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.
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