Launch Points: The Ultimate JPL Walkabout

As JPL has grown and has continued to expand its role in space exploration, the number of buildings on its 177-acre site has increased in tandem. All of the facilities are assigned a number according to the order in which they were built. Buildings 1 through 10 no longer exist, so Building 11, constructed in 1943, is the oldest on JPL’s campus. Building 349, the Arroyo Parking Structure, is the newest.

In 2012, JPL graphic designer Luke Johnson decided to go on a tour of the buildings in numerical order. The walk that he thought he might complete in an afternoon ended up taking him on a 52.2-mile hike over four days. After his walkabout, he collaborated with a team of designers to create a map that is handed out to all new JPL hires. [Click here to download a PDF of the map].

It includes highlights about what can be found in various buildings on campus. For example, the atomic clock housed in Building 298 is one of the world’s most stable clocks.

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Photo: JPL/NASA/Caltech

Memories of Throop

Long before ducks made their nests among turtles and squirrels in what is now known as Throop Memorial Garden, the very first building on the Caltech campus called that space home. Where there are now ponds stood the pillars of what was called Pasadena Hall, built in the early 20th century. The building held up by those pillars was renamed Throop Hall in 1920—the same year the Throop College of Technology became the California Institute of Technology—to honor the school’s founder, Amos G. Throop.

When the building opened in 1910—jam-packed with classrooms, laboratories, and administrative offices—it was said to be earthquake proof. The 6.6 San Fernando temblor of 1971 seemed to disprove that notion, leaving behind deep cracks in the facade of the great hall. Engineers, lacking the original construction plans and thus unable to know if the building was likely to be savable, recommended demolition. When a wrecking ball started to smash away at the concrete exterior, however, it revealed large amounts of steel rebar. The building, it turned out, likely could have stood for many more years.

But that was not to be. In 1973 Throop Hall came down, and it was soon replaced by the lush gardens seen on the site today. However, physical reminders of this historic heart of the campus still remain . . . if you know where to look.

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Header photo by HC Van Urfalian

The Starting Line: A Dance to Remember

I met my future wife on a blind date to a Ricketts House barn dance in my sophomore year, arranged by classmate Bill Graham (BS ’59). We became engaged in the middle of our senior year (she was a student at Pomona), and we married the evening I received my BS in physics from Caltech: June 12, 1959. I also was commissioned into the Air Force Reserve at the graduation ceremony. Quite a day! My wife and I recently celebrated our 55th wedding anniversary when we made a trip to Pasadena for my 55th class reunion.

—Phil Harriman, BS ’59

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Photo: Wikipedia/Anthony 22

The Starting Line: A Passion for Stats

Unusual for Caltech, what started for me was a career in sports, one that now has me in the front office of the Sacramento Kings. In the last years of high school, the annual Bill James Baseball Abstract was my link between sports and numbers. Those books had me thinking when I entered Tech about how to scientifically break down sports using statistics. In my freshman year, math professor Gary Lorden showed me how James calculated the chances that the Detroit Tigers would have a 36-4 record after 40 games given their previous performance. Conversations with my freshman advisor, Peter Haff, about the physics and statistics of basketball encouraged me to apply what I was learning at Tech to sports.

And so, as finals wound down in my freshman year, I decided to systematically chart the NBA Finals that were occurring at the same time. The system I developed would ultimately form the basis for much of the basketball analytics that are now used across

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The Starting Line: A Musical Journey

While Caltech certainly enhanced my scientific curiosity, it was my interests in music and musical theater that found their origins at Caltech. Never having done any musical activities in high school, I was plunged into the annual Caltech musical my sophomore year (Guys and Dolls), getting one of the leads, Nathan Detroit—a surprise given my utter lack of acting experience. But with the help of our exceptional director, Shirley Marneus, and the wonderful support of all the other cast and crew, I had an absolutely and indescribably marvelous time. I then went on to be in the musicals for my following two years at Caltech, as well as joining the Glee Club.

I can honestly say that those experiences in the musicals had as much of an impact on me as my classes. I learned how to focus on the moment, learn from those around me, communicate my thoughts, and assimilate information coming in from multiple places at the same time, as well as how to give of myself emotionally to others. Learning how to effectively communicate my thoughts and feelings in a larger setting has been indispensable to me in my current lectures to students as a professor of cell biology. When I think of the things that helped me to develop at Caltech, I think of my peers, my classes, my professors . . .and the musicals.

—Stan Cohn, BS ’79

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Launch Points: Mission: Communication

When engineers at JPL first started considering how to bring data back from planetary spacecraft in 1958, the first thing they did was ask Caltech astronomer John Bolton for a survey of the state of the art in radio telescope technology. They knew that in order to track spacecraft, they were going to be seeking relatively faint signals from space—just the type of thing radio astronomers were doing. Bolton had just written a paper on the topic that had not yet been published and was able to immediately provide the engineers with the information they needed to start piecing together a network that could help them track and keep in touch with spacecraft continuously as Earth continued to rotate.

Today, JPL operates what is known as the Deep Space Network (DSN), with locations near Madrid, Spain; near Canberra, Australia; and at Goldstone, California. With multiple antennas at each location, the DSN supports all interplanetary spacecraft missions and some Earth-orbiting missions, providing a crucial link between Earth and our robotic emissaries in space.

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Photo: Courtesy NASA/JPL/Caltech

They Came From Outer Space

While more than 4,900 minerals have been identified on Earth, at present only about 65 such substances have been identified that are believed to have first existed in the cloud, called the solar nebula, from which the planets of our solar system were formed.

