On May 11, Caltech’s Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences celebrated its 90th anniversary with a daylong event featuring 17 alumni speakers whose attendance at Caltech spanned from the ’30s to the present. Reflecting on day-to-day life and studies at their alma mater, they collectively bore witness to an academic community that seeks to foster curiosity, rigorous methodology, and engagement with real-world challenges. Here are just a few of the stories they shared:
Mel Levet (BS ’39, MS ’40), retired research geologist, recounted a time when Caltech’s tuition was a lot cheaper—but so was student labor:
“Tuition at that time, I could not afford. It was $ 300 a year. … But there were some ways to underwrite this. The Institute had an arrangement with the federal government under [Franklin] Delano Roosevelt for his New Deal program, and one of the programs was the NYA [National Youth Administration] designed to help students. One semester I dug dandelions in the Athenaeum lawn. Forty-five cents an hour. Another semester I washed windows in Dabney Lounge. Forty-five cents an hour. While a graduate student, I was a technical assistant to [former Caltech graduate student] George Otto, who was doing a paper on hydrology. And I, as a technical assistant: Forty-five cents an hour.” [Laughter] “But I got to go to Chicago with him and I got to present the paper.”
Walter Munk (BS ’39, MS ’40), professor of geophysics emeritus and a Secretary of the Navy/Chief of Naval Operations Oceanography Chair at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, described how—as a recent graduate of Caltech—he applied his knowledge of oceanography to help the Allies during World War II. After watching the military practice an amphibian landing in preparation for the liberation of Northwest Africa from the Axis, he noted that the landing craft could not safely reach the shore if waves exceeded 5 feet. Subsequent research revealed to Munk that during the winter, on average, waves in Northwest Africa exceeded 6 feet:
“In my despair, I telephoned [oceanographer Harald U.] Sverdrup, whom I’d gotten to know at Scripps, and said, ‘Please come out and spend a few days with me.’ … And we talked for about three or four days about how would you go about predicting waves. Of course, you know, it’s utterly routine these days. … But I’m convinced it had never been done at the time. And we sort of outlined the procedure. … It seemed doable, and we eventually organized classes at La Jolla for air corps—Army Air Corps—and Navy officers to learn about wave predictions in preparations to the landing in Northwest Africa. … After our first class, we had to completely rewrite our notes because we had learned more from the class than they had learned from us. … But we graduated about a hundred officers who were good in waves in particular, and in oceanographic predictions in general.”
Hugh Taylor (BS ’54, PhD ’59), Robert P. Sharp Professor of Geology, Emeritus, recounted how a changing of the guard at GPS following the death of paleontologist and former division chair Chester Stock shifted the entire nature and focus of the division—and how legendary teacher and subsequent GPS chair Robert Sharp (BS ’34, MS ’35) opened the world of geology to him:
“I assume that Bob negotiated … to make Caltech geology more quantitative. It was very clear that that was on Bob Sharp’s mind at that particular time. … We were very quantitative in geophysics, but that was particularly seismology. We weren’t quantitative in geology or geochemistry. In fact, there was no geochemistry at all. … All of the sudden, in my sophomore year, things started to change.
I took Bob Sharp’s course for the first time as a beginning sophomore. And it was just great. He certainly was one of the US’s greatest teachers. I decided then and there … this is for me! You can make a living doing what other people do on their vacations!”
Taylor, who has been a member of Caltech’s faculty since graduating in 1959, was named Robert P. Sharp Professor of Geology in 1981.
Ashwin Vasavada (PhD ’98), Mars Science Laboratory project scientist, showed the audience a picture that had inspired him as a student of engineers from the Mariner 4 mission to Mars in the ’60s.
“This is what I always aspired to be at Caltech: in a room like this, Mariner 4, the first pictures from Mars coming down. And I would just be mesmerized by pictures like this of young Bruce Murray and Bob Sharp. And for me, in the ’90s, being a planetary scientist was an incredible time because it was all the people who founded the division and the option of planetary science and the field itself well all down the hall and yet the new people were coming in as well.
“It was wonderful to be at the division at a time when people were still there from the past and you could see people like Mike Brown getting hired, and now every day get to work with the new generation, all of the Caltech students who are involved in the Curiosity Mission.”
Kirsten Siebach (PhD ’16) described the challenges and rewards of living on “Mars time” (a 24-hour-and-40-minute cycle) with the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover mission with John Grotzinger, now division chair and Fletcher Jones Professor of Geology. Working while the rover sat in the dark of night on Mars, they developed orders that the rover could execute during the following Martian day:
“It may be the middle of the night, but when you get a group of expert scientists together from all these different disciplines, you’re bound to have this intellectual conversation, this group dynamic that’s similar to what we’ve discussed at Caltech. … You have a small community [that is] intellectually driven—curiosity driven. … And when you have this whole group and it’s the middle of the night and you’re on Mars time and all the windows are blacked out, if anyone has the right idea, if anyone has a good idea, then that idea is respected for what it is.”
In fairness, Michael Mazza, a first-year Caltech graduate student, did warn the fourth-grade class at Cleveland Elementary School that science “can be messy.”
