Surviving in Extreme Conditions.

Sometimes in order to do one thing thoroughly you have to first master many other things, even those which may seem very unrelated to your focus. In the end, everything weaves itself together very elegantly and you find yourself wondering how you got through such an incredible sequence of coincidences to where you are now.

I am a rising first-year PhD student in Astrophysics at Caltech. I just completed my Bachelor’s in Physics also from Caltech last June. My Caltech journey has already led me to a number of unexpected places. New in Astrophysics, I am very excited to see as many observatories, labs and manufacturing locations as I can. I just moved out of the dorms and into the first place that is my very own home (which means I pay my own rent now). All of my windows have a very clear view of the radio tower-adorned Mt. Wilson.

This morning I woke up and looked at the Mt. Wilson horizon and decided to drive up there. I left my morning ballet class early to make time for the drive. The road to the observatory is not simple. HWY 2 is a pretty serious mountain road and accidents happen on it regularly. This is the first thing: to have access to observatories, I need to be able to drive there safely and reliably.

Fortunately I love driving, especially athletic mountain driving, so I am looking for almost any excuse to drive to JPL, Mt. Wilson, and so on. I’ll just stop, by saying that driving is a hobby for me and I see it as a sport, a science, and an art.

The first portion of the 2 is like any normal mountain road with speeding locals, terrifying cyclists and daredevil motorcyclists. The views become more and more breathtaking as you gain elevation, but the driver really shouldn’t be getting any of these views except for the portion that fits into the car’s field of view. The road is demanding, with turns and hills, all along a steep and curving mountainside. However, this part is a piece of cake compared to the second portion.

The turnoff to the observatory itself opens onto a less-maintained road speckled with enthusiastic hikers and with nicely sharp 6-inch pebbles scattered around the road. As much as I was enjoying taking smooth turns and avoiding the brakes, I went very slow on this section to drive around the random rocks on the road. I finally got to the top where I could take in the view in peace.

The first thing visitors see is the Cosmic Cafe. It has a balcony going all around the cafe with a fascinating view when there is no smog or fog. Last April, Caltech had its undergraduate student Formal here. We dined at this cafe and had a dance platform nearby. Driving up here, I could not help thinking how risky this was: 11 high-rise buses took a large portion of the Caltech undergraduate student body up to the top of this mountain in fog so dense we could barely see the bus ahead of us. The bus drivers were saints.

Hiking or running shoes are the best shoes to wear here, so I cannot imagine how we came here in suits, dress shoes, tight dresses, and merciless heels. Well, Caltech students have many talents. Second thing: being an active person in the Tech community takes you to some curious places on interesting occasions.


Some Caltech undergraduates on Mt. Wilson (I’m purple).

I parked at the first available lot, right in front of the cafe and near some large radio towers. When trying to lock my car, I had some trouble. I have an electronic key which operates as a remote outside the car. The car would not react to my key and would not lock. I tried a few more times and finally it locked. I figured the battery in the key was dying, but that didn’t seem right. If any battery were dying, it would be the battery in the spare key that I am not using.

I walked around a bit to take some pictures and came upon another parking lot. This one was full of Ferarris. It turns out that today was a Ferrari Club field trip to the observatory and the happy Ferrari owners were getting a tour of the domes. Third thing: you can run into some very special people when you poke your curious nose into various corners.


The site where our busses parked, now lined with sleek Ferraris.

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Below are some photos I took of the view. The San Gabriel Mountains (where Mt. Wilson is) are very interesting. They start very abruptly with barely any foothills and a rather flat valley right underneath. The mountains are seen very well from campus.


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Note these radio towers. I parked about 20 meters from them.


I went back to my car and realized that I could not open my car no matter how much I tried. Afraid of losing my apartment keys, I left them in my car, which meant that I could not even ask some kind Ferrari owner to drive me back to Pasadena to pick up my spare car key! I’d be locked out of my own home and I’d need to call my landlady on a Saturday for a spare key …

This wasn’t going very well.

Fourth thing: if you’ve spent enough time in lab and on problem sets, you know that despairing is very useless. So, I did not despair and went to the domes to find the Ferrari group. I figured that their tour guide would have a radio so I could at least make some contact with the people down below the mountain — there is no phone reception on Mt. Wilson.

I found the Ferrari group and hopelessly showed my key to them, explaining that I thought my key battery had died. They glanced at my non-Ferrari key and moved on. However, their guide was very helpful and said he did not think it was the battery.

Earlier a Porsche-driving visitor had a similar problem. He figured out that the radio towers were causing too much interference with the key’s signal to the car’s receiver. This made sense! Fifth thing: things we learn are actually applied in real life and often in very practical and non-abstract ways!

So now I know why the Ferraris were parked at a more distant lot. Next time I come up, I will need to park there too — it is the farthest lot from the radio towers.

The guide and I waved my key around the windshield trying to get as close to the receiver as possible. We found out that the receiver was actually by the shark-fin radio antenna on the back of the car. This is where my car differs from a Porsche: the Porsche man found that his key receiver was at the lower center of his windshield.

I got in my car and drove back. Although the key had a weak remote signal, the radio worked perfectly.

After returning, I took the car to the dealership to ask about the key. I was concerned because in order to start the car, I plug my key into a hole and then press a “start engine” button. There is no mechanical key. It turns out that car engineers think through every possible scenario. The car will start even if there is no radio signal coming and even if the key battery is dead. Sixth thing: the work we do in research and in industry comes back to help us — a true trickle-down cycle.

So, I can go up to Mt. Wilson anytime now and not worry about getting into my car. However, I had a hard time explaining at the dealership why I had radio interference …

Today was a great example of how several seemingly unrelated interests all intertwined into an adventure that ended up working out nicely and taught me something useful. Seventh thing: in order to go about my main business, I may have to learn many other skills that make it possible to do my main work in peace. Saturday’s real-life events gave me a new appreciation for car engineers and radio science and even more motivation to keep studying, working and researching!

Off to go adventure some more!

Cheers, Nina.

2 thoughts on “Surviving in Extreme Conditions.

  1. My car works around 900 MHz. I wonder if the radio towers sometimes unlock cars by accident or perhaps the key fob puts out a bitstring with too much entropy. Why do FM radio towers disrupt cars with much higher frequency receivers? Perhaps the receiver preamps are getting saturated? If so, we could fix this by putting a passive filter in the cars’ receiver antenna feedline.

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