“As our solar system started to develop about 4.6 billion years ago, high-temperature minerals arose when condensation processes turned some gasses into solids,” explains Ma. “These refractory minerals—meaning they are the first solar solids and formed at high temperatures—along with presolar grains mark the very beginning of mineral evolution at the very beginning of our solar system, and also mark my proudest contribution to science.”

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Photo by HC Van Urfalian

X-Ray Vision

In the past, the calculations needed 
to interpret X-ray diffraction patterns and solve molecular structures were the most time-consuming part of crystallography. Now, X-ray technology is constantly improving, with better detectors and with beams that can be controlled with greater and greater precision, allowing researchers to analyze bigger and more complex structures. Computers now take less than a second to do the math that once took weeks 
by hand. These advances have made crystallography nearly limitless in its potential, Andre Hoelz says. Researchers can study as complex a system as they wish. “We pick a project and we make it happen,” he says.

To aid in their experiments, Caltech researchers have access to the Molecular Observatory, which includes an automated X-ray beam line at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory. The campus also has its own in-house macromolecular X-ray crystallography facility. The Macromolecular Crystallization Laboratory in the Beckman Institute provides automated and robotic facilities (yes, there are actual robots) to help researchers prepare their samples efficiently.

Such automated methods allow researchers to do experiments with much less sample material than before, and thus to solve more challenging problems. According to Bil Clemons, in the roughly 15 years since he started doing crystallography the amount of sample protein needed has dropped 
by about 20-fold. Still, preparing
 and crystallizing samples is laborious, and is the hardest part of crystallography today.

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 Header Photo by Thomas Spatzal and Doug Rees

The Starting Line: A Collaborative Start-Up

In 2014, fellow alumna Vanessa Burns, (BS ’11) and I cofounded LumosTech, a start-up based on technology that hacks the body’s master circadian regulator to treat jet lag and other circadian-rhythm disorders.

My experience as a TA at Caltech was part of the inspiration for founding LumosTech. I noticed that the hormonally late-shifted circadian rhythms of my students—people in their teens and early twenties—combined with the night-owl undergraduate culture at Caltech, made early class times suboptimal for learning. As a result, I held my recitation section in the evening and found that my students were much more animated and engaged than at the morning lecture. While college culture is relatively forgiving to late chronotypes, or night owls, the modern workplace is rarely so accommodating, and many people find it difficult to go to bed early enough to get a full seven to eight hours of sleep before they need to wake up for their morning commute to work.

Using millisecond pulses of light, the smart sleep mask we are developing can shift your circadian rhythm while you sleep, using the same neural pathways as natural light in a way that is optimized to your sleep schedule through a companion smartphone app. Collaborating with another Techer has been awesome, and I credit much of our success so far to the close and productive working relationship we have. Our experiences at Caltech significantly shaped our ability to develop and manage an early-stage tech start-up. We built our own prototypes, analyzed the scientific literature, and developed a business plan that we could pitch to investors. Without the skills and perseverance we learned as Caltech students, we would not have been able to overcome the many obstacles facing a start-up.

—Kristin Rule Gleitsman, PhD ’10

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The Starting Line: A Place to Gather

When I visit Caltech and see the Red Door Café, I am proud 
to remember helping to get it started. Costas Synolakis (BS ’78, MS ’79, PhD ’86) suggested the idea of creating a grad-student coffeehouse in the first place. The late L. Bruce Kahl, MD, then the head of Counseling Services, agreed that grad students needed a place to meet. Astrid Howard (MS ’83) came up with the great name. Morgan Gopnik (MS ’82) did more of the work than anyone else, including painting the door red. As for me, my role was 
to get the project off the ground: once we had a committee together, I got the permission and the money to get the coffeehouse started. I also remember buying the first, home-level espresso machine—and then its replacement restaurant-grade model.

It all started on the second floor
 of Winnett, which had a few student offices, the Caltech Y, and two meeting rooms. We somehow negotiated to get an office next to a meeting room, and 
a split door was put in between the two, along with a service counter. I still remember vividly when Astrid suggested that we paint the door red. That was not too well received, but then she added if we did that we could call it the Red Door Café. Everyone liked that, and the name was set.

In the beginning, you could get coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, as well as homemade desserts. We had some paid staffing, but most counter duty was handled by volunteers.

The Red Door was a place that grad students hung out at; it was sometimes visited by undergrads but not very much by faculty. Before it got started, grad students only tended to know the other students in their department. This was one small way that grad students could meet outside of their direct professional activities, and I think it was helpful in making Caltech a more human place for us.

—Brian Toby, PhD ’87

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Photo: Jenny K. Somerville

The Starting Line: A Cube Competition

The summer between my freshman and sophomore years, my brother learned to solve a Rubik’s Cube. After a two-hour teaching session, I too could solve the Rubik’s Cube—in 10 minutes and with a sheet of notes. I became quite dedicated during my sophomore year, to the detriment of my Ph 12a final exam, and practiced more hours than I should have to bring those 10 minutes down to 30 seconds. Soon, my housemates in Fleming had joined me in my new hobby—Mithun Diwakar (BS ’06) and Mark Polinkovsky (BS ’06) were particularly involved—and the Rubik’s Cube craze spread to other communities at Caltech. I played violin in the Caltech orchestra, and fellow musicians Leyan Lo (BS ’07) and Shelley Chang (BS ’07) quickly became hooked on the cube as well. We had all become “speed cubers”—poor souls addicted to the art of solving the Rubik’s Cube faster.

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Photo: Jenny K. Somerville

Launch Points: Got There First

Since its serendipitous yet second-place showing in the satellite space race set JPL on its current course of planetary missions, the lab has seen a lot of firsts. These missions, designed, built, and managed by JPL, propelled inaugural visits to Venus, Mars, Neptune, Uranus, and interstellar space.

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Photo of Mariner 2: Courtesy NASA/JPL