Students and faculty in the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences study Earth and the planets to understand their origin, constitution, and development, and the effect of the resulting physical and chemical environments on the history of life and on humanity. The approach to these problems relies strongly on the basic sciences. Programs of study and research are pursued in environmental science and engineering, geobiology, geochemistry, geology, geophysics, and planetary science. The curriculum is flexible so that students with degrees in biology, chemistry, engineering, or physics may carry out graduate work within the division, and interdisciplinary studies are encouraged.
Southern California provides an excellent natural laboratory for the study of geology, tectonics, and earthquakes. Current advances in understanding the dynamic motions of Earth’s interior have opened new opportunities for the study of crustal motions and earthquakes. Historic records of seismic activity are put into long- term perspective by studies of surface and bedrock geology. The dynamics and geometry of crustal movements are studied on local, regional, and global scales in order to understand the evolution of continents, subduction zones, and mid-ocean ridges. The division maintains active field programs in diverse areas in North America and throughout the world.
The events that shaped Earth can be identified by studying the structure of rocks and their chemical and isotopic compositions. The absolute chronology of Earth and solar system history can be established by measurements of radioactive isotopes. These geological events have been intimately associated with the origin and evolution of life on Earth. The field of geobiology uses both geological and genetic evidence to examine the impact of life on Earth and the impact of geological conditions on biology. The field of geochemistry includes studies of radiogenic and stable isotopes, petrology, chemical oceanography, and atmospheric chemistry. These tools are applied to the origins of igneous and metamorphic rocks, evidence of past climate change, tracing anthropogenic influences on Earth, and the structure of planetary interiors. The comparative study of the other planets—their atmospheres, surfaces, and internal structures—is important in our understanding of Earth and its place in the cosmos. The early history of the solar system can be approached by studies of extraterrestrial materials, including lunar samples, interplanetary dust grains, and meteorites.
The division is housed in four adjacent buildings, which are well equipped for modern instruction and laboratory work. They contain several seminar rooms and a library as well as student and faculty offices. Numerous computers are distributed throughout the division, including a facility for geographic information systems and remote sensing. Rock and mineral collections and sample preparation areas are available. There are modern laboratories equipped with a scanning electron microscope and electron microprobe; a variety of plasma-source, gas-source, thermal emission, and secondary ion mass spectrometers; optical-, infrared-, and Raman spectrometers; high-temperature furnaces and high-pressure apparatus including piston-cylinder, multi-anvil, diamond anvil, and shock-wave facilities. Cooperation with other departments on campus provides access to additional instrumentation for sample preparation and analysis.
Laboratories for molecular geobiology provide capabilities for culturing, manipulating, and studying a wide range of environmental microbes, including anaerobes. A sensitive magnetometer facility is designed for the study of both biomagnetism and paleomagnetics. The Seismological Laboratory, housed in the GPS division, operates the Southern California Seismic Network jointly with the U.S. Geological Survey. The network records and analyzes real-time earthquake data from more than 380 seismic stations located across Southern California. Data from the network are available for research via the Southern California Earthquake Data Center.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA’s lead center for planetary exploration, is located seven miles from campus and is administered by the Institute. Students and faculty participate in JPL activities through joint research, instrument development, mission operations, and data analysis. In addition, Caltech owns and operates several optical and radio observatories that are used partly for planetary research. Active programs of planetary studies are pursued at the Owens Valley Radio Observatory, Palomar Mountain, and the Keck Telescopes and, in the near future, the Thirty-Meter Telescope project.