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President's 2021 End of Year Message

December 09, 2021

To: The Caltech Community
From: Thomas F. Rosenbaum, Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and Professor of Physics
Date: December 8, 2021

A few days ago I stood on the sands of Omaha Beach. It is almost winter and the days are short in Normandy. The gray skies and the windswept terrain summon the ghosts of the 156,000 American, British, Canadian, and free French troops wading through the ocean swells into German gunfire as D-Day unfolded. Twisted metal hulks of tanks and landing craft emerge on cue as the tide ebbs.

June 6, 1944 was just the start of a massive engineering operation essential for the successful liberation of Europe. Men and matériel poured across the artificial harbors built literally overnight and airplanes roared off the metal mesh stretched over sand and grass to serve as landing strips. Technical ingenuity married to purpose made possible what was deemed impossible.

Up on the cliffs overlooking the beach stands the American Cemetery. Rows of white marble crosses and stars of David mark the remains of almost 10,000 men whose lives were cut short, average age of 25. The American oaks dotting the graves are also cut short, reminding us of the human potential that was lost so grievously.

There are many lessons to be drawn from this moment in history. The unity of purpose shared by allies who often disagreed is a vivid reminder of the need to find common ground if we wish to achieve important goals. We live at a moment when fracture and polarization often swamp commonality and shared intent.

Here universities can set an example. We bring together individuals with disparate backgrounds and world views and attempt to foster an environment where the free expression of ideas with conviction and respect leads to the creation of knowledge. Different approaches and perspectives tested against each other and thereby refined help us fulfill Caltech's mission of research and education for the benefit of society. The clash of ideas in the context of a shared calling permits us to achieve success together.  

D-Day also underscores the importance of technological prowess. Today, humanity is ever more dependent on science and engineering, from developing vaccines against viruses and cancer to inventing quantum computers to parse the organizational principles of the microscopic world. We must retain our ambition to make possible the impossible.   

This ambition adds meaning to our lives. The author Gabriel García Márquez writes: "It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams." I wish you and the entire Caltech community a new year full of potential, shared purpose, and the ability to pursue your dreams.