The Science of Economics

John Ledyard is an economist, but when he talks about the work that he and his colleagues who study socioeconomic systems at Caltech have completed over the last decade with the support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, he looks to astronomy for an appropriate metaphor. He’s trying to find a way to explain the importance and utility of a suite of software they have developed.

“It’s kind of like building a new, powerful telescope,” Ledyard says. “It’s not that all of the astronomers using that telescope are working on the same thing, but because of the larger telescope, they can all do a lot more, different work. What the Moore Foundation grant enabled us to do was to build a bigger measurement device.”

The new software, along with funding, has enabled researchers to create and run experiments in the lab to test all sorts of market systems involving social interactions—everything from the effect of inequality on tax rates to the best way for the United Nations to auction off pallets of natural rubber in Vietnam.

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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.”

The Sounds of Science: The Brain Imaging Center

“It sounds kind of like a cross between a car alarm and an angry squirrel, with some drums in the background.”328-audio-icon

 Ralph Adolphs, Bren Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and professor of biology, describes the sound of the pulse sequence used for functional imaging of the human brain at Caltech’s Brain Imaging Center.

Header photo by Caltech Conte Center

Doctor of Philosophy

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

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

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

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

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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In Memoriam

Remembering Fred Thompson (1922-2014)

Written by Philip M. Neches BS73ES, PhD83CS, additional material from Peter Szolovits BS70Ph, PhD75ES

Fred Thompson was my undergraduate advisor when I switched my major to Engineering as a junior, and was, with Carver Mead, my PhD thesis advisor. He passed away May 27, 2014, in his 92nd year.

Fred was unusual, even for a Caltech professor. Short and thin, he could resemble a greying Puck when clean-shaven or the Arthurian wizard Merlin in full beard. The Merlin effect worked particularly well when he donned academic regalia for Commencement.

To Fred, the unknown variable was not “x”. Rather, it was “bunny rabbit”. “Why?” his students would ask. Because it was as good as any other name for a variable.

Born Frederick Burtis Thompson on July 26, 1922, Fred served in the Army and worked at Douglas Aircraft during World War II. He earned his bachelors (1946) and masters (1947) degrees at UCLA and his PhD (1951) at Berkeley, all in mathematics. He joined RAND Corporation after finishing his studies under logician Alfred Tarski. At RAND, Fred is credited with inventing discrete event simulation.

While at RAND, Fred worked on a study of what would happen to American cities in the aftermath of a thermonuclear attack. The study sought to provide recommendations on how to prepare emergency services for such an eventuality. When the team developed their answer, Fred was in tears: the destruction would be so devastating that no services would survive, even if a few people did. Fred confronted the unthinkable, and came away a changed person. But this kind of hard-headed analysis eventually led policy makers to a simple conclusion: the only way to win a nuclear war is to never have one.

Mathematical models derived from the bomb models Fred helped develop have been used in recent years to help optimize placement of medical specialists to maximize care delivery and to optimize delivery of emergency medical supplies in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. The models treat the doctors and supplies as the bombs and calculate the number of people affected. Life has its ironies, and Fred would be the first to appreciate them.

Fred moved to GE Research in 1957. While at GE, he began what would become his long-term interest in natural language as the ideal way for people to interact with computers. Fred’s first effort to teach English to a computer was a system called DEACON, developed in the early 1960s.

Fred joined the Caltech faculty in 1965. He advised the computer club as a canny way to recruit a small but dedicated cadre of students to work with him.

He began a collaboration with Bozena Henisz-Dostert, an accomplished linguist and wife of machine translation researcher Leon Dostert. Leon Dostert died in 1971, aged 67. Bozena was a widow at 36. In 1969, Fred and Bozena began a lifelong collaboration which was personal as well as professional; their wedding was the second marriage for each. Together, they pioneered the application of deep linguistic theory to the problem of natural language processing by computer. Working with a generation of Caltech’s best and brightest undergraduate and graduate students, they created REL (Rapidly Extensible Language) in the 1970s and POL (Problem Oriented Language) in the 1980s. The data representation in REL (object – attribute – value – with time spans and open/closed interval markets) foreshadowed today’s semantic web representations.

