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President's 2022 Year-end Essay

December 05, 2022

To: The Caltech Community
From: Thomas F. Rosenbaum
Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and Professor of Physics
Date: December 5, 2022

With travel back in vogue and hours spent on airplanes through fall term, I had the chance to read Jon Gertner's The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. There Gertner traces the history of the most influential and productive American industrial research enterprise. Through sketches of its scientists and leaders, he hones in on the spirit of discovery that set Bell Labs apart from the competition. The motif of an Idea Factory could be applied as well to Caltech, where innovation and impact are second nature, viscerally felt and valued by our community.

The parallels between Bell Labs and Caltech are rooted in our histories. Shortly after arriving at Caltech, Robert Millikan became a major conduit for talent between the two organizations. Chosen students from his laboratory in Sloan were dispatched east to New York in Bell's early days, and they populated the ranks of its scientific and engineering leadership for years to come. These newly minted PhDs and postdocs brought with them a technological prowess and a scientific ambition that set the stage for the invention of the transistor and the electronics revolution, the replacement of copper wire with optical fiber, the development of solid-state lasers (along with Caltech's Amnon Yariv), and the birth of the information age.

Scientific sensibility and culture played a huge role in Bell Labs' success, and links Caltech and Bell Labs most profoundly. A telling illustration involves a vignette from Gertner recounting the origins of the silicon solar cell. Cal Fuller and Gerald Pearson were trying to develop a doped silicon power rectifier when they noticed that it was responsive to light. In a different building on a different project in a more applied part of Bell Labs, Daryl Chapin was addressing the challenge of supplying power to remote telephone installations. The three combined on their own initiative to make the first practical solar power device. Fuller later recalled that the invention was made possible "…because the Labs policy did not require us to get the permission of our bosses to cooperate – at the Laboratories one could go directly to the person who could help."

We pride ourselves at Caltech on an open-door policy for ideas and collaborations. The barriers to crossing disciplinary boundaries are low and the payoffs for original approaches are high, whether it be imaging black holes, developing universal vaccines, exploring the entanglement frontier, or unraveling the mysteries of the brain. We have no compunction about seeking help from a student, postdoc, faculty, or staff member who may hold the key to discovery.

I had the pleasure of spending three years at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey at the beginning of my career. The long, narrow corridors with small offices spilling into the hallways funneled potential collaborators together. The lunch tables in the dining room realized new connections and the spirited exchange of ideas. The basic science at Murray Hill naturally fed into the newest equipment Western Electric provided for the AT&T network, and conversely benefitted from the feedback and technical capacity of the engineering research and development effort.

At a much later part of my career, I have the pleasure of recapturing the same intensity, intimacy, and ethos at Caltech. The lunch tables at the Athenaeum may not stand in the shadow of the stock ticker, but the sense of urgency and the animated exchanges are the same. Sitting at the Red Door experiencing serendipitous encounters with colleagues and colleagues-to-be, one experiences the start of many a project, some destined to change the world. Being at Caltech is a heady experience, and also one that touches the heart in its expression of humanity and idealism.

Bell Labs is no more. The court-ordered break-up of AT&T destroyed the business model on which the Labs depended, leaving a gaping hole, even decades later, in American industrial research capability. But Idea Factories are no less important for jump-starting innovation and providing a prosperous future for our country. Caltech is one such remaining place, with an interactive culture that prizes excellence and a business model built to withstand the passage of time. We, as members of the Caltech community, have a special responsibility to sustain and enhance the Institute for a calling that goes beyond our time. As 2022 draws to an end, I wish you the continuing pleasure of this grand endeavor, and a fulfilling and successful new year.