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October 2017 Letter to Friends of Caltech

October 12, 2017

Dear friends of Caltech,

Caltech researchers have never been satisfied with conventional views of the universe. To move beyond the predictable, it is necessary to devise new ways to interrogate nature, to reveal phenomena existing instruments cannot sense. Take any thriving field of science and you will find great instrument makers. More often than not, they will be from Caltech or building upon Caltech breakthroughs.

This proclivity for invention is written in the Institute's DNA. Caltech of the early 1900s vaulted into prominence via "big glass." The 100-inch telescope on Mount Wilson ushered in modern Caltech and the modern age of optical astronomy. It established humanity's place in one galaxy resident among many others in a dynamic, expanding universe. The brainchild and obsession of George Ellery Hale, it provided, in fellow Caltech founder Robert Millikan's words, "for intimate contact between the leaders in the fields of pure and applied science."

Caltech's privileged position in astronomy continues into the 21st century because of a commitment to developing unique and powerful instruments, from the twin 10-meter Keck telescopes to the orbiting x-ray telescope NuSTAR to the gravitational wave detector LIGO. Jet Propulsion Laboratory rovers Opportunity and Curiosity have been trekking across the craters, rocky plains, and mountains of Mars since 2004 and 2012, respectively. The world of DNA sequencing graduated from niche efforts to large-scale application and profound biomedical promise because of Caltech's Lee Hood. The ability to image a chemical bond being formed in real time emerged from the laboratory of Nobelist Ahmed Zewail, the father of femtosecond (one millionth of a billionth of a second!) chemistry. Our understanding of the internal dynamics of the earth, and our hope to provide early earthquake warnings, hinges on the technological acuity of our seismic sensors.

Revolutionary instrumentation is closely linked to the passion for discovery. It emerges from the drive to pose fundamental questions and the availability of flexible resources to support high risk, high payoff concepts. It demands a culture where limitations are viewed only as a failure of imagination. In the words of the aviator and author of The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, "If you want to build a ship … [first you must] long for the endless immensity of the sea." Caltech researchers have sailed these seas for generations, and the wind in their sails has been philanthropy.

LIGO, recognized last week by the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics, provides a prime example. Caltech invested millions of its own and Moore Foundation seed monies to establish an experimental effort and build a prototype detector when it seemed but an impossible dream to detect the vanishingly small distortions in the fabric of spacetime rippling out from the violent coalescence of black holes and of neutron stars. Later, when NSF support was secure (with a return on investment of order 100 to 1), and kilometer-long interferometers were under construction in Washington and Louisiana, the Fairchild Foundation made possible computational simulations of gravitational wave signatures that would prove indispensable in the identification of the actual events. Similarly, we use today investments from individuals and foundations, and notably the intellectual venture funds from our endowed Leadership Chairs, to develop the instruments that will open up new windows on the natural world.

Our future will remain bright as long as we are committed to fundamental discovery, the combined mastery of elemental knowledge and the means to illuminate the world around us in ways that have never been done before. Such a path has required and will continue to require philanthropic investment in a special type of scientific invention. The returns are profound in the creation of knowledge and in human well-being. Thank you for your continued dedication to this ideal and your support of Caltech.


Thomas F. Rosenbaum