Bozena was a tall, aristocratic Polish blonde. Fred and Bozena never had children. They raised and showed Borzois: immense Russian wolfhounds. Each dog probably weighed as much as Fred. Bozena walking a pair of them on the streets of Pasadena around the Huntington hotel was a striking sight indeed. Caltech never granted Bozena tenure, despite her accomplishments and reputation as a linguist. Caltech’s treatment of tenure cases for female faculty members in the 1970s was not the Institute’s finest hour. Bozena passed away in 2002.

Fred taught both the most theoretical and the most practical computer science courses at the Institute, long before Caltech had a formal computer science department. In his theory class, students proved the equivalence of a computable function to a recursive language to a Turing machine. In his data analysis class, students got their first appreciation of the growing power of the computer to handle volumes of data in novel and interesting ways. Careers were launched simply by taking Fred’s IS 142 course.

One demonstration of REL went so well that the sponsor thought the whole thing was canned. Fred found out only when he inquired as to why his funding was not renewed. From then on, each demo started with a part that was rehearsed, so it would work, and then an open-ended session, practically guaranteed to run into a bug or an unimplemented feature. That way, the reviewer of the research software knew it was the real thing. Characteristic of Fred, he shared the lesson openly with his students.

As a linguist, mathematician, and philosopher, Fred believed that humans have an internal model of their world. He believed that his model was recursive, therefore computable. People use their internal model to classify and make sense of the data they receive from what they see, hear, and feel. This includes what they read or hear from other people. Without a framework, there is no way to make sense of the input. This theory underpinned his work on computer understanding of human language.

Fred postulated that deep learning, like understanding a new theory of science or a new perspective on life, constituted a change in the internal model, going from one recursive system to another. Further, he postulated that the process of that change was not recursive, that is to say, not computable. Put another way, Fred believed that deep human learning and creativity could never be simulated by a computer. Fred worked in the background for decades to prove this assertion, one that would stand with Gődel’s incompleteness theorem in importance. I’m not sure that he ever did prove his grand theorem.

Fred was one of the three founding professors of the Computer Science department at Caltech in 1976. While Carver Mead and Ivan Sutherland thought about how VLSI would impact how information systems are built, Fred kept the original cadre of seven graduate students focused on what computers were for.

Today, we talk about how computation has so changed how science and engineering are done. We rank computation as the third leg of the stool of the scientific method, along with theory and experiment. The popular term for the field has evolved from Management Information Systems to Decision Support Systems to Business Intelligence Systems to Data Mining to simply Big Data. Fred and his students pioneered the arena starting more than 50 years ahead of the pack.

Fred is survived by his third wife, Carmen Edmond-Thompson of Altadena, CA. They married in 2002, enjoying travel and dancing. They discussed moving to England, where Carmen, a native of Jamaica, grew up. Fred is also survived by two children from his first marriage, Dr. Mary Ann Thompson, Director of Hematology at Vanderbuilt, and Scott Thompson of Chicago. He is also survived by four grandchildren.

Fred was a gentle soul and a gentleman, with an abiding passion for his work and for people he cared about. His warmth and humility complemented a wide-ranging and towering intellect.

Fred viewed his students as his intellectual children. He sought to equip us with a keen sense of inquiry, a taste for large and important problems, and a deep understanding of human realities. Nothing made him happier or prouder than to learn of our success.

Allen E. Puckett (1919-2014)

Allen E. Puckett (PhD ’49), the engineer who helped father the delta- winged airplane, the guided missile, and the communications satellite, passed away at his home in Pacific Palisades, California, on March 31, 2014.

