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July 2016 Letter to Friends of Caltech

July 7, 2016

Dear Friends of Caltech,

It has been a heady few months at Caltech, with the announcement of the first direct observation of gravitational waves, the once-in-a-century prediction of a new planet in our solar system, and

the launch of the most ambitious campaign in Caltech's history. 

Richard Feynman said that: "Einstein was a giant. His head was in the clouds, but his feet were on the ground. But those of us who are not that tall have to choose!" LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, has connected the heavens and the earth. Through four decades of development here on earth of exquisitely sensitive instrumentation—pushing the capacity of our imaginations—we are able to glimpse cosmic processes that were previously undetectable. The merging of two black holes is a cataclysmic event, providing for a release of energy in the last few tenths of a second 50 times that of all the stars in the universe. Yet it could only be detected through its gravitational signature, a distortion of the space-time continuum predicted by Einstein's theory of general relativity. It is truly the start of a new era in astronomy.

Caltech thrives on posing fundamental questions and inventing new instruments to answer them. LIGO represents not only an exhilarating example of how this approach can transform our knowledge of the universe, but it is at heart a quintessential Caltech story. At the beginning, before LIGO became a large scientific collaboration and before the National Science Foundation marvelously stepped up to support it, Caltech provided the vision and invested the early millions. A 40-meter prototype interferometer was wrapped around the Facilities building, and the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy brought Ron Drever from Scotland to lead the experimental effort. Kip Thorne established the theoretical underpinnings of extreme gravitational fields, built the community support, and when the four-kilometer observatories became realities in the states of Louisiana and Washington under the direction of Barry Barish, Kip stepped away! He spent a decade developing the computational tools necessary to decipher the cosmic signatures he knew would eventually be detected. Again it was private philanthropy that made this essential step possible: generous, ongoing support from Walter Burke and the Sherman Fairchild Foundation.

At a time of constrained government investment in science and technology, the world needs institutions that reach for the heavens. Caltech is poised to combine LIGO with the Palomar and Keck optical telescopes to reveal the secrets of our universe, to send probes to the ocean worlds of Jupiter and Saturn to search for signs of life, to harness quantum entanglement for next-generation computers and electronics, to invent tiny new medical devices for implants and monitoring, to program the body's own immune system to fight cancer, to use the sun's energy to create fuel and mitigate carbon emissions, and to illuminate how people make economic decisions. We are fearless in the quest for transformative discovery, and we count on a sophisticated and generous set of trustees, alumni, and friends to jump-start these efforts.

The momentum is palpable. Last year we raised twice the funds compared to five years ago, with increases every year and a record level of cash contributions. We have surpassed 50 percent of the campaign goal of $2 billion, the largest campaign goal by any measure (faculty count, student population, alumni number) for an institution of Caltech's size. Nearly 70 percent of the campaign gifts to date are in unrestricted endowment, fostering the Institute's trademark approach and dovetailing with our most pressing needs, such as the successfully completed naming of leadership chairs for the president, the provost, and all six division chairs. Ultimately, this is a campaign about people—providing the resources that let undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and faculty members dream big—because recruiting and retaining the most talented and original scholars is our competitive advantage.

Thank you for all you do for Caltech, and I look forward to sharing our progress later in the year.


Thomas F. Rosenbaum