To: The Caltech Community
From: Thomas F. Rosenbaum
Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and Professor of Physics
Date: September 28, 2022
As the shackles of the pandemic loosen, we have an opportunity to reset and to ask what calls to us as scholars, as Caltech colleagues, and as citizens of the world. Irène Joliot-Curie, whose alchemy created nitrogen from boron, and phosphorus from aluminum through alpha-ray bombardment, averred: "Without the love of research, mere knowledge and intelligence cannot make a scientist." The award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 with her husband Frédéric Joliot-Curie, following in the footsteps of her parents Marie and Pierre Curie, made for five Nobels in the family, providing a rarefied vantage point for her reflections!
The mathematician, physicist, and philosopher of science Henri Poincaré observed that: "Science is built up with facts, as a house is built up with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house." A more everyday example is the tale of two bricklayers. One says, "I'm laying bricks." The other says, "I am building a cathedral."
Both Joliot-Curie and Poincaré speak to the inspiration that is required to elevate the pursuit of knowledge into a meaningful and deeply fulfilling vocation. The freedom to let your imagination roam and the potential to light in unexpected places are rare privileges afforded by the academy. The bricklayers provide context. We—Caltech staff, students, postdocs, faculty, alumni, and friends—are part of a community, each contributing in their own way, that strives together to create something much larger than any one of us could accomplish alone.
The intense and intimate character of the Institute makes possible the focused interactions and serendipitous encounters that round out the pursuit of knowledge. In the wake of the social isolation brought on by the coronavirus, we must be intentional and proactive in forming connections. There remain psychological barriers to full engagement that we must surmount to realize once again the full benefits of our diverse community; to learn from others with different approaches, backgrounds, and perspectives; and to translate our local insights into global discoveries.
As teachers, we hope to impart wisdom. Although necessary, this is not sufficient as we confront the challenges of today's world, from climate change to political upheaval. What our students need most to face the future is courage.
Courage is the mortar that converts heaps of stones into cathedrals. It is easy to become discouraged reading the headlines in the news. It is difficult to muster the belief that our scientific discoveries and technological interventions can have lasting effect. But the passion for truth and a shared commitment to intellectual rigor can provide the resolve that leads to positive change.
We have the opportunity this coming academic year to draw together as community, to amplify our collective love of research, and to reinforce our singularly collegial, interdisciplinary atmosphere. The future depends on it.