Caltech's Decade of Discovery

Published : Sunday, December 22, 2019 | 6:32 AM

As December winds down, Caltech marks not just the end of another year of discovery but the conclusion of a decade of remarkable accomplishments and research breakthroughs.

During this decade, as in previous decades, Caltech scientists and engineers reinvented the landscape of scientific endeavor: from the first detection of gravitational waves and the discovery of evidence for a ninth planet in the solar system; to bold missions to explore and understand the solar system; to the development of new methods to see inside the body and the brain and understand the universe around us; to the invention of devices to improve human health, some taking inspiration from nature; to the initiation of a transformative new effort to support research into the most pressing challenges in environmental sustainability.

Caltech faculty, alumni, and former postdoctoral scholars were also recognized around the world for work that has shaped their respective fields, with 10 new Nobelists added to Caltech’s ranks: Robert G. Edwards (postdoc ’57–’58), 2010, Physiology or Medicine; Sir John B. Gurdon (postdoc ’60), 2012, Physiology or Medicine; Martin Karplus (PhD ’54), 2013, Chemistry; Eric Betzig (BS ’83), 2014, Chemistry; Arthur B. McDonald (PhD ’70), 2015, Physics; Michael Rosbash (BS ’65) and Jeffrey C. Hall (postdoc ’72), 2017, Physiology or Medicine; Barry Barish and Kip Thorne (BS ’62), 2017, Physics; and Frances Arnold, 2018, Chemistry.

And the Institute as whole has taken momentous steps forward: Caltech launched its most ambitious and successful capital campaign; expanded a division and created a new department within higher education; transitioned to a new president; and transformed its Pasadena campus with the addition of five new buildings including the Warren and Katharine Schlinger Laboratory for Chemistry and Chemical Engineering in 2010, the Bechtel Residence in 2018, and the Hameetman Center in 2019, and the renovation and repurposing of several others including the Linde + Robinson Laboratory for Global Environmental Science (2012), the Jorgensen Laboratory (2012), the Charles C. Gates Jr.–Franklin Thomas Laboratory (2015), and the Ronald and Maxine Linde Hall of Mathematics and Physics (2018).

Together, these advances and an enduring commitment to the fearless pursuit of investigation and new understanding helped realize many discoveries across science and engineering. Here is a look at some of those feats.

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UNDERSTANDING THE BRAIN …

Though the brain orchestrates how we experience the world, many questions remain about its complex workings. During the past 10 years, Caltech scientists have discovered how the brain recognizes faces and drives and quenches thirst, and learned about the pathways that govern sleep. A major focus has been on understanding the experience of non-neurotypical individuals, such as those who have autism or those who are missing a brain hemisphere. New realms of neuroscience research were made possible in 2016, when philanthropists Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen announced a gift to establish the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience at Caltech.

… AND BEHAVIOR

Understanding the neural basis of the human experience is exemplified by the study of behavior. In particular, Caltech researchers have examined how individual decision making is affected by group dynamics, timing, loss-aversion, and testosterone, and have shown that consumers will pay more money for things they can touch. They have identified the brain area responsible for fear of losing money, a hormone that promotes trust and cooperation in humans when in risky situations, and studied how people judge trustworthiness just based on looks.

ADVANCING MEDICINE

As modern technology advances, so do the possibilities for treating medical conditions that were previously considered untreatable. Caltech researchers used an electrode array to help a paralyzed patient stand and move his legs voluntarily and developed a novel method for preventing the spread of diseases, contact lenses for preventing blindness in diabetic patients, an app that monitors heart health, gene therapy for repairing nerves in the brain, and a robotic arm controlled by a paralyzed patient’s intent to move. The decade also saw the establishment of the Merkin Institute for Translational Research, which aims to advance medical technologies, and a continued commitment to the Donna and Benjamin M. Rosen Bioengineering Center.

NEW WAYS TO SEE THE BODY

Whether examining the human body or the world around us, we need devices and techniques for seeing things that human eyes cannot. This decade, Caltech researchers developed ways to turn tissue and bones transparent, a microchip that can peer right through many common materials, a laser-sonic scanner that can see breast tumors, and even a method for mapping neurons in the brain.

