of a team of scholars now working on a facsimile edition of the original manuscript.

As a high school student I spent a summer at MIT taking classes in calculus, physics, chemistry, engineering, and writing. I was an aspiring astrophysicist—in fact, on a few occasions I came with the Santa Monica Amateur Astronomy Club to talks and star parties here at Caltech. In college I decided to concentrate on comparative literature instead of physics, but I returned to MIT for the next five or six years, first to tutor and later to teach the same summer writing course I myself had taken. Little did I know it was preparing me to return to Caltech! I jumped at the chance when it came, and it has been wonderful to find myself once again in front of classrooms full of STEM majors. Caltech students are brilliant and sharp-eyed, and teaching them has made me a better humanist.

My own work focuses on the history of the book, which means that I’m interested in how the physical form of books, letters, newspapers, and the like affected the meanings of the texts they contain. This approach really resonates with Caltech students, in part because it considers technical and economic questions alongside the cultural and interpretive ones they might expect from an English class. Books are products; they are objects. In Colonial and post- Revolutionary America they were made by craftsmen and craftswomen using tools that would have been recognizable to Johannes Gutenberg, the 15th-century Mainz goldsmith who perfected printing with moveable type. The 19th-century technological innovations that transformed those trades into an industry also dramatically changed the look, availability, and price of books. These changes mattered as much to scientists as they did to writers and readers of literature. One of my goals is to teach my students to see the technical processes at work in the books we study.

That is why, as much as possible, I like to expose my students to rare books and artifacts from the time periods we study. After a few weeks of training in basic bibliography, they can go into the Caltech Archives and generate new insights about its small but extraordinary collection of rare books. Often, they work on texts by scientists they’ve studied in their STEM classes: people like Newton, Kepler, Galileo, and Darwin. These encounters with the history of their own disciplines should help make them better scientists by making them more aware of how knowledge is produced and how it circulates.

-C. Hunter

The Humanists: Catherine Jurca

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Jurca came to Caltech in 1995, though her connection to the Institute goes back much farther (see below). A professor of English, Jurca specializes in 20th-century American novels and classical Hollywood films. Her most recent book, Hollywood 1938: Motion Pictures’ Greatest Year (University of California Press, 2012), looks not just at the movies, but at the entire culture that sprang up around them: how the film industry operated to produce, distribute, and exhibit films and how consumers made them a part of their lives.

My connection to Caltech goes back more than 80 years. My maternal grandfather, an engineer, matriculated here one month before the stock market crash of 1929. My father graduated 30 years later and worked as an aerospace engineer until he retired. As a humanist, I am the family oddity. Nevertheless, Caltech was my dream job: a chance to return home, do my research with maximum resources and minimum interference, and teach bright, disciplined scientists and engineers other interesting, necessary ways of understanding and communicating about the world. My dad gave me pause, though, when he told me the story of a fellow student—one of the smartest in his year—who politely listened to an excellent English lecture on the first day of a freshman humanities course and afterward asked: “What do I need to do in this class to get a D?”

I wondered, would my students feel that way about American literature and film? Do they? No way. Caltech students are overwhelmingly engaged and often quite enthusiastic, both with the specific content of our courses and with the process of developing new tools for analyzing and appreciating the things we study.

My most rewarding classroom experience is a two-term course in classical Hollywood film. The black and white movies we watch, with seamless continuity editing and shamelessly happy endings, are scarcely recognizable as movies to my students. Through a combination of industry history and close analysis of individual films, I get them to consider how and why movies looked the way they did then—and how and why they have changed over time.

My teaching relates closely to my research. A recent project involves an extensive analysis of daily box-office records from the Stanley-Warner theater chain, a unique dataset that is allowing me to discover more about audience choices and how film distribution and exhibition responded to and shaped those choices in the mid-1930s. I would never have dreamed of using the word “dataset,” let alone embarking on a collaboration with an economist, if my Caltech colleagues had not given me the opportunity to learn about the methods and insights of social science history.

Certainly I bring an appreciation of the qualitative aspects of audience behavior to these box-office figures; numbers can’t tell us everything about phenomena. But Caltech has taught me that combining different approaches to knowledge enables a much richer picture of the human experience. In this case, it allows me to not only uncover what historical moviegoers did, but also to see, perhaps, why they made those particular choices.

-C. Jurca