Goodbye Professor Tombrello

This morning I awoke to the horrible news that Caltech Physics Professor Tom Tombrello had passed away. Professor Tombrello was my undergraduate advisor, my research advisor, a mentor, and, most importantly a friend. His impact on me, from my career to the way I try to live my life, was profound.
Because life is surreal, just a few days ago I wrote this post that describes the event that led Professor Tombrello and I down entwined paths, my enrollment in his class Physics 11. Physics 11 was a class about how to create value in the world, disguised as a class about how to do “physics” research as an undergraduate. Indeed, in my own life, Professor Tombrello’s roll was to make me think really really hard about what it meant to create. Sometimes this creation was in research, trying to figure out a new approach or even a new problem. Sometimes this creation was in a new career, moving to Google to be given the opportunity to build high impact creations. I might even say that this creation extends into the far reaches of Washington state, where we helped bring about the creation of a house most unusual.
There are many stories I remember about Professor Tombrello. From the slightly amusing like the time after the Northridge earthquake when an aftershock shook our class while he was practicing his own special brand of teach, and we all just sort of sat still until we heard this assistant, Michelle, shout out “That’s it! I’m outta here!” and go storming out. To the time I talked with him following the loss of one of his family members, and could see the profound sadness even in a man who push optimistically forward at full speed.
Some portraits:

After one visit to Professor Tombrello, I actually recorded my thoughts on our conversation:

This blog post is for me, not for you. Brought to you by a trip down memory lane visiting my adviser at Caltech.
Do something new. Do something exciting. Excel. Whether the path follows your momentum is not relevant.
Don’t dwell. Don’t get stuck. Don’t put blinders on.
Consider how the problem will be solved, not how you are going to solve it.
Remember Feynman: solve problems.
Nothing is not interesting, but some things are boring.
Dyson’s driving lesson: forced intense conversation to learn what the other has to say.
Avoid confirmatory sources of news, except as a reminder of the base. Keep your ear close to the brains: their hushed obsessions are the next big news.
Learn something new everyday but also remember to forget the things not worth knowing.
Technically they can do it or they can’t, but you can sure help them do it better when they can.
Create. Create. Create.
Write a book, listen to Sandra Tsing Loh, investigate Willow Garage, and watch Jeff Bezos to understand how to be a merchant.
Create. Create. Create.

So tonight, I’ll have a glass of red wine to remember my professor, think of his family, and the students to whom he meant so much. And tomorrow I’ll pick myself up, and try to figure out just what I can create next.

Quantum Frontiers

As a postdoc at Caltech, I would often have lunch with John Preskill.  About once per week, we would play a game. During the short walk back, I would think of a question to which I didn’t know the answer. Then with maybe 100 meters to go, I would ask John that question. He would have to answer the question via a 20 minute impromptu lecture given right away, as soon as we walked into the building.
Now, these were not easy questions. At least, not to your average person, or even your average physicist. For example, “John, why do neutrinos have a small but nonzero mass?” Perhaps any high-energy theorist worth their salt would know the answer to that question, but it simply isn’t part of the training for most physicists, especially those in quantum information science.
Every single time, John would give a clear, concise and logically well-organized answer to the question at hand. He never skimped on equations when they were called for, but he would often analyze these problems using simple symmetry arguments and dimensional analysis—undergraduate physics!  At the end of each lecture, you really felt like you understood the answer to the question that was asked, which only moments ago seemed like it might be impossible to answer.
But the point of this post is not to praise John. Insead, I’m writing it so that I can set high expectations for John’s new blog, called Quantum Frontiers. Yes, that’s right, John Preskill has a blog now, and I hope that he’ll exceed these high expectations with content of similar or higher quality to what I witnessed in those after-lunch lectures. (John, if you’re reading this, no pressure.)
And John won’t be the only one blogging. It seems that the entire Caltech IQIM will “bring you firsthand accounts of the groundbreaking research taking place inside the labs of IQIM, and to answer your questions about our past, present and future work on some of the most fascinating questions at the frontiers of quantum science.”
This sounds pretty exciting, and it’s definitely a welcome addition to the (underrepresented?) quantum blogosphere.

Dial M for Matter

It was just recently announced that Institute for Quantum Information at Caltech will be adding an extra letter to its name. The former IQI will now be the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter, or IQIM. But it isn’t the name change that is of real significance, but rather the $12.6 million of funding over the next five years that comes with it!
In fact, the IQIM is an NSF funded Physics Frontier Center, which means the competition was stiff, to say the least. New PFCs are only funded by the NSF every three years, and are chosen based on “their potential for transformational advances in the most promising research areas at the intellectual frontiers of physics.”
In practice, the new center means that the Caltech quantum info effort will continue to grow and, importantly, it will better integrate and expand on experimental efforts there. It looks like an exciting new chapter for quantum information science at Caltech, even if the new name is harder to pronounce. Anyone who wants to become a part of it should check out the open postdoc positions that are now available at the IQIM.

