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Kenneth G. Libbrecht

Spring 2014

Whether you were an undergraduate or a graduate student at Caltech, the one thing every alumnus and alumna proudly shares is being part of a tradition that encourages all Techers to dream big and follow their imaginations—whether that means exploring the possibility of life on Mars, studying big data, or doing a SURF in an area outside your major. When you support Caltech each year, you help empower new generations of students and faculty to follow their aspirations.

During my time as an undergraduate at Caltech, I was encouraged to follow my interests, which led to opportunities to conduct research under some of the world’s most brilliant physicists. Since returning to Caltech in 1984 as a member of the faculty, I have continued to indulge my curiosity about a wide range of physics and astrophysics subjects, including gravitational wave detection, ion trapping, and my latest fascination with the detailed molecular physics underlying the growth of ice crystals from water vapor (a.k.a. snowflakes).  I feel extremely privileged to be able to pursue my varied interests while inspiring today’s Techers.

The generosity of some of my fellow alumni has recently enabled me to create several new state-of-the art experiments for the teaching labs at Caltech, especially the Ph 3 Introductory Physics Lab, a course that is being taken by about one-third of all Caltech students.  Our students still appreciate that physics is at the heart of everything.    

One such experiment is our popular new ion trap. A research-grade ion trap allows charged atomic particles to be suspended in vacuum using electromagnetic fields. These traps are expensive to build and difficult to operate, making them poorly suited for teaching. Instead, I created a desktop device that is simple and hands-on, trapping Club Moss spores (spherical particles about 25 microns in diameter) in air, illuminated by a green laser pointer.  This experiment helps our students learn modern fundamental physics in a visually appealing way. My goal is to provide a more stimulating experience than the basic mechanics experiments that I used as an undergraduate physics student.

Across every division and department at Caltech, we are committed to creating an environment for teaching and learning that is second to none. To continually innovate and improve is the Caltech way. Your annual gifts make it possible for us to continue pushing the envelope.

I am honored to share my Caltech story, and I invite you to join me in supporting our alma mater so that the Next Generation of Techers can pursue their big dreams and answer the world’s most complex questions.


Kenneth G. Libbrecht ’80
Caltech Professor of Physics
Chairman, Physics Department