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2017-18 Academic Year Welcome

September 24, 2017


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

The highlight of the summer was undoubtedly the great American eclipse. Many of us shared in the experience as a band of totality cut a swath across the United States. We were reminded of the magnificence of nature, and the satisfaction derived from understanding and being able to accurately predict how the world around us behaves (at least at the level of celestial mechanics!).

As the temperature dropped in an eerie twilight framed by a morning sunset, the corona of the sun emerged, and then, finally, pinpricks of sunlight, shimmering red before flaring into a golden crescent. As Virginia Woolf captured so profoundly: "How then does light return to the world after the eclipse of the sun? Miraculously. Frailly. In thin stripes."

We return to campus at a miraculous time to do science. New vistas on the universe have opened with gravitational wave detection; insights into the fundamental biology and chemistry and engineering of the human body promise to relieve suffering and prolong life; machine learning combined with human insight has the potential to transform the disciplines. Caltech students, faculty, staff, and alumni, individually and together, continue to work vigorously to expand the boundaries of present knowledge.

It is also a time of frailty. The fundamental mission of universities is under assault. We exist to create knowledge for the centuries and to improve the human condition today. To accomplish our mission, we need to welcome into our midst the most creative and original scholars from every background and every perspective, from every part of our society and from every country in the world. We need to let the members of our community explore and dream in an environment where ideas are tested and refined on the basis of their importance and impact. It is the quality of the idea that must be dispositive, not its popularity at the time nor the status of the individual. These values have achieved expression in the university structure for a thousand years, but they can be ephemeral if we do not defend them actively.   

Science lets us look at the world through unfiltered glasses.  We may not always expect, comprehend, or even like what we see, but we are able to discern the truth and build insight upon insight. Just as we have learned to predict the intricate choreography of the sun and the moon, we – the Caltech community – have the opportunity to weave together the thin stripes of knowledge and understanding because of our shared values.

The stakes are high: for us, for the university as an institution, and for our country. Let us use the start of the academic year to reflect on miracles and frailty, to celebrate the ties that bind us together as a university community, and to strengthen our commitment to expand human knowledge and benefit society.