The Beavers Win a Game! The Beavers Win a Game! The Beavers Win a Game! I don't believe it! I don't believe it! I do not believe it!

Throwing off what must be a monkey of cosmological size, the Caltech men’s basketball team won their first conference game since 1985, 46-45 victory over Occidental. For those counting that is 310 straight conference loses:

New York Times article. What the world was like when Caltech men’s basketball last won a conference game. ESPN coverage.
Now I just hope they don’t let their basketball program take over the school at the expense of their academic reputation 😉

Mandelbrot 1924-2010

Benoît B. Mandelbrot, a mathematical maverick and curmudgeon extraordinaire has passed away at the age of 85 (NYTimes obit.)  Mandelbrot is most well known for coining the word “fractal” and studying the set which now bears his name, but was also one of the first people to recognize that price changes empirically are not well described by a Gaussian distribution.  Mandlebrot’s middle initial was self-assigned and, apparently, didn’t stand for anything.  However, I’ve always like to imagine that, actually, the “B” stood for “Benoît B. Mandelbrot”.
Like many I’m sure my first encounter with the Mandelbrot set was through a Scientific American by  A.K. Dewdney (who, I’m sad to report, is now a 9/11 doubter.)  For many years, the Mandelbrot set was the first program I’d write when encountering a new computer or was learning a new programming language.   One could get an idea of the speed of the computer by doing this in a few short lines of code, but also you got to test out the number of colors on the new machine (which included things like figuring out how to cycle the Apple IIGS palette so as to achieve 256 colors…all at the same time!)  Raise your hand if you’ve ever written a Mandelbrot set program for a programmable calculator 🙂
A less well known Mandelbrot story is the one that occurred in the journal Science.  There, David Avnir, Ofer Biham, Daniel Lidar (who I wrote a bunch of papers with in a grad school in a galaxy far far away), and Ofer Malcai wrote a Perspective titled Is the Geometry of Nature Fractal? (sorry pay-walled for those not involved in the racket that is scientific publishing.)  These authors did a survey of fractals presented in the Physical Review journals and looked at how many decades the claimed fractals spanned.  The results, let’s just say, were not very positive for those who wrote books called The Fractal Geometry of Nature.  This invoked a spirited response from Mandelbrot and Peter Pfeifer.  In the annals of catty responses, these documents surely are up there among the top ever written.  My favorite part is where Mandelbrot implies that one of the authors of the original Perspective must implicitly be withdrawing his own work on fractals over a small amount of size by writing the Perspective itself.  Ha, curmudgeon indeed!
Another fact I find fun about Mandelbrot is that he obtained his first tenured position at age 75.  Take that anyone complaining about the modern oligarchy known as academia!


Oh wow, very cool.  TEDxCaltech (

On Friday, 14 January 2011, Caltech is hosting TEDxCaltech, an exciting one-day event to honor Richard Feynman—Nobel Laureate, Caltech physics professor, iconoclast, visionary, and all-around “curious character.” You won’t want to miss a minute. Stay tuned for more details.

Via @seanmcarroll.  Here is the YouTube teaser:

Oh I would absolutely love to see this. And, “Dear organizers, Please make sure Scott Aaronson is one of your speakers as he is clearly the Richard Feynman of the modern era (without the bongos, I think.)”

Caltech IQI Postdocs

Postdocs at Caltech’s IQI. Now in the new Annenberg Center (named, of course, after Caltech’s Ann of the Steele tower 🙂 ):

Postdoctoral Research Positions
The Institute for Quantum Information at the California Institute of Technology will have postdoctoral scholar positions available beginning in September 2010. Researchers interested in all aspects of quantum information science are invited to apply. The appointment is contingent upon completion of a Ph.D.
Please apply on-line at Electronic copies of your curriculum vitae, publication list, statement of research interests, and three letters of recommendation are required. The deadline for receipt of all application materials is December 1,
The California Institute of Technology is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action employer. Women, Minorities, Veterans and Disabled Persons are encouraged to apply

New DARPA Director

DARPA, you know the people who invented the internet (“100 geniuses connected by a travel agent”), has a new director:

The Department of Defense (DoD) today announced the appointment of Regina E. Dugan as the 19th director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA is the principal agency within the DoD for research, development, and demonstration of concepts, devices, and systems that provide highly advanced military capabilities for the current and future combat force. In this role of developing high-risk, high-payoff projects, DARPA compliments and balances the overall science and technology program of the DoD.

Go MechE’s from Caltech! DARPA’s last director Tony Tether ruffled a lot of feathers as it was widely perceived that the agency was shifting to short term research at the expense of the kind of groundbreaking work that had been funded in the past (See Peter Lee for details and recommendations for changes at DARPA.) Hopefully Dr. Dugan will take a different tack. That would certainly make a lot of computer science researchers a lot happier.