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February 2018 Letter to Friends of Caltech

February 20, 2018

Dear friends of Caltech,

December's Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm was very much a Caltech affair. No Southern California sunshine as the winter sun hovered just over the horizon, but Stockholm was lit by intellectual ambition and accomplishment. The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Caltech faculty members Kip Thorne and Barry Barish, who propelled the effort to invent an entirely new type of observational astronomy through gravitational wave detection. The LIGO international collaboration now involves a thousand scientists and engineers, and undoubtedly will grow in scope and impact as gravitational wave astronomy becomes interwoven with observations in the radio, optical, and x-ray parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.

The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine recognized Caltech undergraduate alumnus Michael Rosbash, whose interest in molecular biology was sparked by summer research in Norman Davidson's laboratory at Caltech. Jeff Hall, who shared the Prize for discovering the molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm, was a postdoctoral fellow in Seymour Benzer's laboratory at the Institute in the early 1970s. It was Benzer who pioneered studies of genes and behavior using fruit flies as the model organism, an approach that redounds today at Caltech and in laboratories across the world.

In the last 20 years alone, eight Caltech undergraduate and graduate alumni have garnered the Nobel Prize. Kip Thorne (BS '62) and Michael Rosbash (BS '65) are joined by microscope inventor Eric Betzig (BS '83) and quantum chemistry modeler Martin Karplus (PhD '54), both awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and, in true Caltech fashion, developers of instruments and techniques that bridge chemistry, physics, and biology; Robert Merton (MS '67) and Vernon Smith (BS '49) in Economics; cancer researcher Leland Hartwell (BS '61); and neutrino physicist Art McDonald (PhD '70). The breadth of interests reflects a fundamental aspect of a Caltech education: our students master quantitative skills that can be applied to problems across the disciplines and in service to society. They are unafraid to tackle big problems, knowing that a penetrating question can be more valuable than a simple solution.

Nobel Prizes are retrospective by nature, but dedication to breakthrough research continues full throttle on campus. Caltech students parlay their education into extraordinary achievement in their careers. They also make profound discoveries as early as their undergraduate years. John Madey conceived of the free electron laser, now realized as an unparalleled source of x-rays for studies ranging from designing new materials to drug discovery. Dawn Sumner made the first paleomagnetic measurements of ancient glacial deposits, which showed that they formed at low latitudes, leading to the "Snowball Earth" hypothesis. Ari Kaplan, a baseball player, analyzed pitching statistics on a summer undergraduate research fellowship (SURF) and has now worked for over half the majorleague baseball teams in the country.

Caltech graduate students interrogate the universe from every conceivable angle. Jack Wisdom showed how chaos in the solar system leads to large orbital eccentricities. Jena Johnson traced the evolution of photosynthesis and the rise of oxygen that keeps our planet habitable over geological timescales. Peter Schultz's thesis work resulted in the first synthetic molecules that selectively bind to and cleave DNA. Stephen Wolfram received his PhD at age 20, setting an upper limit on the masses of quarks and a lower limit on age to receive a doctorate. 

Our remarkable students invite the telling of their stories. They also speak through their accomplishments to the role of the university in society. It has been part of the social compact in the United States for generations that institutions of higher education have been granted a privileged position in return for educating the citizenry and creating knowledge, from which flow economic prosperity and a celebration of the human spirit. It is incumbent upon us, as supporters of institutions of learning, to reinvigorate this social compact. We are reminded by the Nobel Prizes of the ultimate attainments of human curiosity and, as members of the Caltech community, of the possibilities afforded by education to transform lives and our futures.


Thomas F. Rosenbaum