Faculty Footnotes

Each year since 1993, the Richard P. Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching is given to a Caltech professor “who demonstrates, in the broadest sense, unusual ability, creativity, and innovation” in teaching. This year’s prize was awarded to Professor of English Kevin Gilmartin, who has taught at Caltech for the past 24 years. Gilmartin was nominated by students in several different disciplines, who praised his enthusiasm and accessibility, his artful handling of classroom discussion and debate, and his patient tutoring in the fine art of writing. The Feynman Prize committee described Gilmartin as “an example to the Institute of the possibilities for engagement, discovery, and growth through classroom teaching.” Here are just a few things that anonymous nominators had to say about Gilmartin:

“Between students and professors there lies an impersonal wall, but Professor Gilmartin bulldozes it down. If I pop into his office without any warning, he’ll talk to me for an hour on anything there is to talk about, from the bike traffic in Pasadena, to how much Jane Austen rocks, to how Aeneas is a jerk.”

“Not only did Professor Gilmartin try to involve all of his students in class discussions, but also he gave us unique opportunities to further our studies. Most memorably, he invited me and my classmates to have dinner with Sinead Morrissey, a contemporary poet whose work we were studying. By the end of that term, I was no longer plagued with self-doubt and decided to pursue a minor in English.”

“Professor Gilmartin is someone with whom I’d spend a day in a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop, sampling exotic teas and coffee and reading poetry. He’s my John Keating (from the Dead Poets’ Society). He’s the one who not only savors how language feels on tongues and develops heart-tugging or heart-emptying stories, but he is also generous to invite us all into that experience.”

Ditch Day: On A Roll

People moving about Caltech’s campus in giant hamster balls made of futuristic materials? It must be Ditch Day 2015. In the photo above, Elliot Simon, then still a junior, runs in front of the Broad Center for the Biological Sciences in a Zorb ball, followed closely by alum David Ding (BS ’14). The stack was themed around the 1980s video game “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?”

The Carmen Sandiego team spent the morning collecting clues via activities that included a laser puzzle, a chemistry demonstration, and the human hamster balls. After lunch, they put the clues together and began a quest across campus to finally catch Carmen Sandiego, played by then senior Daniel Kong (BS ’15), whom the team promptly tied to a tree with duct tape, as tradition dictates. They celebrated their capture (and quick release) of the elusive villain with a trip to Sky Zone, an indoor trampoline park.

Financial Fumbles

As football season starts up again this fall, it’s easy to become envious of football players and their multimillion dollar contracts. But don’t let the mansions and expensive cars fool you: they’re just as likely to go bankrupt as the rest of us, a recent Caltech study says.

In economics, there is a well-known model called the lifecycle hypothesis that describes how people earn, spend, and save money over the course of their lifetimes. The average person’s financial profile generally fits this model: when you’re young, you don’t earn a lot, but you need to beef up your savings for retirement; middle age is when you begin to hit your top earning potential; and when you’re retired, your income is reduced, and you need to start relying on savings.

Economist Colin Camerer and former graduate student Kyle Carlson (PhD ’15) wanted to see if this model held strong even in unusual cases—such as with NFL players who can earn millions of dollars right after college but then be forced into retirement by injuries in their mid-20s.

They collected NFL players’ publicly available football income data and tracked actual bankruptcies of those players. What they found was that although optimal models say that NFL players should theoretically earn enough money in a few years to last them through retirement, in actuality, the players go bankrupt at the same rate as the average person who earns much less. And a player’s career earnings and time in the league had no effect on this bankruptcy risk.

“We know that the hypothesis doesn’t work for these people, but we can’t really say why. There are a lot of ways in which the players are different from typical people,” Carlson says. For example, these athletes are earning large sums of money when they are very young and might be inexperienced in financial planning. Furthermore, their risk-taking behavior on the field may also result in riskier investment decisions in life. So while your favorite player may not fumble on the field, he might drop the ball when it comes to planning for his financial future. —JSC


By the Numbers: Water Conservation

Recognizing the importance of reducing water use in the face of California’s extreme drought, Caltech began addressing the issue well before government regulations were tightened; some of those efforts are described below. For more on how the Institute is working to address the complex challenges around the drought, visit sustainability.caltech.edu.

Meanwhile, here are a few facts about Caltech’s water conservation efforts:

  • Caltech has reduced total water consumption by more than 40 percent in the last 8 years.
  • 10 of the 13 water features on campus use recirculating water.
  • The nine LEED buildings on campus are 30 percent more water-efficient than code requires.
  • 74 percent of grass cover on campus is low water use turf.
  • Caltech currently has 16 water conservation projects in the works.

An Advanced Look

Caltech president Thomas Rosenbaum inspects a vacuum chamber at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) in Hanford, Washington, during a tour lead by observatory head Frederick Raab (right) at the May 19 Advanced LIGO dedication. Inside the chamber, in an ultra-high vacuum environment, several pristine mirrors hang in carefully balanced suspension, directing laser light into the gravitational-wave detector’s 4-kilometer beam paths. LIGO was designed and is operated by Caltech and MIT, with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Advanced LIGO, also funded by the NSF, is expected to begin its first searches for gravitational waves this fall, possibly as you are reading these pages.

