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2021-22 Academic Year-End Letter

June 01, 2022

To: The Caltech Community
From: Thomas F. Rosenbaum
Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and Professor of Physics
Date: June 1, 2022

In the April 1928 issue of Harper's Magazine, George Ellery Hale made the case for a new telescope to sail "…the uncharted seas of space." This was less than a decade after the commissioning of the 100-inch Hooker telescope on Mount Wilson, a project so fraught and complex, spread between Europe and the United States, interrupted by World War l and seemingly insurmountable glass casting challenges, that it took a severe toll on Hale's health. However, the discoveries by Edwin Hubble and colleagues of an expanding universe reanimated the conversation, opening new possibilities for understanding the structure of the universe and the constituents of matter.    

It would be twenty more years before first light for the 200-inch Hale telescope on Mount Palomar, interrupted by World War ll and requiring years of polishing on the Caltech campus to hone the parabolic shape of the mirror. Almost three quarters of a century after its debut, the Hale telescope continues to perform cutting-edge science. This is a testament to the remarkable engineering of the instrument itself. It is also a statement about the endurance of human imagination, ingenuity, and wonder.

Last week I was privileged to attend a conference on Mount Palomar grappling with the profound question of the origin of life. In true Institute fashion, astronomers, biologists, geochemists, geophysicists, and planetary scientists compared the evolution of the Earth with the other planets in our solar system and the rapidly expanding inventory of exoplanets. There were formal presentations, but far more illuminating were the informal exchanges replete with challenges to preconceived notions. The belief that a close-knit community in dialogue across the disciplines can uncover truths that cannot be revealed otherwise represents another enduring Caltech value.

As night fell, it became possible to open the dome and look through the eyepiece of the Hale telescope. The planetary nebula and the binary star system brought into focus from light years away viscerally underscored the wonder of discovery. The experience served as a powerful reminder of the scientific payoffs that can result from the combination of persistence and ingenuity, built on the foundation of engineering prowess.

Enduring values and endurance itself have been the prevalent themes of the past two years. We are a community that cares for one another, that draws on diverse talents, that believes in making decisions based on data, that prizes openness, and that is resilient. Together—undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, faculty, and staff—we have weathered the coronavirus pandemic, staying true to Caltech's mission of creating knowledge and educating the next generation, all in service of society.

This fall may well test our mettle once again. Whatever the uncharted seas, I am confident that we will be able to call upon our distinctive set of values to navigate true north. As we gather at commencement ceremonies in person for the first time since 2019, we can look with pride upon the accomplishments of the past academic year and look forward to a year of continuing discovery and satisfaction.