Conducting an experiment to extract DNA from plant cells, the kids enthusiastically squished strawberries in plastic baggies filled with a detergent-alcohol solution—creating a sticky red mixture that many children soon dribbled on themselves and their tables. But by the end of the lesson, each student was able to show off a vial of distilled DNA they had created and, in spite of the mess—or maybe a little bit because of it—they were thrilled to be able to do real science themselves.
“I love their enthusiasm,” says Mazza, who studies chemistry and chemical engineering. “I love that so many of the students are excited for science every Wednesday.”
Mazza is one of several Caltech grad students and postdocs who volunteer at Cleveland Elementary as part of a program called Science Wednesdays, which provides weekly hands-on science lessons for all the grades at the K-5 Pasadena school.
The program began in January when the school—a science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) magnet campus—was unable to fill a position for a half-time STEAM coach. School principal Debra Lucas reached out to Caltech for help. The Institute’s Center for Teaching, Learning, & Outreach (CTLO) was able to partner with the school and its teachers to provide specialized instruction and demonstrations.
Lucas says the program has been a success not only because it allows the children to learn science from actual scientists, but also because the scientists “talk about their personal journey and what makes them curious and want to learn more. That brings relevance to our students’ lives.”
Fourth-grade teacher Beth Burleson Mortilla, whose class conducted the DNA extraction experiment, says she agrees and lauds the Caltech instructors as great role models who are “contagiously enthusiastic about science.”
She adds, “They are so patient with my students. If an experiment doesn’t work the way they’d planned, they take time to explain to the kids that this happens in science and discuss what they might do differently next time. The program is extremely useful on many levels. It’s great science—often science that I don’t know, so I’m learning right along with the kids.”
Mitch Aiken, CTLO’s associate director for educational outreach, says that the Cleveland students are not the sole beneficiaries of the program. “Our students are getting deep experience with preparing and teaching lessons, developing classroom management techniques, and gaining confidence in their own skills.”
Aiken says that outreach initiatives like Science Wednesdays “are critical to providing opportunities for our scholars to share their work with teachers and younger students, helping Caltech contribute to a more diverse STEM pipeline. This benefits Caltech, our future students, and the larger community of K-12 learners. By helping our students and researchers share their passion for science with these young people, we are supporting the next two generations of scientists.”
A less messy experiment was conducted by Cecelia Sanders, a first-year graduate student in geological and planetary sciences. She coached a Cleveland second-grade class through a different genetics exercise, using envelopes filled with colored snippets of paper that represented dog genes coding for ear shape, tail shape, eye color, coat color, and kind of hair. Choosing one gene from each envelope, students created a paper chain of “DNA” to represent their dog’s characteristics and then drew a picture of their canine.
Sanders appreciates the opportunity to teach in the program for several reasons. “I think it actually makes me a better scientist and thinker,” she says. “You don’t really understand something until you can explain it to a 6-year-old and get them to retain it.”
She adds, “Working with kids—any kind of educational outreach—connects science to humanity. Everybody is born with a sense of wonder and curiosity, and I don’t think there’s anything more important in the world than nurturing that.”
Two NASA astronauts, both with one-of-a-kind career credits, will be honored Friday, May 19, when they are inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. The ceremony will air live on NASA Television and the agency’s website at 1 p.m. EDT. NASA Breaking NewsRead More
Expedition 51 Flight Engineer Jack Fischer of NASA is seen inside the International Space Station in his spacesuit during a fit check, in preparation for a spacewalk on Friday, May 12, 2017. This will be the 200th spacewalk at the station for assembly and maintenance, the ninth spacewalk for NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and the first for Fischer. NASA Image of the DayRead More
Nearly 50 student teams from middle and high schools, colleges and universities in 22 states demonstrated advanced rocketry and engineering skills in NASA’s 2017 Student Launch challenge. Teams spent eight months building and testing rockets designed to fly to an altitude of one mile, deploy an automated parachute system, and safely land for reuse. NASA Image of the DayRead More
The projection of Saturn’s shadow on the rings grows shorter as Saturn’s season advances toward northern summer. NASA Image of the DayRead More
I left The Philippines – quite sadly, I might add – and headed toward Berlin. I had a conference in the city called ITB. It’s essentially the biggest travel conference and trade fair on the planet. It’s massive. Like, overwhelmingly massive. And, it’s a great place to try to make contacts and for finding work […]Read More
It’s almost comical how far I get behind on this blog. Even when I only update it once a destination, I just get way behind. It’s not even that I have an excuse, I just completely forget it exists, to be honest. But, I know that some of you like to read it as a […]Read More
I’m a big fan of returning to places I’ve been before; especially if I wasn’t really feeling them the first time I visited them. I know, it seems backwards. Most people re-visit the places they loved. But, I’m more likely to re-visit places I didn’t feel like I gave my best attention to the first […]Read More
A new movie sequence of images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft shows the view as the spacecraft swooped over Saturn during the first of its Grand Finale dives between the planet and its rings on April 26.
The movie comprises one hour of observations as the spacecraft moved southward over Saturn. It begins with a view of the swirling vortex at the planet’s north pole, then heads past the outer boundary of the hexagon-shaped jet stream and beyond.
“The images from the first pass were great, but we were conservative with the camera settings. We plan to make updates to our observations for a similar opportunity on June 28 that we think will result in even better views,” said Andrew Ingersoll, a member of the Cassini imaging team based at Caltech in Pasadena, California.