DIRECTING EVOLUTION

Humans have been directing evolution since we first began turning wolves from fearsome predators into man’s best friend many thousands of years ago. But using the technique of directed evolution invented by Caltech’s Frances Arnold, winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, scientists can precisely tweak the DNA of bacteria for human benefit. Already, using the technique, she and her colleagues have developed bacteria that can create new classes of antibiotics, forge organic silicon molecules, and possess thermostatic control.

LEARNING HOW BACTERIA SHAPE US AND THE WORLD

Microbes inside and outside of the human body are major players in human health and the biosphere. Caltech researchers have linked components of the microbiome to inflammatory bowel disease, Parkinson’s disease, autism, multiple sclerosis, and to the proper working of the immune system. Microbiologists have also discovered how certain bacteria are able to respirate arsenic and methane.

SEEING THE UNIVERSE …

Caltech researchers are developing unprecedented technology to peer into the fabric of the universe. They have discovered super-bright pulsars, a new class of supernovae, and ancient galaxies, as well as helped take the first ever image of a black hole. Computational advances have made it possible to recreate the galaxy in a supercomputer.

… AND HEARING IT

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), which was conceived, built, and is operated by Caltech and MIT, made international headlines in 2016 for the first direct detection of gravitational waves, ripples in space and time predicted a century earlier by Albert Einstein, from the merger of two black holes. For LIGO’s achievements, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne (BS ’62) were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics. Later, LIGO scientists and Caltech-led teams for the first time simultaneously measured gravitational waves and infrared, X-ray, ultraviolet, and radio waves produced during the same cosmic event: the collision of two neutron stars.

PLANETS, PLANETS EVERYWHERE

This decade, Caltech researchers have discovered evidence of planets in some pretty unlikely seeming places—including in our own solar system. These planets have expanded understandings of habitable zones, the area around a parent star where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water; the relationships between planets and their stars; and even of planetary classification itself. Planetary scientists have developed new tools for searching for life elsewhere in the universe and even recruited thousands of citizen scientists to help classify planets.

ON A MISSION

JPL, which Caltech manages for NASA, launched a series of successful missions this decade, even as older missions wound down. In 2012, the Mars Science Laboratory landed on the Red Planet, depositing the roving analytical laboratory Curiosity to search Mars for potentially habitable environments. In 2018, the InSight lander touched down and began drilling into Mars to learn more about the planet’s interior and the formation of all rocky celestial bodies, including Earth and the moon; and in 2016, Juno finally reached the end of a five-year journey to Jupiter and began gathering information about the planet’s origin and evolution. In 2017, Cassini plunged dramatically into Saturn’s atmosphere in the grand finale of its 13-year mission, and in 2018, the two Voyager spacecraft, on a mission that began more than 40 years ago, continued their landmark journey and became the first-ever spacecraft to enter interstellar space.

UNDERSTANDING THE RUMBLING EARTH …

It has been 99 years since the opening of Caltech’s Seismological Laboratory, where Charles Richter and Beno Gutenberg helped develop the science of earthquake detection and measurement. Since then, Caltech scientists and engineers have been at the forefront of earthquake science, using satellite measurements and ground-based data to conduct a detailed study of 2011′s 9.0 Tohoku-Oki earthquake and more recently advanced computing techniques to identify nearly 2 million previously uncatalogued tiny earthquakes that occurred over the past 10 years in Southern California; launching an initiative to blanket the Los Angeles Basin with 25 seismic sensors per square mile; and demonstrating the potential of the Community Seismic Network to detect building shaking. Caltech seismologists also advanced a new technique for high-resolution earthquake monitoring using fiber optic cable, technology that was deployed to track aftershocks from July’s Ridgecrest Earthquake Sequence. The tools of seismology were also applied to detect incoming debris flows in mudslide-prone areas and track how the Southern California area rises and falls in a breathing-like motion as groundwater is pumped in and out of the area.

… AND REVEALING ITS ANCIENT HISTORY

Caltech pulled back the veil on Earth’s ancient history, providing new insight into the metabolisms of dinosaurs by measuring the body temperature of the long-extinct creatures for the first time using their teeth and fossilized eggs. Geobiologists probed the origins of oxygen on earth—an event that made life as we know it possible—and found that a single species of cyanobacteria may be the culprit. New tools developed at Caltech helped to unscramble the oldest sections of the rock record and also showed that the Hadean Eon—a hellish time when nuclear fission occurred naturally on the planet’s surface—may not have been as nuclear as previously believed. And geoscientists studying both Earth and Mars found common ground by exploring features on both planets that appear to be the geologic remnants of megafloods.

