Quintessentially Caltech

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Quintessentially Caltech
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Caltech: A Personal Perspective

Ahmed Zewail, Nobel Laureate
Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Physics, Caltech

Zewail provided an overview of his journey from a young child in Egypt to Caltech Nobel laureate. On the day he won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Physics, he recalled, Caltech president David Baltimore came to Zewail's house, but he refused to open the door. "We thought he was paparazzi," Zewail admitted.

Credit: Chris Sabanpan

The End of Disease?

Roger Kornberg, Nobel Laureate
Mrs. George A. Winzer Professor in Medicine, Stanford, School of Medicine

As advanced as we think we are, Kornberg said, scientists today understand less than 1 percent of human biology. Attracting more young people to the field of medical research is therefore critical. "Young scientists are the most likely to discover something," he said. "And numbers matter."

Credit: Chris Sabanpan

The Future of Medicine

David Baltimore, Nobel Laureate
Caltech President Emeritus
Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology, Caltech

The human body can survive a maximum of roughly 120 years, according to Baltimore. He predicted a future in which scientists work to push that envelope, using gene editing "to liberate us from the process of aging" and "to perfect the human body, whatever that means."

Credit: Chris Sabanpan

The Future of Quantum Physics

H. Jeff Kimble, Member, National Academy of Sciences
William L. Valentine Professor and Professor of Physics, Caltech

Kimble's lecture about the future of quantum physics included predictions about quantum computing, quantum simulation, and quantum metrology. "Science helps hold us together and appreciate our sameness rather than our differences," he said.

 

Credit: Chris Sabanpan

Time, Einstein, and the Coolest Stuff in the Universe

William Phillips, Nobel Laureate
Physicist, National Institute of Standards and Technology
Distinguished University Professor, University of Maryland

In a hands-on demonstration, Phillips put on a pair of lab goggles and dunked a variety of items—a rose, a racquetball, several inflated balloons—into a vat of liquid nitrogen to help demonstrate his overall point: that we can create super-accurate atomic clocks by cooling down atoms to astoundingly low temperatures.

Credit: Chris Sabanpan

Inequality and World Economics

A. Michael Spence, Nobel Laureate
Philip H. Knight Professor and Dean, Emeritus
Stanford University Graduate School of Business

Spence discussed a number of global economic trends—including the decline in middle-class jobs and the rise of job-eliminating technologies—in a lecture that considered the disparities between rich and poor. "I'm a little worried about what's going on in the global economy right now and I tend to be an optimist," he said.

Credit: Chris Sabanpan

The Future of Space Exploration

Charles Elachi, NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal Recipient
Caltech Vice President
Director, Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Elachi said he believes we will establish a space station on Mars and that humans will begin visiting the planet by 2030. But, he noted, "It's important that we take care of our own planet. It's the only thing we have, at least for now."

 

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How best to recognize Caltech's own Ahmed Zewail, the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry and professor of physics, and director of the Physical Biology Center for Ultrafast Science and Technology, who has served on Caltech's faculty for 40 years? President Thomas F. Rosenbaum had the answer: what he would later call a "quintessentially Caltech conference."

And so, on Friday, February 26, more than 1,000 people gathered to hear exceptional researchers, including 5 Nobel Laureates, from across disciplines consider our future as part of the full-day "Science and Society" conference that honored the career of Zewail, whom Rosenbaum called "a wizard of scientific innovation."

The speakers lectured on a broad spectrum of topics, ranging from space travel to global economic inequality to what happens when five inflated balloons are stuffed into a vat of liquid nitrogen. Their talks were moderated by Nathan Gardels, editor in chief of The WorldPost, and Peter Dervan, the Bren Professor of Chemistry, who noted while introducing Zewail that they have been close friends ever since their early days starting as assistant professors together at Caltech.

"What an extraordinary day," Rosenbaum said at the conclusion of the event, held in Beckman Auditorium. "It's unusual to find a series of talks at this incredibly high level of excellence—intellectually deep and pedagogically engaging."

As many of the speakers pointed out, Zewail's list of accomplishments is staggering. He has authored some 600 articles and 16 books and was sole recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize for his pioneering work in femtochemistry. In the post-Nobel era, he developed a new field dubbed four-dimensional electron microscopy. He has been active in global affairs, serving as the first U.S. Science Envoy to the Middle East and helping establish the Zewail City of Science and Technology in Cairo, which he hopes to turn into "the Caltech of Egypt."

"Ahmed is a very special kind of scientist," said Fiona Harrison, chair of Caltech's Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy, during the conference's introductory remarks. She noted the "incredible breadth of his research" and cited a colleague's observation that "Ahmed is someone who never has average goals."

Jackie Barton, chair of Caltech's Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, praised Caltech for taking a chance on Zewail four decades ago, when he was a young scientist. "He had this vision," she said. "The vision was to watch the dynamics of chemical reactions, to watch reactions happening on a faster and faster time scale, indeed to watch the making and breaking of chemical bonds."

She added: "He has this intuitive sense of the dynamical motions of atoms and molecules, their coherence, or lack thereof, as the case may be. And then he has this extraordinary attention to every detail, so that he's able to meld together theory and experiment and understand that dance, that choreography of atoms and molecules as they carry out a reaction."

To further honor Zewail, Caltech presented him with a rare book of Benjamin Franklin's speeches and scientific research—on lightning rods and the aurora borealis, among other phenomena—that is signed by Rosenbaum and all of Caltech's former presidents. Caltech Provost Ed Stolper noted that it is the only book authored by Franklin that was published during his lifetime.

As Stolper noted in his introductory remarks, the gift is a fitting one for Zewail, who has come to embody the ideal of Caltech, a place "where scientists and engineers are limited only by their imagination." He added Ahmed is one of the few scientists that, like Benjamin Franklin and Linus Pauling, not only excelled in science but has made a broader impact on society through his writings and actions.

Written by Alex Roth

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