Annenberg Center illustration


The Computing + Mathematical Sciences (CMS) Department is nestled in the heart of Pasadena on the beautiful Caltech campus. CMS is home to outstanding students and researchers who share a passion for science and engineering, as well as a drive to investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in computation and information. With a student-to-faculty ratio of 3:1, we promote innovative interdisciplinary collaborations throughout campus and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Computing + Mathematical Sciences offers degrees in:

Alumni Vignette

  • Kat Breeden
    Katherine Breeden
    BS in CS, 2008; Graduate student at Stanford
    "Some talk about "interdisciplinary research" as if it's something strange and exotic; but for me, reaching into relevant work in related fields is a total no-brainer."
  • alumni
    David Wei
    PhD in CS, 2007; Research scientist at Facebook
    "Three years after my graduations, my professor and I still sync up from time to time, and whichever companies I go to, I can easily connect with people from Caltech."
  • alumni
    Vibha Laljani
    BS in CS, 2008; Software developer at Oracle
    "Plenty of opportunities are not only available, but also accessible because Caltech is a small school. In addition to exploring the different areas within CS, I was also able to indulge in interdisciplinary research."
  • alumni
    Zoë Wood
    PhD in CS, 2003; Assistant Professor at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo
    "At Caltech, I had the chance to work with some of the brightest researchers I have ever met. I had amazing experiences and made friends whom I value to this day!"
  • alumni
    Evan Gawlik
    BS in ACM/CDS, 2010; Graduate student at Stanford
    "Being such a small school, Caltech is the kind of place where, if you find a research project you are passionate about, you can get involved in it, and people will welcome you with open arms."
  • alumni
    Ke Wang
    PhD in ACM, 2008; Senior scientist at Exxon Mobil
    "Caltech is such a unique place that every research project I was exposed to quickly brought me to the frontier of that field. I found this cross-disciplinary research training particularly beneficial to my career."

Research in Our Department_

Advances in computation and information technology have already transformed our lives, giving rise to innovations from smartphones, to search engines, to the sequencing of the human genome. In Computing + Mathematical Sciences (CMS) at Caltech, we believe that the greatest transformations lie ahead. We regard computation and information as intrinsic components of diverse fields such as biology, physics, and economics, and not just the basis for advanced technology. Studying the structures that communicate, store, and process information from this viewpoint---whether these structures are expressed in hardware and called machines, in software and called programs, in abstract notation and called mathematics, or in nature and society and called biological or social networks and markets---will propel the Digital Revolution in new and exciting directions in the years to come.

CMS research cuts across the traditional discipline boundaries of Computer Science, Applied Mathematics, Communication + Networks, and Control + Dynamical Systems to best leverage this expansive view of information and computation in natural and engineered systems. We develop algorithmic foundations, computational methods, and computing devices to meet today's and tomorrow's challenges of complexity, scalability, and sustainability, with wide-ranging impacts on everything from the design of biological systems to the understanding of economic markets and social networks. Our research is distinguished by an appreciation for mathematical depth, scientific—rather than heuristic—approaches and the integration of theory and implementation.

Featured Research Bit_

  • Exploiting the structure of social networks

    Social website logosDid you update your status on Facebook today? Tweet anything lately? Perhaps unbeknownst to you, you may have helped advance science. Our understanding of the structure of social networks (and other complex networks) has grown dramatically over the last decade. From this understanding has emerged nearly "universal" properties such as small-world properties (low degrees of separation between people) and heavy tailed degree distributions (vast differences in the number of friends of each member). Our research looks at how these properties can be exploited to solve problems that, without such structure, would be intractable. For example, how might these structures make it easier to design distributed routing, find stable matchings, or understand information cascades? This project is led by Adam Wierman and Andreas Krause.
  • A potato chip that computes!?

    All early computers were "synchronous"---the activities of the various parts of the motherboard were synchronized with a centrally generated clock. That design prevails to this day.

    First asynchronous microprocessorIn contrast, CMS fabricated the world's first asynchronous microprocessor in 1989, in Alain Martin's Async VLSI lab. Because of its pioneering clockless design, this computer chip would run even at super-low voltage. The speed of computation simply adjusted itself to the amount of power available. The exceptional robustness of the microprocessor to voltage variations was dramatically demonstrated by running it off the power of a potato: the resulting potato chip ran at 50 kHz at 0.75 volts, while it was designed to run at 15 MHz when operated at 5 volts.

    This research area has matured, and many recent processors use partial asynchronous design to save energy. Asynchronous VLSI is becoming increasingly essential as chip technology evolves, to prevent single-event upsets and soft errors. More about this research can be found here.
  • Community sense-and-respond systems

    Critical events-such as earthquakes-happen. Can we automatically and reliably detect these events and take protective measures in the nick of time? The answer is yes, thanks to the large numbers of sensors currently held and managed by ordinary citizens.

    Motion sensor for earthquake monitoringResearchers in CMS are tapping into sensors already installed in cell phones and laptops to solve important problems. Cyber-physical networks are already in place all around us, even in remote areas of the world. What is missing is a theory about how to optimally deal with widely distributed sensor networks that involve dynamic, possibly unreliable communications. Current research focuses on developing sense-and-respond systems for earthquake detection in populated areas as well as radiation detection in crowded areas. Did you know your cell phone could do that? This project is led by Mani Chandy and Andreas Krause.
  • Power networks and the smart grid

    Today's communication and power networks are undoubtedly the most complex pieces of infrastructure that our world has created-and we rely heavily on them. Both are distributed nonlinear feedback control systems of a massive scale. Their development enabled innovations with impacts far beyond communications and energy. In CMS we believe that the power network is about to undergo a historic architectural transformation akin to the one the telephone network recently experienced. Power distribution, too, will become more sustainable, intelligent, open yet secure, autonomous, and participatory. This transformation will arise through the integration of information technology with the grid, continual market restructuring, the rise of renewable energy technology and distributed generation, demand response, and development of new products such as electric vehicles. Intense societal awareness of energy and climate issues will accelerate the change. Our goal is to develop engineering and economic theories as well as algorithms to guide this historic transformation. This project is led by Steven Low and Mani Chandy.

    Motion sensor for earthquake monitoring
  • Molecular Programming Project

    Making nanoscale shapes walk The fundamental principles developed in computer science over the past 30 years have allowed us to develop electronic systems with billions of components and software with millions of lines of code to perform amazingly complex tasks. Researchers at CMS are developing the next generation of computer science principles, this time for programming information-bearing molecules like DNA and RNA to create artificial biomolecular programs of similar complexity. The biomolecular programs of life itself give inspiration that this is possible, from the low-level operating system controlling cell metabolism to the high-level code for development, the process by which a single cell becomes an entire organism. This research effort aims to create analogous molecular programs using non-living chemistry, in which computing and decision-making are carried out by chemical processes themselves. Through the creation of molecular programming languages, theory for analyzing them, and experiments for validating them, it will establish "molecular programming" as a field within computer science. Molecular programming will enable a yet-to-be imagined array of applications, from chemical circuits that interact with biological molecules to molecular robotics and nanoscale computing. This effort is led by Erik Winfree; see also the Molecular Programming Project.
  • A science for green IT

    Another accepted philosophy bites the dust: no longer is "faster" always "better." Modern systems must trade off traditional performance goals with energy concerns---running faster lowers delays, but increases power usage. While we have theory and models for discussing the computation, communication, and memory demands of algorithms and systems, we have yet to develop theory for discussing their energy efficiency. CMS researchers aim to fill this gap, making computer science greener in the process. This project is led by Adam Wierman and Steven Low. Speed scaling
Department of Computing + Mathematical Sciences