CONFRONTING SUSTAINABILITY CHALLENGES

As the world’s population continues to grow, humans will increasingly need to find ways to lessen their impact on the environment. Caltech scientists have been tackling some of these sustainability issues in numerous ways. They have created a solar-powered toilet for the developing world, discovered a new method to speed up atmospheric carbon sequestration, developed new catalysts that could help improve food production through environmentally friendly methods of fertilizer production, and conducted studies that predict how climate change will affect weather phenomena. More recently, Stewart and Lynda Resnick provided a gift of $750 million that will be used to expand the scope and resources of the Resnick Sustainability Institute, and bring together experts to conduct cutting-edge sustainability research in fields as diverse as solar science, climate science, energy, biofuels, decomposable plastics, water and environmental resources, and ecology and biosphere engineering.

CLOSING IN ON CLEAN FUELS

Finding clean, renewable sources of fuel is crucial to the welfare of the environment and the energy needs of generations to come. Inspired by natural photosynthesis, researchers at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis created an “artificial leaf” that takes in carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water to produce hydrogen fuels and others unveiled a method for protecting semiconductors from corrosion, a key hurdle in the development of solar-driven generators that split water to yield hydrogen fuel. Elsewhere on campus, engineers found that the power output of wind turbines can be dramatically increased by optimizing the placement of the turbines; improved the design of existing solar cells by making a new type of flexible solar cell that enhances the absorption of sunlight; tweaked the architecture of solar panels to reduce shadows on the cells, boosting efficiency; and began developing a system to collect sunlight, transform it into electrical power, and wirelessly beam that electricity to Earth.

TAKING DESIGN LESSONS FROM NATURE

Caltech engineers have drawn inspiration and lessons from nature. One researcher built a flying robot bat out of silicon, while another created a freely moving artificial jellyfish using silicon and muscle cells that can swim and create feeding currents. Caltech bioengineers also developed eye implants coated in a material inspired by nanostructures on transparent butterfly wings. Studies of dragonfly larvae led to the invention of a cheaper, longer-lasting prosthetic heart valve that was implanted in its first patient this past July. Many of these advances are occurring at the new 10,000-square-foot Center for Autonomous Systems and Technologies (CAST), opened in 2017, where scientists and researchers from Caltech and JPL work to unite artificial intelligence and robotics to create fully embodied autonomous systems.

BETTER, SAFER, STRONGER MATERIALS

New techniques pioneered at Caltech could produce graphene in a few minutes at room temperature, reduce the chance that jet fuel will explode during a plane crash, and shape light in exotic and complex ways. In addition, Caltech made advances in the creation of nanoarchitected metamaterials—materials whose structures have been engineered at a tiny scale to create unusual properties—producing featherlight but strong materials, non-brittle ceramics and materials that have the ability to change shape in a finely tuned way, and 3-D printing nanoscale metal structures for the first time. Soft deformable materials are making it possible to create robots that do not need batteries or motors and computer logic gates that transmit signals through physical vibrations instead of electricity.

MOLECULAR AND QUANTUM ENGINEERING

Say the word engineering, and it might conjure up big things—bridges, jumbo jets, nuclear power plants—but often, engineered things are also very, very small. Caltech researchers exploring the microscopic and quantum realms developed a device that can weigh a single molecule and DNA robots that can sort molecules; created the world’s smallest Mona Lisa and a miniature reproduction of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night out of folded DNA; and discovered quantum liquid crystals that could be used in computing.

PUSHING THE BOUNDARIES OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

Engineers and scientists at Caltech found novel applications for artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML): vision-learning experts created algorithms that can see and understand images as a human would, from correctly identifying birds from a snapshot to automatically creating an inventory of street trees from satellite and street-level images. Combining AI with drone technology enabled single drones to herd an entire flock of birds away from the airspace of an airport and to overcome the challenge of landing smoothly despite ground-effect turbulence. In a collaboration with Disney Research, engineers developed deep-learning software capable of predicting how audience members will react to a movie based on a few minutes’ worth of observations.

 

This article was republished courtesy of Caltech

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