Before Alice Michel began her senior year at Caltech, the Wikipedia page for her major, geobiology, was a short and rudimentary entry—”woefully incomplete,” according to Michel’s academic advisor, Professor of Geobiology Alex Sessions. “It was a bit of an embarrassment to be part of a scientific field that couldn’t even manage to explain itself on Wikipedia,” he says.
Michel needed to fulfill Caltech’s scientific writing requirement, so she and Sessions decided to expand the Wikipedia entry for geobiology—a relatively new discipline that works at the intersection of life and Earth sciences. The project and article have drawn attention from the Los Angeles Times and the WikiEdu Foundation. We sat down with Michel and Sessions to discuss this unusual project, how it came to be, and its importance for inspiring and educating future geobiologists.
How did you come up with the idea of rewriting the geobiology Wikipedia page?
ALEX SESSIONS: The idea sort of emerged spontaneously one day when we were talking about her courses, and Alice was saying that she was not so excited about taking the required technical writing class because it was focused on engineering. Earlier that week I had noticed that the geobiology Wikipedia page was very brief and focused heavily on just a few idiosyncratic ideas, the kind of thing that makes you think nobody had put much effort into writing. I suggested that Alice could take three units of independent study with me and rewrite the geobiology Wikipedia page to fulfill the technical writing requirement.
ALICE MICHEL: I thought it was a great idea, having seen before that the article was really short and described something a bit different from my impression of geobiology. The article’s “major geobiological events” section jumped from bacteria’s role in the rise of oxygen to dinosaurs’ role in shaping rivers. We felt it needed a bit of filling in with more attention to all of life’s inventions throughout Earth’s history, such as the role of the vast diversity of microbial metabolisms that alter the geochemical environment and affect elemental cycles. Still, it was nice to have the basic framework, and we kept the major events section. One reason I was drawn to geobiology originally was because it is a field encompassing evolution, the history of the earth, the rise of oxygen, and so many more fascinating topics. I think I kind of lost sight of this big picture as I took more focused classes, so it was really good to use this project to take a step back again.
You both have extensive backgrounds in geobiology. Was it challenging to write for a general audience?
MICHEL: It was fun to try to write for the public. Writing a Wikipedia article requires a different tone than your average term paper, one that I hadn’t used probably since high school, so that was simultaneously relaxing and challenging. But at the same time it was intimidating because anyone can read Wikipedia. The hardest part was figuring out what to include and highlight. Hopefully it’s a helpful starting place for the general public and for other geobiologists to add to.
SESSIONS: Geobiology is a relatively new field, and to many outside the field it is not entirely clear what it is all about. People intuitively understand geology, or astronomy, but… geobiology? This is exactly what Wikipedia is so useful for, that quick reference to orient and educate yourself about a subject. One of the biggest challenges Alice faced, though, was that not even the experts agree on what exactly geobiology is. For example, paleontology—the study of fossils—is a clearly related but much older and bigger field. Is geobiology a part of paleontology, or vice versa? So in addition to the challenges of translating scientific concepts for the non-expert reader, there was an important element of trying to find some consensus in a lot of diverging viewpoints, as well as being diplomatic. We didn’t want to alienate anyone in the field.
What was your process in writing the article?
MICHEL: We had weekly meetings to go over the plan, what I had written, or the figures I was thinking about including. It was a great opportunity to get to talk to Professor Sessions about what geobiology means to us and to try to come to some clear definition that captures what geobiology accomplishes as a whole, even though in practice it is a really varied field.
All the professors in the geobiology department helped. To pick which things to include I went back through my notes from Ge 11b (Intro to Geobiology), taught by Professors Fischer and Kirschvink [Woody Fischer, professor of geobiology, and Joseph Kirschvink, Nico and Marilyn Van Wingen Professor of Geobiology]. Delving deeper into each section, I drew on summaries of classes and conversations with everyone in the department and the books that Professor Sessions lent me. The pictures that I used as figures were provided by Professors Sessions and Grotzinger [John Grotzinger, Fletcher Jones Professor of Geology; Ted and Ginger Jenkins Leadership Chair, Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences]. Also, other undergraduates in the division helped me think about parts of geobiology that I wanted to include but didn’t know much about, like geochemistry-relevant aspects, and others helped me proofread it. So it really was a group effort!
What did you learn from the experience?
SESSIONS: For me, there were a couple important lessons learned. First is the true importance of motivation. Alice immediately saw and embraced the benefits of writing an article for public consumption, versus a term paper that only her teacher would read. My sense is that she went far above and beyond the bare minimum effort needed for this assignment, precisely because she was so motivated by the value of what she was producing. Second was how difficult it can be writing about a scientifically technical subject for consumption by a general audience. The cliché really is true, that you don’t realize how little you know until you have to teach it to someone else.
I think this is a great example of just one of the benefits of having such a low student-to-faculty ratio at Caltech. These kinds of direct and creative learning interactions are much more feasible. The whole exercise worked out so well that word spread, and this term I have another GPS student signed up to write another Wikipedia page.
