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2023-24 Academic Year Welcome

September 26, 2023

To: The Caltech Community
From: Thomas F. Rosenbaum, Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and Professor of Physics
Date: September 26, 2023

Heading to the gate at LAX last week, I passed a mural dedicated to the people that keep the airport running: salesclerks, custodians, accountants, gate agents, mechanics, pilots, police officers. The portraits stared directly at you with pride, reminding you of the hard, behind-the-scenes work and dedication necessary to keep a complex machine humming.

So it is at Caltech. The idyllic park setting that inspires our work; the old buildings that somehow house modern laboratories and defy their age; the offices that are cleaned with care; the cup of coffee available at the café along with a smile and a greeting; the grants that demand a deluge of paperwork, without which the process of scientific discovery would stall; the financial underpinnings of a billion dollar enterprise; the academic support structures and extracurricular activities that buoy our students and enrich their experiences; all depend on talented, caring, and committed staff members. Too often we pass by our staff colleagues, hurrying to our next destination as if running to catch a plane, and fail to acknowledge our shared mission.

We are fortunate to be part of a close-knit community dedicated to a pursuit that transcends us as individuals. Caltech's small size provides us with the opportunity to connect to each other and to contribute to the commonweal in a very personal manner. Caltech's outsized contributions to creating knowledge for the ages and inventing technologies that improve people's lives today are a result of the extraordinary efforts of students, postdocs, faculty, staff, and alumni alike. 

The sense of a shared higher mission comes through viscerally in Christopher Nolan's extraordinary new film, Oppenheimer. At a hermetically-sealed Los Alamos, scientists, engineers, and staff race to unleash the power of the atom, fearful of losing the pursuit, and with it the war, to Nazi Germany. The talent assembled was legendary, including notable Caltech participants Bacher, Christy, Tolman, a bongo-playing Feynman flitting across the film's background, and Oppenheimer himself, along with other scientific luminaries like Bethe, Rabi, and Teller.

It should not be a spoiler to note that the effort succeeded. The scientific and technological achievements were as overwhelming as they were daunting. Hiroshima and Nagasaki also eviscerated any notion of a Los Alamos isolated from the world. The atomic bomb introduced deep moral quandaries, from the relationship of science to society, amplified by the politics of the day, to existential fears about the future survival of humanity.

Since Oppenheimer's time, the pace of scientific discovery and technological innovation has accelerated, accompanied by ever more intense moral dilemmas. The promise of a secure carbon-free energy future from nuclear fission and fusion vies with the continuing threat of nuclear annihilation. The explosive growth in the capability of artificial intelligence can lead to life-saving improvements in health screening, powerful tools for artistic creation, and novel ways of approaching science as well as upheavals in the job market, propagation of false information, and new weapons of war. Genetic engineering has the capacity to save lives and degrade lives. These types of advances define an ethical landscape that we must traverse and help shape appropriately, informed by fundamental understanding of the science. Only through informed evaluation can we amplify the salutatory aspects of technological development and counter its dehumanizing capacity.

As an educational institution, we have a special responsibility to light the way for the next generation of leaders. The science fiction author and Pasadena native Octavia Butler writes, "There is nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns." The power of the Caltech community resides in our capacity to define new directions. It also demands our awareness of the impact that we have on the world around us, local and global. 

As the new academic year gets underway at Caltech, we are called to think, to explore, and to engage. It will take the efforts of all of us, inside and outside of the academy, applying the tools of science, realizing the possibilities of technology, and being attuned to their peril and promise.