Share this:
  • Interim President Edward Stolper, Board of Trustees Chair David Lee, Millikan Medal recipient Robert Day, incoming president Thomas Rosenbaum.
    Credit: Bill Youngblood
05/30/2014 08:48:53

Caltech Awards Millikan Medal to Robert A. Day

The Caltech Board of Trustees has awarded the Institute's highest honor, the Robert A. Millikan Medal, to Robert Day, chairman of the W. M. Keck Foundation and the grandson of its founder, William Myron Keck. Day is one of a select few to be recognized with this honor over the last 30 years, joining a roster of past recipients that includes Si Ramo, Gordon Moore, and Arnold Beckman. The award ceremony, which took place in Bel Air on May 18, was attended by Keck family members, foundation board members, and Caltech leaders and trustees.

In presenting the medal, David Lee, chair of Caltech's Board of Trustees, described how Day founded Trust Company of the West when he was 27 years old. Day raised $750,000 to start a company that ultimately managed more than $100 billion in financial assets and was sold for $2 billion. But it was a different aspect of Day's life that most inspired Lee.

"In addition to being a successful businessman, Robert has another side," Lee said. "He really, truly believes that he should carry out the original mandate from his grandfather, who established the W. M. Keck Foundation, to support original scientific research that will have long-lasting impact on humankind."

Incoming Caltech president Thomas Rosenbaum left no doubt about the impact of Day's convictions.

"It is in fact the courage and vision of philanthropy in concert with science that have allowed us to make discoveries that will stand through the history of humanity," he said, then offered a toast "to a man of vision, to a man of warmth, to discovery, to Robert."

Caltech's provost and interim president, Edward Stolper, explained that the Millikan Medal is the highest recognition accorded by Caltech. It was created to honor the life and ideals of Nobel laureate and Caltech cofounder Robert Andrews Millikan, who in his lifetime was arguably the most famous scientist in the United States. The Board of Trustees awards the medal, Stolper said, to individuals who reflect Millikan's standard of excellence and serve Caltech with particular distinction and dedication.

Stolper also revealed several little-known facts about the Keck family's 85-year relationship with Caltech. He described how Day's grandfather asked Caltech for help in applying newly developed techniques of geophysics to oil exploration in the early 1930s.

"William Keck had the insight and vision to realize that modern seismological techniques could be used to explore for oil," Stolper said.

In his own remarks, Day confirmed that it was this early investment in geophysics that helped build the Superior Oil Company.

"What was he doing right?" Day asked, reflecting on how his grandfather, with only an eighth-grade education, rose through the ranks of the bareknuckle drilling business to lead a multibillion-dollar oil company. "One of the things he did right was to partner with Caltech."

W. M. Keck used proceeds from his business to establish a foundation in 1954. One of the first grants the fledgling foundation made, in tandem with Superior Oil, established the W. M. Keck Engineering Laboratories in the heart of Caltech's campus in 1960. The facility remains a hub of research to this day.

Including that first gift, the foundation has contributed more than $170 million to Caltech over the years, supporting facilities and programs ranging from the W. M. Keck Foundation Professorship in the Division of Geology and Planetary Sciences to the W. M. Keck Observatory on top of the Mauna Kea volcano on the island of Hawaii, which has given astronomers unprecedented ability to explore the universe through its pioneering design, 10-meter mirrors, and early use of adaptive optics.

Gifts made to Caltech since Day assumed the chairmanship in 1996 include a discovery fund, established in 1997, that enabled more than two dozen research groups to pursue highly innovative investigations in basic biomedical research. The Keck Institute for Space Studies, established in 2008, brings together scientists and engineers from Caltech and JPL to develop new space-mission concepts and technologies. And a 2008 contribution helped to create the Keck Array, the third generation of instruments for the BICEP experiment, whose researchers recently announced BICEP2's detection of evidence of gravitational waves from the instant after the universe burst into existence.

"We are very proud of the partnership between Caltech and the Keck family, and so, on behalf of all of the members of the family, I accept this award," Day said. "I want everybody to know that it's also for my grandfather and for my uncle Howard [Howard B. Keck, chairman of the W. M. Keck Foundation from 1964 to 1995] and for the next generation. It is a great, great honor."

One member of that next generation, Day's son Joe Day, made the night's closing remarks. "I think my dad is drawn to scientists because they illustrate a central dictum of his—that winners give back more than they take from life. Scientists contribute far more than they extract from humanity. There can be no generosity more profound than expanding the sum of human knowledge with the hope that future generations will harness and surpass those discoveries for the greater good. That is what my dad likes about Caltech, and some of what we like about my dad."

Written by Ann Motrunich