That’s all a convocation is. All the new students, post-docs, and faculty who want to be officially welcomed head to the wedding cake and listen to a bunch of speakers for about an hour:
There’s lots of opportunities to work on campus, and one of them is ushering. Anyone can do it! (really. just smile.) I was ushering convocation, and it was the first event in the auditorium that I was working. There were supposed to be reserved rows at the front, and my job was to stand up there, smile and look official, and keep people from sitting there. (FYI, when there is a sign that says RESERVED on the row — please don’t sit in that row. It puts ushers in a really akward situation.) That wasn’t so fun, but being able to watch convocation (ahem the welfare of the audience, of course) was much more so.
We had to get to the auditorium one hour before the event started, and we opened the doors half an hour before. It was definitely an exponential curve. First, two people came in. Then two more. Then three more, and then they just kept coming. Just before the event, leaving the reserved seats to a free-for-all, I went to help hand out the programs — and we ran out! We weren’t planning on opening the top of the auditorium, but we were so flooded with people that we did — and it was pretty crowded up there. FYI, the cake fits a lot of people!!! That’s where they put Hawking, Bill Nye the Science Guy, TedXCaltech, or things like that.
The convocation itself was very similar to mine (and presumably to most of those before me, and most of those after me). First, VP of student affairs (currently Anneila Sargent) and the Pres (currently Jean-Lou Chameau) give you a list of statistics and tell you about the incoming class, and how they really hope you enjoy the next few years and how Caltech is a great place to discover and all that. Then, a prof gives a talk about some interesting reserach.
This year, the prof who spoke was Prof John Eiler, the Robert P. Sharp Professor of Geology and Professor of Geochemistry. He was a really, really good speaker! I wanted to ask a lot of questions (but decided to leave those to froshies after all) but here is a run-down of what he said:
People always said that measuring the body temperature of dinosaurs is impossible without a space machine (which he would love to have). It’s one of those projects you won’t get funding for, because everyone thinks it is crazy. It’s one of those things Caltech is a great place for. See, chemistry is just awesome. One element (i.e. something with a certain number of neutrons) can have several isotopes (i.e. a different number of neutrons). These have different weights. If you have some molecule with several atoms with different isotopes (i.e. AxByC, where A and B both have two isotopes),then it is energetically favorable for the heavy isotopes and light isotopes to be together (i.e. heavy A and heavy B in one molecule, light A and light B in another) because of the wiggling motions. Because E = KE = T (you get the gist! just don’t forget to convert the units 🙂 ), knowing the isotope make-up can tell you what temperature the molecules were at. This is where I had a bit of a question – the molecule he used was bioapatite (13-C, 18-O is what they were looking for), which is in teeth and bones. After it gets put into a bone or tooth, how do we know that it doesn’t rearrange more? If it did, then as the animal died, it would be getting colder (I assume, but who knows – if they are gigantotherms, who stay hot just by size, then dying would end the system they have to cool down so the temperature measured would be higher than bodyT) so we would get lower bodyTs. But I clearly need to google bone formation some more! Anyway, they got pretty interesting results, and before I butcher this explination any more, if it sounds interesting, you should read about it here (we get emails every morning about new and exciting stuff at Tech).
Now, why are dinosaurs stupid? I told you Prof Eiler was a good speaker – he started by making everyone laugh with his first essay about dinosaurs (first grade? second grade?). In it, he wrote that dinosaurs are the stupidest creatures ever because when they are getting attacked, they just sit there and don’t run away or defend themselves. That’s a good way to give a speech to a group of parents, students, sibilings, and random others!!!
And just as we were done being shown pictures of all the "good people to know" — PRANK TIME! The Blacker flag appeared in front of the monitor, and black / white confetti began to fall over the frosh. Now this didn’t happen my year! (apparently, the tradition got stopped just before 🙁 ). I was pretty glad that ushers just have to go pick up the programs, and not the confetti! (though a loyal group of moles = members of blacker promptly came to clean up after themselves :)).
So… Welcome to Caltech froshies!