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2017-18 Academic Year-End Message

May 24, 2018

To: The Caltech Community
From: Thomas F. Rosenbaum, President, 
           Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and Professor of Physics
Date: May 25, 2018
Re: 2017-18 Academic Year-End Message

Today is Ditch Day (not the eternal "tomorrow" of Institute tradition!). Months of planning and hard work by Caltech seniors culminate in Ditch Day, where for almost 90 years seniors ditch classes and escape campus for the day. They leave behind complex challenges known as stacks to divert the remaining students from interest in the temporarily abandoned rooms and possessions.

The stacks—puzzles that require force, finesse, or intellect to solve—must be created at a time when seniors are finishing up their degree requirements and starting to write the next chapters of their lives. Stacks require enormous effort and teamwork for the benefit of the community at large. Decade after decade, it is a way that Caltech seniors not only have fun, but also give back.

We live in a time when we sorely need to invoke the spirit of Ditch Day. Shared assumptions about understanding and describing the world through data-driven inquiry are under assault. As members of society who believe that facts are essential components of discourse and that truth can be discerned through the scientific method, we have a special responsibility to apply our knowledge and our ideals, individually and collectively, for the commonweal.

We need to seize opportunities to give back. We can march for science or, like our postdocs and graduate students, organize a Science for March. More than 2,000 of our neighbors visited 50 outdoor booths and learning stations on Beckman Mall on Saturday, March 31, in this inaugural outreach event, and learned about topics from antibiotic resistance to seismology. Tens of thousands of space enthusiasts crowd JPL at the annual open houses, even in the face of miles-long backups on the Foothill Freeway. It is clear that the thirst for scientific knowledge is widespread and deep.

Not only can we introduce the ideas of science and the promise of technology to the public at large, but we must emphasize the need to evaluate competing hypotheses, to test the factual bases of assertions, to understand the probabilistic nature of analyses, and to accommodate uncertainty and risk. These are the stacks that the citizens of a democracy must solve for a robust future. As the end of the academic year approaches, we have a chance to step back and evaluate where we are and where we are going. I hope that we will commit ourselves to working together as a community on this essential challenge.