MICHEL: Writing the article was a really fantastic opportunity to get a broader sense of geobiology. I had the chance to think about parts of it that were new to me and revisit which aspects I like the best.
It also got me to consider science in general from the perspective of an outside public who is unaware of what goes on in the basements of these universities, and to try to reason why geobiology might matter. This is hard because it’s always tricky to think about why theories about ancient history are relevant to the public. But I guess I do think they’re relevant. It is important for society to understand a little of what scientists do, and Wikipedia is a nice platform to bridge that gap. It would be really cool if our article helps some high schoolers who are, like I was, confused about but interested in geobiology. I’m really happy and lucky that I got the chance to work on the Wikipedia page, and I hope future students will also get on Wikipedia and make the geobiology article, and others, better!
Planet Nine—the undiscovered planet at the edge of the Solar System that was predicted by the work of Caltech’s Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown in January 2016—appears to be responsible for the unusual tilt of the sun, according to a new study.
The large and distant planet may be adding a wobble to the solar system, giving the appearance that the sun is tilted slightly.
“Because Planet Nine is so massive and has an orbit tilted compared to the other planets, the solar system has no choice but to slowly twist out of alignment,” says Elizabeth Bailey, a graduate student at Caltech and lead author of a study announcing the discovery.
All of the planets orbit in a flat plane with respect to the sun, roughly within a couple degrees of each other. That plane, however, rotates at a six-degree tilt with respect to the sun—giving the appearance that the sun itself is cocked off at an angle. Until now, no one had found a compelling explanation to produce such an effect. “It’s such a deep-rooted mystery and so difficult to explain that people just don’t talk about it,” says Brown, the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy.
Brown and Batygin’s discovery of evidence that the sun is orbited by an as-yet-unseen planet—that is about 10 times the size of Earth with an orbit that is about 20 times farther from the sun on average than Neptune’s—changes the physics. Planet Nine, based on their calculations, appears to orbit at about 30 degrees off from the other planets’ orbital plane—in the process, influencing the orbit of a large population of objects in the Kuiper Belt, which is how Brown and Batygin came to suspect a planet existed there in the first place.
“It continues to amaze us; every time we look carefully we continue to find that Planet Nine explains something about the solar system that had long been a mystery,” says Batygin, an assistant professor of planetary science.
Their findings have been accepted for publication in an upcoming issue of the Astrophysical Journal, and will be presented on October 18 at the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences annual meeting, held in Pasadena.
The tilt of the solar system’s orbital plane has long befuddled astronomers because of the way the planets formed: as a spinning cloud slowly collapsing first into a disk and then into objects orbiting a central star.
Planet Nine’s angular momentum is having an outsized impact on the solar system based on its location and size. A planet’s angular momentum equals the mass of an object multiplied by its distance from the sun, and corresponds with the force that the planet exerts on the overall system’s spin. Because the other planets in the solar system all exist along a flat plane, their angular momentum works to keep the whole disk spinning smoothly.
Planet Nine’s unusual orbit, however, adds a multi-billion-year wobble to that system. Mathematically, given the hypothesized size and distance of Planet Nine, a six-degree tilt fits perfectly, Brown says.
The next question, then, is how did Planet Nine achieve its unusual orbit? Though that remains to be determined, Batygin suggests that the planet may have been ejected from the neighborhood of the gas giants by Jupiter, or perhaps may have been influenced by the gravitational pull of other stellar bodies in the solar system’s extreme past.
For now, Brown and Batygin continue to work with colleagues throughout the world to search the night sky for signs of Planet Nine along the path they predicted in January. That search, Brown says, may take three years or more.
Since 1979, the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) program has allowed undergraduate students to apply the theories they’ve learned in the classroom to address real-world research problems at Caltech, JPL, and a variety of other institutions. It is, says Candace Rypisi, director of the Student-Faculty Programs Office, a true career-shifting opportunity for students as well as a chance for today’s scientists, engineers, and graduate students to pass the proverbial torch to the next generation of researchers.
This past summer, 306 Caltech undergraduates participated in SURF. On October 15, students will present their research at the annual SURF Seminar Day.
If you were to write the life story of a Nobel laureate, you might be forgiven for wanting to make the early morning call and its immediate aftermath the zenith of the story’s arc, followed by little more than a tuxedo, a speech presented before Swedish royalty, and several bottles of champagne.
You’d be wrong, but you’d be forgiven.
For the vast majority of the 34 Caltech faculty and alumni who have together won 35 Nobels—Linus Pauling (PhD ’25) being the Institute’s dual laureate, with a 1954 prize in chemistry and a 1962 peace prize—the award is just the beginning, an avenue-opening, support-generating, idea-spawning opportunity for a second, and sometimes a third or fourth, act. Caltech’s Nobelists have picked up prizes only to switch fields, revisit dead-end questions, or dig deeper into the work that garnered them the award in the first place. They’ve gone birdwatching, fought for recognition of the dangers of radiation to the human body, worked to revamp education, and been named president of the California Institute of Technology.
In other words, they’ve taken the Nobel Prize, and the opportunities and possibilities it affords, and made the very most of them.