To: The Caltech Community
From: Thomas F. Rosenbaum, Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and Professor of Physics
Date: December 7, 2020
Re: 2020 End of Year Message
This has been an extraordinary year, a time of sorrow and trouble, but also a testament to fortitude and the ability of human beings to pull together and transcend their own personal interests. The Caltech community is an exemplar of the commitment to raising the human spirit through achievement, leadership, and service. Whether it be a new design for a ventilator or launching a mission to Mars; developing new ways to detect, treat, and predict the spread of SARS-CoV-2, harnessing the sun's light to produce liquid fuels, or revealing black hole mergers exploding with light; redefining the potential of remote instruction or speaking out against racial injustice; JPL and campus scientists, engineers, students, and staff are rising to the challenge.
Caltech alumnus Frank Borman, the commander of Apollo 8, the first mission to fly around the moon, talked about his experience: "I was absolutely awestruck, not so much at what we had accomplished, but at what made the accomplishment possible. A machine produced by more than three hundred thousand Americans was circling the moon with three human beings aboard for the first time in history."
As 2020 draws to a close, we note and honor the exceptional personal efforts that have helped see us through this year. We also recognize that progress is not possible without myriad individual contributions bound together by shared purpose and values. It is not sustainable without the organizations that preserve and build upon those values generation after generation.
In his last column for the New York Times, posted in November, the foreign correspondent Roger Cohen recounts a narrow escape with his life from the Bosnian war and how it defined his purpose and values. "If, unlike several dear colleagues, I walked away from the war, it was to say something. Otherwise life was wasted breath… To say something to my four children, whose lives I was lucky to see unfold, about engagement in the great causes, the pursuit of justice, about what Oliver Wendell Holmes called ‘the bitter cup of heroism,' and about his advice to wear the ‘heart out after the unattainable.'"
We come to Caltech to learn and to be open to changing our minds through the exchange of ideas, to assimilate information from multiple perspectives, and to question our assumptions. Only in this way will we be able to say something worthwhile. We live in a polarized nation where many speak loudly but have little to say. The antidote is to create a robust, civic space, welcoming to individuals from all backgrounds, committed to rigorous inquiry, devoted to understanding the natural world and improving the human world. It is what universities at their best have represented for a thousand years. It is how the Institute can flourish and inspire.
In many ways it is a relief to bid adieu to the upheaval of 2020. But as we flip the pages of the calendar to the new year, we should recognize the opportunities before us. The importance of science and technology has never been made clearer. The potential to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice has never been more palpable. The values of the academy have never been more necessary. The passion to discover and invent has never been so needed. I wish you a year of engagement in the great causes, shared with and bolstered by the Caltech community.