Full Circle Physics

With the help of interviews conducted by IQIM communications coordinator Crystal Dilworth (PhD ’14) and filmmaker Iram Parveen Bilal (BS ’04), E&S has delved into the thinking of several IQIM scientists about the frontiers of quantum science, the role IQIM plays in exploring that frontier, and the question oft thought but rarely spoken: Why should we care? Here—in a “conversation” assembled from separate interviews—are some of their insights into what makes the world of the tiny such a big deal.

Click here to read the full feature.

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.”


The Sounds of Science: Tsunami Waves

“The tsunami causes the ionized gas that is out there to resonate — ‘sing’ or vibrate like a bell.”

 Edward C. Stone, the David Morrisroe Professor of Physics, characterizes the sounds of “tsunami waves” that helped signal Voyager I’s entrance into interstellar space. These waves of pressure are caused by coronal mass ejections from the sun. Stone is the project scientist for the Voyager mission based at Caltech.

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

Launch Points: The Suicide Squad

JPL traces its roots to a small band of young experimenters who started testing their handmade rocket engines in Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco on Halloween day in 1936. The crew initially came together at Caltech, with the core group consisting of Frank Malina (MS ME ’35, MS AE ’36, PhD AE ’40), a graduate student who worked for Theodore von Kármán, then director of GALCIT (at that time the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at Caltech); and two local, self-taught rocket enthusiasts, Jack Parsons and Edward Forman.

According to JPL’s historian, Erik Conway, after the rocketeers completed a number of successful tests in the Arroyo, von Kármán was encouraged enough to give them space for a test facility at Caltech. When the group set off a couple of explosions there, including a detonation that launched a piece of a gauge straight into one of GALCIT’s walls, Conway says, people on campus started referring to them as the Suicide Squad. Soon enough the squad was asked to do their work elsewhere and landed back in the Arroyo, where they leased some land from the city of Pasadena.

The crew went on to secure funding from the National Academy of Sciences to develop what would be known as Jet-Assisted Take-Off (JATO) rockets, which gave airplanes extra oomph while taking off from short runways. That work eventually led, in 1944, to the formation of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Click here for more of JPL’s origin story…

Photo: Courtesy NASA/JPL/Caltech

Strength In Numbers

by Katie Neith

Since its inception, Caltech has been dedicated to under-taking big, risky projects, particularly in the area of exploring our universe. Astronomer George Ellery Hale, one of the men credited with molding the Institute into a world-class science and engineering college, was the primary creative force behind the famed Palomar Observatory. Now, nearly 70 years after the groundbreaking 200-inch Hale Telescope—then the world’s largest—saw first light on that Southern California mountaintop, Caltech, along with the University of California and a group of international partners, is again leading the way toward the construction of what will be the world’s most advanced ground-based telescope, the Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT.

“Thinking big and taking on the world’s largest astronomical telescopes is something we’ve been doing since the 1920s—it’s in our blood, in some sense,” says astronomer Shri Kulkarni, director of Caltech Optical Observatories. Like those observatories that have come before, he says, TMT is an ambitious project of incredible scope, a project that both has been and will be years and years in the making. Alone, the still-ongoing process of planning and developing TMT has taken over a decade. It’s estimated that constructing the telescope, building its instruments, and getting all of its mechanical systems online will take another eight years. The site where TMT will be built was blessed in the traditional Hawaiian manner October 7, and first light is currently planned for the early 2020s.

Click here for more of the story. (PDF)

No Two Alike, But How Different?

When you think of a snowflake, you probably picture something like a stellar dendrite—the classic six-armed branching snow crystal that shows up as a decoration everywhere this time of year. But depending on the classification scheme, there are as many as 80 different types of snow crystals, or snowflakes, out there—and you can begin a basic snowflake search to investigate this in snowy regions with little more than a magnifying glass.

In fact, that’s how Caltech physicist and snowflake guru Ken Libbrecht started his hunt, which has turned into the focus of his research. After happening across a journal article that described a type of snow crystal called a capped column, he wondered why he had never noticed one of the miniature icy thread bobbins falling from the sky in his native North Dakota. The next time he was back home, he grabbed a magnifying glass and went outside to take a closer look. “I saw capped columns. I saw all these different snowflakes,” he says. “It’s very easy. It’s just that I had never looked.”

Since that first foray into snowflake hunting in the late 1990s, Libbrecht has published seven books of snowflake photographs and has spent years in the lab trying to understand the molecular dynamics that dictate how ice crystals grow. For example, snowflakes go from forming in thin, flat plates to growing in long, slender needles when the temperature changes by just a few degrees. You can see this change clearly in the laboratory, yet no one knows exactly why it happens.

Among the less recognizable snowflakes on the chart that Libbrecht uses are hollow columns, which are tiny hexagonal columns with hollow spaces at either end; bullet rosettes, which form when multiple crystals grow columns at various angles from a single ice grain; and double plates, which are similar to capped columns but feature one plate that is much larger than the other.

For more about Ken Libbrecht’s work visit snowcrystals.com

–Kimm Fesenmaier

Risky Business

by Kimm Fesenmaier

In April 2013, NASA announced that it was in the early phases of planning a robotic mission to snag an asteroid and haul it into lunar orbit for study. At the time, NASA chief Charles Bolden said that such an asteroid redirect mission represented “an unprecedented technological feat that will lead to new scientific discoveries and technological capabilities and help protect our home planet.”

To many, the plan sounded farfetched—like something from a Bruce Willis movie. But to those scientists and engineers who had been working out the feasibility of just such a plan since 2011—as part of a study funded by the Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) at Caltech—the idea was already old-hat and anything but Hollywood fluff.

And it was just the kind of thing that KISS is designed to do.

Click here for more of the story. (PDF)

A Webby Universe

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

Core Instability

When massive stars collapse, as they inevitably do, they often then explode into a supernova—but not always. For astrophysicists, it has been a challenge to figure out what drives the explosion after the initial collapse of the core of a massive star. Recently, Caltech postdoctoral scholar Philipp Mösta and professor of theoretical astrophysics Christian Ott simulated the collapse of a three-dimensional rapidly rotating star with a strong magnetic field. They introduced a tiny asymmetric perturbation around the core’s axis of symmetry to see if it had an effect on the star’s explosion. In the simulation illustrated here, the perturbation triggers a “kink instability” that results in two lobes of twisted and highly magnetized material that do not show signs of a runaway explosion— a supernova—at the end of the simulation. “As the material expands, it gets wound in tubes around the spin axis of the star, like water being expelled vigorously from a twisting garden hose left lying on the ground,” says Mösta. More and longer simulations on more powerful supercomputers will be needed to determine the final fate of core collapse in such a rapidly rotating magnetized star.