14 for 2014: The Year in Research News at Caltech

Building a Better Internet, February 2014

Are you dreaming of faster data transmission as you wait for that Netflix movie to load? A group of engineers at Caltech has invented a laser that may help. When data is transmitted across the Internet, it’s carried by laser light, with the speed of transmission dependent on the light’s spectral purity—its adherence to a single frequency. With a 20-times narrower range of frequencies than is standard, the new laser has the potential to carry more information farther and faster than ever before, meaning more bandwidth as data streams to your computer, television, smart phone, or tablet.

Credit: S. Melanie Lee, Zbigniew Mikulski, Sarkis K. Mazmanian

Fighting Disease from the Inside Out, March 2014

Using bacteria to treat bacterial infections may seem counterintuitive, but Caltech biologists are discovering that microbes in the human gut are key to developing the white blood cells that fight disease. In fact, these scientists have already used “good” bacteria to alleviate symptoms related to inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, and even autism in mice. Now the researchers have evidence that it’s also possible to use beneficial bacteria to prepare the immune cells in our blood to fight infections from “bad” bacteria, an idea that could one day reduce our dependence on traditional antibiotics.

Credit: Mikhail Shapiro/Caltech

Improving Ultrasound Technology, April 2014

Innovative science requires creative thinking—being able to envision novel approaches to problem solving, for instance, or imagine how a discovery from one field might be applied to another. This kind of thinking is what enabled Mikhail Shapiro, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Caltech, to develop a method to improve ultrasound imaging. While reading up on the latest chemistry research news, Shapiro came across a mention of gas vesicles—tiny gas-filled structures used by some photosynthetic microorganisms to control buoyancy. It occurred to him that these vesicles might be able to improve on the synthetic microbubbles currently used in creating such ultrasound imaging. His paper describing the first use of these bubbles as an ultrasound enhancement was published in April. It was a perfect project for Shapiro, whose work focuses on different ways of seeing deeper inside the body and brain.

Credit: Christopher Martin, Robert Hurt

Sharpening Our View of the Universe, April 2014

Even with the most sophisticated modern instruments, there is much of the fabric of the universe that astronomers have not been able to see. Enter the Cosmic Web Imager, designed and built at Caltech. The imager used its spectrographic eyes to capture the first three-dimensional pictures of the intergalactic medium—the diffuse gas that not only connects galaxies throughout the universe but also provides the environment for their birth. The Cosmic Web Imager has already detected a possible spiral-galaxy-in-the-making that is three times the size of our Milky Way. Next up for the imager: the search for a new understanding of galactic and intergalactic dynamics.

Driving Solar Fuels Development, May 2014

Finding clean, renewable sources of energy is crucial—not only for the welfare of our environment but also for the needs of future generations to come. For years, researchers have been trying to develop solar-driven generators that can split water, yielding hydrogen gas that could be used as a clean, renewable source of fuel. Problem is, the semiconductors that drive the chemical water-splitting reaction often rust when exposed to water. This year, researchers at Caltech’s Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis unveiled a method for protecting the semiconductors from corrosion, bringing us a step closer to solar fuels generation.

Measuring Beyond Quantum Limits, May 2014

Scientists often grapple with the “standard quantum limit”—the line up to which ultrasensitive measurements can be made before quantum physics and its physical laws begin to interfere. But, this year, a group of Caltech physicists found a way to push that limit, at least when it comes to measuring macroscopic objects. Typically scientists measure such an object by scattering microwaves off of it; the scatter patterns help determine the object’s position and dimensions. At Caltech, researchers invented a device that detects the noise—the slight shaking of the object—that the microwaves produce as they scatter. This allows the researchers to cancel out that noise as they take their measurements, providing even greater precision.

Credit: Philipp Mösta

Modeling Collapsing Stars, May 2014

Observing the surface of a collapsing star doesn’t tell astronomers much about the processes involved—and until now they haven’t had much else to go on. But this year theoretical physicists at Caltech introduced a 3-D model to simulate the changes that take place within massive stars as they collapse. In a departure from previous approaches, the Caltech model assumes asymmetry around the star’s axis of rotation (past efforts assumed perfect symmetry so that modeling could be done on an ordinary computer rather than the kind of supercomputer this 3-D simulation requires). Being able to factor in asymmetry is important because, as Caltech theoretical astrophysicist Christian Ott notes, “Nothing in nature is perfect.” The Caltech model allows astronomers to see how even small asymmetries can have a dramatic effect on the way stars transform as they collapse.

Understanding the Social Mind, July 2014

What makes a wise investor? A group of Caltech social scientists found out earlier this year when they examined the brain activity of traders invested in experimental markets where price bubbles had formed. They identified two distinct types of brain response—the more common one prompting traders to buy aggressively during the bubble (and even after its peak), and one seen in a small fraction of participants, who became nervous and sold their shares even as prices were on the rise. These lucky few, who received the early warning brain signal and got out of the market early, ultimately caused the bubble to burst and earned the most money. The researchers say studies like this illuminate the importance of group dynamics in individual decision making.

