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Caltech Freshman Seminar Program


The goal of the Freshman Seminar is to increase the exposure of incoming students to Caltech faculty in a non-lecture setting. Faculty will explore an in-depth and exciting topic in the lab, around a table, in the field, or anywhere else appropriate. The Freshman Seminar will provide a means of immediately channeling students’ excitement and curiosity while also building a relationship with a faculty member and acquiring an experience that is unique to Caltech.


For the academic year 2011-12 we are offering the following seminars:

Fall Term

FS 1. Freshman Seminar: Cosmic Explosions and Their Multi-Messenger Signal. 6 units (2-0-4); first term. This seminar will discuss the physics and astrophysics of explosive astrophysical events from both a theoretical and observational point of view. Course meetings will be a mixture of discussions, overview presentations assembled by the students and presentations by expert scientists at a generally accessible level.  Instructor: Ott.  Instructor's webpage:

FS 2. Freshman Seminar: The Origins of Ideas. 6 units (2-0-4); first term. Why do have 60 minutes in an hour? Why do we use a fork or chopsticks when we eat? Why do we have music? Why do we have sports? The goal of the class is to learn how to enjoy ignorance, be curious and try and discover the origin and the evolutionary processes that led to the ideas and artifacts that are a part of our life. The class is collaborative and interactive: You will teach as much as you will learn – you will learn as much as you will teach. Most importantly, you will realize the fun in discovery and the joy of human interaction. Freshmen only; limited enrollment. Instructor: Bruck.  Instructor's webpage:

FS 3. Freshman Seminar: Cosmic Discovery. 6 units (2-0-4); first term. This seminar will address a general question: How are new discoveries made in astronomy?  Unlike in most sciences, we cannot study astronomical objects in a laboratory - all we can do is observe them from a large distance.  Moreover, most of them evolve on time scales vastly larger than the human lifetime.  So how do we reach a convincing and reliable physical understanding of cosmic phenomena?  What assumptions do we make in interpreting the astronomical observations?  What is the role of technological advances in opening new domains for discovery?  What are the natural limitations of our measurements?  We will illustrate the scientific discovery process in astronomy with numerous historical and recent examples. Freshmen only; limited enrollment. Instructor: Djorgovski.  Instructor's webpage:

FS/Ph 4. Freshman Seminar: Physics of the Large Hadron Collider. 6 units (2-0-4); first term. This course will review the science goals of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, along with elementary particle theory and the new physics that may be discovered at the LHC, including: the Higgs boson, supersymmetry, particle dark matter, extra dimensions, mini black holes, etc. We will study the latest publications from LHC experiments and examine prospects for discoveries in the years to come. Freshmen only; limited enrollment. Instructor: Weinstein. Instructor's webpage:

FS/Ph 9. Freshman Seminar: The Science of Music. 6 units (2-0-4); first term. The physics of sound, how musical instruments make it, and how we hear it will be the focus of readings, discussion, demonstrations, and students' observations using sound analysis software.  In parallel, we will consider what differentiates music from other sounds and what is its role physically and culturally.  These studies will begin with reading of Levitin's This Is Your Brain on Music and Sacks' Musicophilia. Students will do a project of their choice and design, with possibilities including a book review, analysis of recordings or actual musical instruments, or instrument construction and analysis. Freshmen only; limited enrollment. Instructor: Politzer. Instructor's webpage:

FS/Ph 13. Freshman Seminar: Time, Love, and Memory. 6 units (2-0-4); first term. We will study the 60-year quest for the genetic origins of behavior. During the course we will read and discuss an account by a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author and a selection of key research papers. The route will take us from bacteria to fruit flies to humans, to researchers as well as to their research. Freshmen only; limited enrollment. Instructor: Pine. Instructor's webpage:

FS/Ph 14. Freshman Seminar: Albatrosses, Beetles and Cetaceans. 6 units (2-0-4); first term. A quantitative study of some examples of physics applied to macrobiota, including flight (the range of the albatross), surface tension and walking on water (the world of insects), and acoustics (how whales communicate). In addition to learning the art of physical estimation, scaling, and the value of dimensionless numbers, this course offers the opportunity to appreciate who to apply otherwise abstract physics to everyday experience. In addition to problem sets, each student will be expected to research a specific example and present findings to the rest of the class. Freshmen only; limited enrollment. Instructor: Stevenson. Instructor's webpage:

Beginning Winter Term

FS/Ph  11abc. Freshman Seminar: Research Tutorial. 6 units (2-0-4); second and third terms of freshman year and first term of sophomore year. A small number of students will be offered the opportunity to enroll in this tutorial, the purpose of which is to demonstrate how research ideas rise, and are evaluated and tested, and how those ideas that survive are developed.  This is accomplished by doing individual, original projects.  There will be weekly group meetings and individual tutorial meetings with the instructor.  Support for summer research at Caltech between the freshman and sophomore years will be automatic for those students making satisfactory progress.  Graded pass/fail.  Instructor: Tombrello. 

Spring Term

FS/BE 5. Freshman Seminar: Introduction to Biomechanics. 6 units (2-0-4); third term. This course is an introduction to the application of engineering principles from solid and fluid mechanics to the study of biological systems. The course emphasizes the organismal, rather than the molecular, level of complexity. It draws on a wide array of biological phenomena from animals and plants, and is not intended as a technical introduction to medically related biomechanics. Topics include scaling and heuristic modeling of biological systems; fundamental properties of biological solids and fluids; viscoelasticity; drag and locomotion; biological pumps; and biology-inspired engineering. Textbook: Life’s Devices: The Physical World of Animals and Plants by Steven Vogel. Given in alternate years; offered 2011-12. Freshmen only; limited enrollment. Instructor: Dabiri.  Instructor's webpage:


Freshman will indicate their interest in a Freshman Seminar on their Selection Form and return it to the Registrar’s Office. Students will be sent their fall schedule of classes in July and notified if they were placed in a seminar class.

updated: 6/15/11