He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering at Harvard (in 1939 and 1941, respectively) before coming to Caltech to pursue his doctorate in aeronautics under Theodore von Kármán, the leading aerodynamicist of the era. Puckett’s PhD thesis, “Supersonic Wave Drag on Thin Airfoils,” laid the foundation for designing the triangular-shaped delta wings found on such diverse aircraft as supersonic fighter jets, the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, and the Space Shuttle orbiter.

Among other honors, Puckett won the Lawrence Sperry Award of the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences (now the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) in 1948. He was named a Caltech Distinguished Alumnus in 1970, the California Manufacturer of the Year in 1980, a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in 1984, and was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President Reagan in 1985. At Caltech, Puckett endowed a chair in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science. Robert McEliece is the Allen E. Puckett Professor and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus; Pietro Perona is the Allen E. Puckett Professor of Electrical Engineering. Caltech’s Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, the building where Puckett spent his time on campus as a grad student, was extensively renovated in 2008. The west end of the third floor now houses the Allen Puckett Laboratory of Computational Fluid Mechanics. Puckett is survived by Marilyn Puckett, his wife of 50 years, five children, six grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren.

Paul H. Patterson (1943-2014)

Paul H. Patterson, the Anne P. and Benjamin F. Biaggini Professor of Biological Sciences, Emeritus, at Caltech, and a neuroscientist and developmental biologist who created novel behavioral models of schizophrenia and autism in mice, died on June 25, 2014.

Born in Chicago in 1943, Patterson stayed in the Midwest for college, graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Grinnell College in Iowa in 1965. From there, he moved east for graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, earning his doctorate under advisor William Lennarz in 1970. In 1983, after more than a decade as a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, Patterson joined the faculty at Caltech.

His research focused on inter- actions between the nervous and immune systems—a connection that was not universally acknowledged in the early days of neuroscience. “Professor Patterson was a pioneer and iconoclast who was not afraid to work outside the scientific mainstream, and who consequently made a number of important and seminal contributions that opened up entire fields of research,” says David Anderson, Seymour Benzer Professor of Biology at Caltech and Patterson’s longtime colleague.

A mouse model he developed has been used to study the environmental factors that influence the symptoms of human neurodevelopmental disorders and has increased awareness of the importance of those influences. Recently, the model informed a possible new therapy to treat schizophrenia- associated hallucinations. In another recent study, Patterson and colleagues demonstrated that the gut microbiome, the diverse collection of bacteria that reside in the intestine, regulates behaviors in a mouse model of autism.

Patterson also contributed to the understanding and treatment of Huntington’s disease, a devastating hereditary neurological disorder, and he was instrumental in developing the Institute’s MD/PhD joint degree program—a collaboration that allows graduate students to combine their Caltech research experience with medical education at UCLA or USC. He is survived by his wife, Carolyn, and his son, Paul.

Frank E. Marble (1918-2014)

Frank E. Marble, the Richard L. and Dorothy M. Hayman Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Professor of Jet Propulsion, Emeritus, at Caltech, passed away on August 11, 2014.

Marble received his bachelor of science degree in 1940 and his master’s degree in 1942, both from the Case Institute of Technology. He then came to Caltech and earned an engineer’s degree in 1947 and a PhD in 1948, with Professor Theodore von Kármán as his advisor. He was hired at Caltech in 1948 as an instructor in aeronautics, became assistant professor of jet propulsion and mechanical engineering in 1949, associate professor in 1953, professor in 1957, and was named Hayman Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Professor of Jet Propulsion in 1980. He retired in 1989.

Marble made major contributions to aerodynamics, combustion, and propulsion, specifically the research and development of gas turbines and rockets. He also was responsible for the training of several generations of scientists in the field of aeronautics.

A member of both the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences, Marble received many honors, including the 1999 Daniel Guggenheim Medal, awarded by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), and the AIAA Combustion Award. Marble was predeceased by Ora Lee, his wife of seven decades.


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

The Humanists: Dehn Gilmore

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

The Humanists: Christopher Hunter

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