Credit: Bin Yang and Viviana Gradinaru/Caltech

Seeing through Tissue, August 2014

Researchers who study the biological underpinnings of development and disease are often limited by their inability to look inside an intact organism to figure out exactly what went wrong and when. Now, thanks to a technique developed at Caltech, scientists can see through tissues, organs, and even an entire body. They have found a way to infuse tissue with a solution of lipid-dissolving detergents and hydrogel that renders it transparent but leaves its structure intact for study. The technique offers new insight into the cell-by-cell makeup of organisms and promises novel diagnostic medical applications.

Credit: Ed Uthman on Flickr

Preventing the Spread of Diseases, September 2014

What if you could provide step-by-step instructions to your body to help it fight influenza or malaria? At Caltech, this is how Nobel Laureate David Baltimore and his colleagues are approaching the eradication of deadly diseases. The method they have developed is called vectored immunoprophylaxis, or VIP. VIP relies on identifying one or more antibodies that are able to prevent infection, then incorporating the genes that encode those antibodies into an adeno-associated virus (AAV), a harmless virus that has been useful in gene-therapy trials. When the AAV is injected into muscle tissue, the genes instruct the tissue to generate the specified antibodies, which can then enter the circulation and protect against infection. The Baltimore lab has shown that VIP can be effective—at least in mice—against HIV (in 2011), influenza (in 2013), and malaria (in August of this year). Today, researchers around the country are using the Caltech-developed technique to try to ward off diseases like hepatitis C and tuberculosis as well.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Studying Super-Earths, October 2014

We know a bit about the planets in our own solar system, but what about the rest of the universe—what might distant planets tell us about our own? At Caltech, astronomers are hoping to find answers by focusing on super-Earths, planets orbiting stars other than the sun that are a larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune. Though hundreds of super-Earths have been identified, few are close enough and orbiting bright enough stars for scientists to be able to characterize them. So Caltech astronomers are homing in on the few they can observe and developing novel techniques to try and determine what they are made of, how they formed, and whether they migrated to their current locations over time. “Super-Earths are at the edge of what we can study right now,” says Heather Knutson, assistant professor of planetary science at Caltech, “and they give us a chance to explore new kinds of worlds with no analog in our own.”

Credit: Courtesy TMT Observatory Corporation

Leading the Thirty Meter Telescope Project, October 2014

Near the summit of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, 14,000 feet above sea level, construction has begun for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). When completed, TMT—which is being built by an international collaboration of institutions that includes Caltech—will be the world’s most advanced optical/near-infrared observatory, offering the highest-definition views ever achieved of planets orbiting nearby stars as well as galaxies in the distant universe. Astronomers hope it will shed light on fundamental questions about the characteristics of exoplanets, how stars are born, and the composition and expansion of the universe, among other elusive cosmic mysteries. TMT is expected to begin operation in the early 2020s.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Discovering Impossibly Bright Dead Stars, October 2014

A Caltech-led team of astronomers working with NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) has found a pulsating dead star beaming with the energy of about 10 million suns. The object, previously thought to be a black hole because it is so powerful, is in fact a pulsar—the incredibly dense rotating remains of a star. The discovery was both unexpected (researchers were looking at something else in the sky when they noticed the pulsar) and surprising, as the pulsar’s brightness is many times higher than theory suggests an object of its mass should be. They hope that this finding will help scientists better understand a class of very bright X-ray sources, called ultraluminous X-ray sources.

Credit: Andrew Thompson/Caltech

Studying Polar Ice with Robotic Gliders, November 2014

The melting of West Antarctica’s glaciers—and its potentially devastating effect on the environment—may be caused by the presence of warmer water near the coastline. But oceanographers have puzzled over how the water gets there—until now. Using small, energy-efficient, easily maneuverable robotic ocean gliders, Caltech researchers found that swirling ocean eddies, similar to atmospheric storms, play an important role in transporting these warm waters to the Antarctic coast. The gliders can travel deeper into the ocean and stay out for longer than most research ships can, collecting a wider sampling of data about currents, temperature, and salinity, and other factors. Their discovery will help the scientific community determine how rapidly the ice is melting and, as a result, how quickly ocean levels will rise.

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This year was a milestone one for Caltech—we welcomed a new president, began building a powerful new telescope, and congratulated an alumnus on winning the Nobel Prize. Meanwhile, our researchers announced a wealth of findings across the scientific spectrum, exploring ideas and phenomena at all scales—from the smallest molecules in the body to the farthest reaches of the universe. In case you missed any of them, here are 14 stories of the discoveries, methods, and technologies that came to life at Caltech in 2014.

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