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January 2017 Letter to Friends of Caltech

January 11, 2017

Dear friends of Caltech,

The present is theirs; the future, for which I really worked, is mine.
— Nikola Tesla

A few weeks ago, we announced a transformative $115 million gift from Tianqiao Chen and Chrissy Luo to help launch a major neuroscience initiative at Caltech. The Chen Neuroscience Institute will probe the workings of the brain, from the signaling of a single neuron to the collective behavior of networks of neurons to the way people perceive the world and make decisions to designing medical devices to relieve suffering and improve lives. It is a grand enterprise that brings together researchers from all six divisions at Caltech to address a big idea.

Attacking big problems and delivering big intellectual payoffs has been the Caltech approach for generations. The self-imposed rigor and discipline of choosing carefully which areas of inquiry are worthy of significant investment (and which are not!) sets Caltech apart from its peers. The neuroscience initiative falls squarely in this category, integrating the different skills and perspectives of a closely interacting faculty. It hearkens back to the vision of Robert A. Millikan: "The very close association of engineering and science . . . has in fact been one of the most distinctive objectives in the Institute's development. It is a familiar but a very true observation that the fundamental science of one generation is the applied science of the next." Today these barriers between discovery and application are ever more porous and, in our studies of the brain, we have the opportunity to translate this generation's fundamental insights into timely clinical interventions.

Looking back 125 years to the founding of Caltech, it is startling to realize how much our understanding of the world has changed in that relatively short period. DNA, microbes, the inner structure of the earth, the expanding universe, computers, were all unknown. Caltech has played a major role in the science and technology that has transformed the conception of the world around us. The decisions that were made a century ago about the big problems that merited study created the future that we now inhabit. The decisions we make today will determine the world 125 years from now.

The direct observation of gravitational waves emanating from two black holes coalescing, rovers traversing the surface of Mars, the invention of machines to sequence the human genome, are discoveries that people hundreds of years in the future will remember about our time. Being part of the Caltech community affords us the opportunity to shape the future in this way. We will look for life on Europa and on planets orbiting other suns, we will harness the sun's power to deliver energy, make fuel, and revolutionize agriculture, we will understand how the brain computes and how quantum computers can model nature's inner workings. It is both a privilege and a responsibility to be part of this enterprise, and one where clever investment creates truly lasting impact.

The Break Through campaign is our most powerful pathway to discovery and impact. Your generous philanthropy is helping transform the world. The future, for which we really work, is ours.


Thomas F. Rosenbaum