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December 2019 Letter to Friends of Caltech

December 6, 2019

Dear Friends of Caltech:

Caltech continues to be a community animated by the desire to limn Nature's deepest secrets. It is a calling that can be complete in itself, but also a prerequisite for societal impact. Arthur Amos Noyes, one of the founders with Hale and Millikan of modern Caltech, put it aptly in 1915: "Scientific investigation is the spring that feeds the stream of technical progress, and if the spring dries up the stream is sure to disappear." In the century since Noyes' speech, the "spring of scientific investigation" has surged. Researchers at the Institute have revealed the nature of the inner earth, the outer planets, black holes, the chemical bond, the fundamental constituents of matter, the molecular basis of biology.

Remarkably, this is only part of the story. Noyes also spoke to "the stream of technical progress," and Caltech scientists and engineers – as faculty, as students, as postdocs, as alumni – have translated their fundamental discoveries into transformative technologies, from the gene sequencer to the AIDS cocktail treatment to the camera on your iPhone. In his 1969 inauguration address, President Harold Brown set out a capacious vision for Caltech: "Inevitably, and properly, we will be measured, and will measure ourselves, by our academic activities … and by our constructive effect on each other and on the world around us." Fifty years later, we are at a watershed moment.

Opportunities at the intersection of science and society have never been more pronounced or more urgent. The basic understanding of flavor chemistry applied to atmospheric science by Caltech chemist Arie Haagen-Smit provides a template for successful intervention. Using the same laboratory techniques that enabled him to isolate and identify the chemical compounds that gave pineapple its flavor, Haagen-Smit traced the "flavor of Los Angeles," the smog that blanketed the city, to the nitrogen oxides in automobile exhaust.

We are now positioned to marshal fundamental discovery in the service of renewable energy, clean water, arable soils, degradable plastics, and carbon sequestration through the extraordinary generosity of Stewart and Lynda Resnick. Their unprecedented $750 million investment in sustainability will bring together biological, physical, and social scientists and engineers from across campus and JPL to imagine and then develop solutions at scale. Moreover, every undergraduate at Caltech will be introduced to the science of sustainability through a reimagined freshman laboratory sequence, housed in the new Resnick Center.

Similarly, researchers who design chips that sip power and balance on a fingernail are parlaying their skills into the design of miniaturized drug delivery systems and non-invasive health monitors through Caltech's Andrew and Peggy Cherng Department of Medical Engineering. It is part of a burgeoning ecosystem accelerated by the Rothenberg Innovation Initiative and the recently endowed Richard N. Merkin Institute for Translational Research. Students, postdocs, and faculty will combine forces with entrepreneurs and clinicians to maximize the impact of their academic discoveries on the world around us.

Connecting breakthroughs in understanding with transformative technologies is woven into the history of the Institute. The liberating role of philanthropy, however, is a more recent phenomenon. Philanthropic means allow researchers' imaginations to run free and accommodate the risks that lead to revolutionary advances. Caltech's approach to science and society depends on hiring the most creative and original scholars and then providing them with the tools, the intellectual environment, and the unfettered resources that permit them to fly free.  We are grateful for all you do to elevate Caltech.


Thomas F. Rosenbaum

Enclosure: The Broader Context: Caltech at the Intersection of Science and Society