The Advanced LIGO Project is a major upgrade that should increase the sensitivity of the detector by a factor of 10 and provide a 1,000-fold increase in the number of astrophysical candidates for gravitational-wave signals. “Advanced LIGO represents a critically important step forward in our continuing effort to understand the extraordinary mysteries of our universe,” said NSF director France Córdova (PhD ’79) at the dedication. “It gives scientists a highly sophisticated instrument for detecting gravitational waves, which we believe carry with them information about their dynamic origins and about the nature of gravity that cannot be obtained by conventional astronomical tools.”


Three Cheers for Science

Last year, Erik Sorto (above) did something he hadn’t been able to do in more than a decade: he lifted a glass to his lips and took a sip. The feat represented an incredible advance not only for Sorto but also for neuroscience. Sorto is paralyzed from the neck down; with the help of a robotic arm and brain implants that assist him in turning his intentions into actual motions, he is now able to sip beverages, offer handshakes, and even play “rock, paper, scissors.”

“I was surprised at how easy it was,” says Sorto about the first time he was able to control a robotic limb. Sorto’s sipping success came as a participant in a clinical trial led by principal investigator Richard Andersen, Caltech’s James G. Boswell Professor of Neuroscience, who has developed implantable neuroprosthetics that create natural and fluid motions by using a person’s intent to move. The results of the trial were published in the May 22 edition of the journal Science.

“When you move your arm, you really don’t think about which muscles to activate and the details of the movement. Instead, you think about the goal of the movement. For example, ‘I want to pick up that cup of water,’” Andersen says. “So in this trial, we were successfully able to decode these actual intents, by asking the subject to simply imagine the movement as a whole, rather than breaking it down into myriad components.”

Andersen and his colleagues were able to improve upon current neuroprosthetics by implanting them in a different brain region—the posterior parietal cortex (PPC). Most current implants target the motor cortex instead. In the clinical trial—designed to test the safety and effectiveness of this new approach—Andersen’s Caltech team collaborated with surgeons at Keck Medicine of USC and the rehabilitation team at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center. The surgeons implanted a pair of small electrode arrays in two parts of Sorto’s PPC. The arrays were connected by cable to a system of computers that processed the signals, decoded what it was Sorto intended to do, and then sent those signals to output devices that included a robotic arm developed by collaborators at Johns Hopkins University.

Once he’d recovered from the surgery, Sorto began learning how to use his thoughts and intentions to control first a computer cursor and then the robotic arm. “This study has been very meaningful to me,” says Sorto. “It gives me great pleasure to be part of the solution for improving paralyzed patients’ lives.” —JSC

Get A Grip

The same forces that give gecko feet their uncanny ability to stick to just about anything may soon help scientists collect space trash. Geckos use tiny hairs that exploit electrostatic attractive forces, called van der Waals forces, for temporary adhesion. Now, researchers at JPL are working on gripping tools inspired by the tiny lizards that might one day be used to grab onto objects in space, like debris or defunct satellites.

“The reliability of van der Waals forces, even in severe environments, makes them particularly useful for space applications,” say Aaron Parness, a JPL robotics researcher who is the principal investigator for the grippers. Recent experiments during brief periods of weightlessness on a test flight showed that the grippers could seize a 20-pound cube as it floated, as well as get a firm hold on a researcher wearing a vest made of spacecraft material panels. The current device, made of adhesive pads, is handheld by researchers during tests, but the long-term goal is to integrate the grippers into a robotic arm.


Earlier this year, a scientific instrument dubbed SPIDER landed in a remote region of Antarctica. Conceived of and built by an international team of scientists, the instrument was launched on a balloon from McMurdo Station on New Year’s Day. Caltech and JPL designed, fabricated, and tested the six refracting telescopes the instrument used to map the thermal afterglow of the Big Bang, also known as the cosmic microwave background (CMB). SPIDER’s goal: to search the CMB for the signal of inflation, an explosive event that, in the first fraction of an instant after the birth of our universe, blew the observable cosmos up from a volume smaller than a single atom. The instrument appears to have performed well during its flight, says Jamie Bock, head of the SPIDER receiver team at Caltech and JPL. “Of course, we won’t know everything until we get the full data back as part of the instrument recovery.”

Photo of SPIDER afloat over Antarctica courtesy of SPIDER team

Techie Talk

Genevieve Bell, Intel’s in-house cultural anthropologist, was this year’s commencement speaker. She studies the various ways in which people use technology—including what they love about it, what frustrates them, what they wish it would do—and processes and shares that information with the designers and engineers at Intel in hopes of creating products that can integrate more seamlessly into our lives. “I think our biggest challenge as technologists is sometimes we forget about people and all of their dimensions. We forget about families and art and love and beauty and poetry, and all that stuff,” Bell says. Her top tip for keeping all of that in mind when working in the technology field? “Read more poetry.”

