SURF @ Cosmic DAWN Center

picture from commonsThe summer program will take place at the Cosmic Dawn Center and Dark Cosmology Centre, part of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen

The Cosmic Dawn Center runs an undergraduate summer research program in conjunction with the Caltech SURF program. Thanks to their generosity, we hope to have approximately 2-5 Caltech students come to Copenhagen and work with us this summer. Formally, these will be SURF projects taking place in Denmark. Thus, students will prepare a SURF application and be asked to write two progress reports and a final report as well as give an on-campus talk or poster in October. It is possible that some students either from Caltech or other Universities will also be able to come as part of an affiliated NSF IRES REU program

Since travel within Europe can be quite cheap, we plan for this to be an 11 week program (roughly from the official SURF start date in mid-June to September 1), so that students can take a one week vacation to see other parts of Europe. We are still trying to finalize plans to split housing with an affiliated REU program in order to save costs. However, Copenhagen can be expensive for visitors, so although our goal is that students will have about the same take-home pay after travel/housing as they would if they stayed in Caltech housing over the summer, this has not always been the case in past summers.

A couple of projects are already posted on the SURF website. Some of the other research interests of our department can be found here. Only some of the faculty will be around to mentor projects over the summer, with Sune Toft, Charles Steinhardt and Gabe Brammer the most likely. These are all projects in astronomy and astrophysics, but we would be happy to have other majors join us for the summer. We would recommend that you only apply for the program if you're at least potentially interested in this as a future direction of research, since otherwise you can probably find a summer project that's more in line with your interests. However, we're happy to have, e.g., somebody with a biology background who has also been possibly interested in astrophysics and wants to find out more about it before deciding which directions are more interesting going forward.

We hope to finalize who will be coming by mid- to late-January, to make sure that there will be plenty of time to both write a SURF proposal (due February 22) and take care of any necessary visa/housing. We will ask interested students to apply by answering a challenging question (see below), as well as sending a CV, and a reference letter. [For people who haven't done a SURF before, you'll end up needing a few reference letters for the SURF application, so you're just asking for one a little earlier than you'd otherwise need to.

How to apply:

When is the deadline?

  • Full consideration will be given to applications received by January 8. After that, we will begin matching students with mentors but will consider late applications if there are still spots open.

What should I send?

  • The main part of the application is to answer one of the two questions below. There are no clear correct answers to these, like many research problems you will encounter. Rather, you should describe how you came up with your answer, since we are mostly interested in the thought process that you use when attacking an unfamiliar problem.
    • 1. Living in California long enough means that you are very likely to eventually experience a major earthquake. Although buildings at Caltech are constructed with this in mind, there are still some locations and activities which would be dangerous in a major earthquake, and even a small amount of advance notice might save lives. In earthquake-prone areas with lower construction standards, this would be even more valuable.

      Japan uses a high-quality sensor network in an attempt to solve this problem, because the earthquake (a few km/s) travels much slower than the network (~speed of light). For a large earthquake in which a fault ruptures over hundreds of miles, the network detects earthquakes in approximately 5 seconds, which can result in an early warning of as much as 60-90 seconds in some cases. A similar network does not currently exist in the United States, but on the other hand, you and a very large number of others have accelerometers in your phone, so perhaps a lot of low quality data might be a substitute for a small amount of high-quality data.

      Suppose you were given access to the accelerometer data from every phone in the United States. Could you reasonably design a system which would efficiently detect earthquakes within 5 seconds, so that a warning could be sent out? How would you plan on screening for false positives, given that the accelerations you produce when walking around are much larger than in even a major earthquake? Can you distinguish an earthquake from a massive, synchronized movement of many people such as the L.A. marathon? How many cell phones would need to opt in in order for your system to work well?

    • 2. Since we're thinking about scientific solutions for disaster scenarios, suppose that we were to discover a large, interstellar object (such as Oumuamua) is on course to collide with the Earth in 10,000 years. If nothing is done about it, the resulting impact would be expected to produce a mass extinction, including human life. The good news is, you have the technology to fix it. It's somewhat complicated, as it involves building a spacecraft, something which we have only been able to do for a little over a half century. But as long as somebody follows your instructions about 10,000 years from now, the Earth will be saved.

      The problem is, you need to communicate this information in a way that people 10,000 years from now will be able to understand the danger and follow your instructions. The history of human civilization suggests there may be several dark ages between now and then, during which key technologies and ideas will be forgotten. Many things which were widely known 2,000 years ago are currently unknown or were only recently rediscovered, and some ancient languages are still impossible to decipher.

      What would be your plan for communicating information about the upcoming impact and how to avoid it? Do you think this is likely to work? A related question is how one should label nuclear waste, which is toxic for a similar timescale. Would you solve this problem in a different way given that it is necessary to communicate the danger not just specifically 10,000 years from now but continuously until then?

  • Your curriculum vitae
  • Please request that a recommendation letter be sent independently

Where should I send it?

When will I hear back?

  • By the end of January


I'm a freshman. Can I apply anyway?

  • Yes! Some of the projects will be most suitable for researchers with a more formal background, but one of the wonderful things about astronomy is that there are many projects which require relatively little background in order to get to the point that you can make a useful contribution. We would like to have students with a range of backgrounds come to Copenhagen this summer, and we have had freshmen participate every summer.

Is this open to students from all universities?

  • This specific summer program is part of the Caltech SURF program, and so we can only admit Caltech students for 2019. However, we have a limited pool of funding for strong students from other universities. Students from other Universities in the United States should instead apply to a related NSF program, and we anticipate 4-7 additional students coming this summer.

Should I apply to a specific project?

  • If you have a specific mentor/project in mind, please let us know when you apply, and we will try and match you up with that project.  However, we might also end up suggesting a match with a different mentor, particularly if most people end up requesting the same project.  

I have some more questions.  Who can I ask?

  • Please contact Charles Steinhardt ( with additional questions about the program.