To: The Caltech Community
From: Thomas F. Rosenbaum
Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and Professor of Physics
"My name is growing all the time, and I've lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story.
Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to…"
~ Treebeard in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings
At commencement ceremonies on June 16, 2017, approximately 250 undergraduates and 300 graduate students will receive their degrees. They will graduate en masse, but each person will march across the stage separately, as an individual, called by their own name. This can be an exhausting process for graduates, officiants, and guests alike (not to mention the 550 handshakes with the president!), but it has immense power.
A Caltech commencement is a statement of community values, from the scientific method to the honor code. But these values only attain meaning through the actions of individuals. They only achieve depth and richness through individual stories. They only grow and redound when individual perspectives inform the search for knowledge. The texture of our community comes from the vowels and consonants of the names that form it.
In addition to our given names, there are names we choose for our stories. Each one of us has chosen to make the name Caltech be part of our lives. Whether as students, alumni, faculty, or staff, we share in this developing story. It represents our commitment as individuals to a set of standards and beliefs that we are called upon to uphold and espouse.
Names also help us to understand the world around us. We create meaning from the overarching structure of an evolutionary tree, the periodic arrangement of the elements, and the tiered families of quarks in powers of three. We are gratified as we add names to our lifetime lists of birds and butterflies. The challenge is to convert our individual discoveries into a collective narrative that reveals something new about nature or society or ourselves.
Caltech provides an environment where we can write that narrative as named individuals, empowered by community. Commencement is a start, a new beginning. We turn the page of this academic year with richer stories and the opportunity to make our names grow in scholarship and service. I wish you a successful and fulfilling summer.