Here are some other fun facts about the speaker at Caltech’s 121st annual commencement ceremony:

She knows how to get water from frogs.
Bell’s mother was an anthropologist who worked with aboriginal Australians, so Bell spent quite a bit of time in their settlements. Some of their survival techniques have stuck with her in part because they highlight the fact that different people think about and experience the world in different ways. “For me, there was something extraordinary as a kid to be immersed in that radically different worldview than the one I was accustomed to,” says Bell. “It set me on a path of thinking about and paying attention to the ways in which people see the world differently.”

She has an “embarrassingly large” personal collection of more than 5,000 books.
A lifelong avid reader, Bell’s prized possession as a child was her library card, and she read every book in her high school library, alphabetically by author.

Her favorite question to ask herself and colleagues at the end of the day is, “What surprised you today?”
“There’s something in the gift of still being surprised that’s about being curious and allowing that there are things that you don’t know,” she says. “I don’t want to ever become fixed in place or static.”

Photo of Genevieve Bell by J.R. Mankoff


Robots to the Rescue

When disasters strike, first responders—often highly trained emergency medical staff—risk their lives to rescue victims and secure damaged structures. However, an apelike robot named RoboSimian could one day provide a safer alternative.

RoboSimian is JPL’s entry in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge. The competition, motivated by the radiation dangers posed to response crews at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station after a tsunami struck in 2011, challenges teams to design a robot that can perform many of the same emergency procedures as a human rescue worker.

Composed of researchers from JPL, Caltech, and UC Santa Barbara, the RoboSimian team crafted a machine featuring four equally strong and dexterous limbs that allow the robot to drive a vehicle, climb over debris, turn valves, and even cut through walls when instructed by a human operator. At the final competition this June in Pomona, RoboSimian’s performances on these tasks will be judged against at least 10 other competitors. Scoring will also include the competitors’ performance during a surprise task that won’t be revealed until the day of the competition.

Although robotic rescue workers might seem outlandish now, the reality might be closer than we think. Several previous DARPA challenges of the last decade—in which Caltech and JPL have both participated—led directly to advancements in the driverless car technologies that are being explored today.

Photo courtesy of JPL-Caltech

Superhero Physics

One day last year, Spiros Michalakis, a staff researcher at Caltech’s Institute for Quantum Information and Matter, found himself having a serious conversation with actor Paul Rudd about conservation of mass and energy. Rudd stars in this summer’s Marvel flick, Ant-Man, playing a character who steals a suit that shrinks the wearer down to the size of an ant while allowing him to retain his usual strength.

Rudd was part of a team, including writers, producers, and special effects experts working on the film, who met with Michalakis, a quantum physicist, to get his scientific input on various plot points in the script. “The Ant-Man suit has to do a lot of work to keep the hero alive,” says Michalakis. After all, a lot could go wrong if a 160-pound man suddenly became the size of an insect. Everything from his metabolism, to his breathing, to his sight would change (he would see in the ultraviolet).

Then there was the issue of mass. In order for the character to be able to ride on a flying ant (as the original Marvel character did), he would have to lose almost his entire mass. How would one account for that? “I gave them a visually stunning way to represent the loss of mass through energy dissipation,” says Michalakis. “That would lead to nuclear explosions that would destroy the earth, but who is counting?”

The filmmakers identified Michalakis as the expert they needed through the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a program of the National Academy of Sciences aimed at elevating the level of scientific accuracy in Hollywood productions. Michalakis says he doesn’t think the goal should necessarily be to get the science in the movie exactly right but to make some fundamental aspects accurate.

“It is in the conversations after the movie that the fans get into the actual science,” he says. “That’s when the experts should be front and center to answer the questions and to create wonder.”

–Written by Kimm Fesenmaier


Header photo courtesy of Marvel Entertainment/Film Frame

Faculty Footnotes: Konstantin Batygin

By day, Konstantin Batygin (MS ’10, PhD ’12), assistant professor of planetary science, is developing a theoretical understanding of how planetary orbits evolve—from start to finish—by studying the dynamical structure of our own planetary system. By night, he’s the lead singer of a band called The Seventh Season. Earlier this year, Batygin’s impressive research reputation—he had published 21 first-author papers by the age of 28—coupled with his musical interests earned him a spot on the Forbes “30 Under 30” list in the science category, where he’s described as “the next physics rock star.” We asked Batygin for a few other facts that probably don’t appear on his résumé:

He grew up surrounded by scientists in Japan, where his dad was a physicist at a research institution called RIKEN.
“At the time, I had grown to believe that becoming a scientist is simply something that you do when you grow up. However, this had nothing to do with my own career choice as I am now keenly aware that other jobs do exist—for example, one can also become a musician!”

His first trip to Disneyland was with a famous astrophysicist.
“When I was about 10 years old, I had a good friend named Dmitry. I knew Dmitry’s dad studied something related to black holes, but at the time the coolest thing about Dmitry’s dad was that he took us to Disneyland in Tokyo, and we got to go on all the rides, including Space Mountain. My mind was totally blown when I finally realized in grad school that Dmitry’s dad, Nikolai Shakura, was a world-famous astrophysicist who developed the standard theory of disk accretion.”

He met his wife, Olga, on the day he arrived in the United States as a teenager.
“Meeting her that day confirmed what the USA brochure had said: America really is a great country.”

Photo by Lance Hayashida