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President's 2023 Year-end Essay

December 04, 2023

To: The Caltech Community
From: Thomas F. Rosenbaum, Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and Professor of Physics
Date: December 4, 2023
Re: 2023 Year-end Essay

As a community of scientists and engineers, we think naturally about the four-dimensional space-time continuum. The many Caltech accomplishments that we celebrate throughout the year – complex calculations to sort millions of cells by their individual gene expressions, exacting requirements to design and assemble spacecraft capable of autonomous function, laser cameras to freeze light pulses in time – all depend on manifestations and implementations of this deep physical understanding.

Recently, I came across a different interpretation of space and time from the writer and critic Susan Sontag. She explains: "Time exists in order that everything doesn't happen all at once…and space exists so that it doesn't all happen to you." 

Sometimes it does feel like everything is happening all at once and it all happens to us! Deadlines approach, bureaucracy is inescapable, funding pressures escalate, politics becomes ever more intractable, technical glitches intercede, planetary alignment is out of whack. Yet somehow, the Caltech can-do mentality reorders space and time. The world looks with awe and inspiration at the triumphs coming from the Institute. From cataloguing the evolution of our home planet to peering deep into the mysteries of the universe, Caltech folks continue to astound.

An observation from the Zen basketball coach Phil Jackson, speaks to this phenomenon: "The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team." 

If there is an overriding lesson of the pandemic, it is that so much in life transcends the individual. A community must pull together and protect their most vulnerable to emerge stronger. If there is any hope to forestall the human tragedies that are unfolding across the globe, it is to create community that values difference and is committed to engaging those with different views and backgrounds with respect and compassion.

Caltech's shared focus on understanding the complexities of Nature and the world around us provides a common purpose and a common language. It offers a means to actively contribute with purpose to the commonweal. But it is a fragile undertaking, continuously dependent on an atmosphere of openness and a community that is unafraid to question and to learn and to connect.

Universities have survived for centuries as bulwarks of democracy because they instantiate these values. We educate informed and contributing citizens, provide opportunities based on merit to diverse populations, and create knowledge for the benefit of society. As members of the Institute community, we are asked to rise to these responsibilities, even as the exigencies of the world act to sunder our shared sense of mission.

Each and every one of you – undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, faculty, staff; at JPL, at Keck, at LIGO, on the main Pasadena campus – is essential to the transformative efforts that make Caltech special. Thank you for all that you do to strengthen the Institute and to elevate our impact. May the new year be one of understanding, growth, and peace.