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Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Graduate Commencement

Thomas F. Rosenbaum
March 21, 2015

It is a great pleasure to join you here today. I am honored to accept an honorary doctorate and in so doing reinforce my personal and professional ties to Shanghai Jiao Tong University, a formidable center of learning in one of the world's great cities. 

My connections to the city of Shanghai extend back 75 years and make this ceremony deeply resonant. In 1939, as the persecution of Jews in Germany ratcheted up to new heights, my grandparents Martin and Erna Bernstein, sent their young daughters – my mother and her sister – off to England on a children's transport, one of the few avenues of escape sanctioned by the Nazi regime. My grandparents remained in Germany and moved to Berlin, where my grandfather was one of the last Jewish lawyers permitted to practice his profession. They stayed because his parents were too ill to move, but in 1941, getting wind of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, finally fled unaccompanied to Moscow. From there they headed east on the trans-Siberian railroad, and sailed from Vladivostok to Shanghai, a refuge for those without identity papers. My grandparents lived initially in the French Bund, but after the Japanese invasion of China were herded into Shanghai's Hongkou District, the "Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees." Although a time of hardship and deprivation, this safe harbor saved their lives.

I first came to Shanghai in 1983, fresh out of graduate school and newly appointed as an assistant professor of physics at the University of Chicago. It was an opportunity to trace the path of my grandparents, but also to connect to academic researchers from very different backgrounds who nonetheless shared the same quest to understand nature. In that sense, we all spoke the same language, whatever our native tongues. Those of you receiving your doctorates today enter a world of science and engineering that even more effectively crosses cultures and national boundaries. You have the privilege of shared insights and approaches not only with colleagues on different continents, but through time. 

These aspects of being a scientist were captured most clearly for me a few years ago when I was in Cambridge, England having dinner at high table at Trinity College, one of the oldest colleges at Cambridge University, dating back to the times of King Henry VIII. After dinner, you came out to the inner courtyard, where you realize that 350 years earlier Isaac Newton walked across those very lawns. It does not take an apple to hit you on the head to deduce that you are part of an incredible tradition of inquiry and intellectual endeavor. There is a visceral sensation of connection to scholars whose ideas have shaped our understanding of the world, whose discoveries have survived for centuries and continue to be handed down from intellectual generation to intellectual generation.

It is our task as a community of scholars to preserve the qualities that define a great university, a place where ideas can be nurtured and honed, and discoveries that transform the world can emerge. In his October 2014 Nature article, President Jie Zhang writes of recent educational reforms at SJTU: "We are moving away from knowledge transfer to knowledge creation and from instruction-centered teaching to student-centered learning. Our philosophy has changed to nurturing students to be engaged, competent global citizens. A culture that values and rewards innovation has successfully taken root."

The California Institute of Technology and Shanghai Jiao Tong University share this educational approach. Robert A. Millikan, the recipient of the 1923 Nobel Prize in Physics and one of the founders of modern day Caltech, was greatly concerned about the intersection between the creation of knowledge and the needs of society. He espoused a synthetic and global view of scholarship, writing almost one hundred years ago: "There is no step more important…than that of providing for intimate contact between the leaders of pure and applied science…(with) the background and comprehension which come from contact with the world's best thought in literature and from an adequate understanding of the historical processes by which the work has reached its current stage..."

It is our challenge as university leaders to translate this synthetic and global view of scholarship into accomplishment. The cultural aspects to which President Zhang refers provide the key ingredient.  Creating a culture of innovation writ large demands constant attention and absolute commitment. First and foremost is the commitment to excellence.  Marvin Goldberger, one of my predecessors as President of Caltech, spoke of the Institute's "… unique position in the research and education establishment. If a single factor can be called responsible for this, it is Caltech's absolute unwillingness to compromise on excellence: excellence of faculty, excellence of students, excellence of facilities."

It requires sharp focus, defining areas where one has the potential to be a world leader and areas where one cannot. Here partnerships become important, vividly illustrated by the formation of new cross-disciplinary centers, such as those that have sprung up at SJTU, often bringing together researchers from different institutions and sectors of society.

It calls for us to create an environment where bold new ideas can be pursued, even if some of them may fail. At Caltech, the drive to define new directions is palpable, from creating the smallest implantable medical devices to leading the effort to develop the world's largest telescope to sending planetary probes hurtling out of the heliosphere. Institute researchers invented quarks, discovered quasars, started the field of molecular biology, deciphered the inner workings of the earth, launched the search for life on planets orbiting other suns. When you hire the most original and creative people and embed them in an environment where anything you can dream of is a possibility, then there are no limits to innovation and discovery.

Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the California Institute of Technology share these ambitions and even share some of the extraordinary individuals who propel science and technology forward.  Qian Xuesen famously represents the connections between our two institutions. After completing his undergraduate studies in mechanical engineering in 1934 at SJTU, he earned his Ph.D. in 1939 at Caltech under the direction of Theodore von Kármán, and served as Robert H. Goddard Professor of Jet Propulsion at Caltech for many years. A pioneer in jet propulsion and high-speed aerodynamics, Qian both co-founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at Caltech and on his return to China became known as the father of the Chinese missile and space programs.

The excitement of the ceremony today is not only a reminder of our past links, but also an affirmation of a shared vision for the future. It is represented by our mutual aspirations to create knowledge for the ages and to better today's world. It is captured most profoundly by today's graduates who embody our hopes for the future. I am deeply grateful to be included in this modern journey.