To: The Caltech Community
From: Thomas F. Rosenbaum, Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and Professor of Physics
Date: June 11, 2019
Re: 2018-19 Academic Year-End Message
Last week, a delegation of faculty from GPS and the Seismological Laboratory presented their latest results to Caltech alumni and friends in Seattle. With its high-tech gleam, Seattle has become a popular destination for our graduates. Just offshore is the Cascadia Subduction Zone, with the potential to unleash a magnitude 9.0 Earthquake.
The whole classification scheme for Earthquakes dates back to Charles Richter and Beno Gutenberg and the early days of the Seismo Lab. Mike Gurnis, the present director of the Seismo Lab, traced this history at our Seattle gathering, but the presentations featured the reinvention and renewal that make Caltech famous.
This is no longer your grandparents’ seismology! Small distortions in optical fibers from the shaking Earth can serve as seismometers placed every meter, mapping with unprecedented resolution the most vulnerable buildings in a city or how rainwater diffuses into underground aquifers. Machine learning can ferret out tiny Earthquakes in the historical record, revealing millions of small events and their spatial and temporal patterns. Spacecraft can guide rescue efforts after Earthquakes and deliver probes that have the potential to reveal Marsquakes and Venusquakes.
I am approaching the start of my second term as president of Caltech. Time is slippery. Often I feel like I have been here for my whole career, at other times like I have just arrived. But always I am amazed by our faculty’s, postdocs’, students’, staff’s, and alumni’s ability to create a community where defining areas of science and technology is the norm and the expectation. We mix disciplinary perspectives to refresh the old and fashion the new. We reach back to the beginnings of seismology, to the origins of molecular biology, to the instruments that defined observational astronomy, and we fearlessly transcend what no longer matters and create what captivates.
The novelist and historian Wallace Stegner writes in Angle of Repose: “His clock was set on pioneer time. He met trains that had not yet arrived, he waited on platforms that hadn’t yet been built, beside tracks that might never be laid.” This, to me, is as good a description of Caltech as they come. These trains will be met through our imaginations, and together we will lay the future’s tracks. May it be a summer of rewarding journeys for us all.