To: The Caltech Community
From: Thomas F. Rosenbaum, President
Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and Professor of Physics
Date: December 11, 2018
Re: 2018 End of Year Message
"Scientists discover the world that exists. Engineers create the world that never was."
—Theodore von Kármán
On the Monday after Thanksgiving, I sat nervously in the back row of the JPL Mission Support Area (MSA) control room. To my left was Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator; to his left, Michael Watkins, the director of JPL; to my right, Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of NASA's Science Mission Directorate; and to his right, Bruce Banerdt, InSight's principal investigator. The InSight spacecraft was fast approaching Mars, the culmination of a many decade's long dream of Banerdt's to probe the interior of Mars: to measure Marsquakes and to understand how the magnetic dynamo that protected Mars' atmosphere billions of years ago disappeared and, along with it, Mars' rivers and lakes.
The scientists and engineers in the MSA had dedicated years of effort to the instrumentation and systems integration necessary to make the mission a success, all hanging in the balance as InSight parachuted and retrofired its rockets to touch down softly for a safe landing in a sandy Mars crater. The only delay in following the spacecraft's touchdown was the eight minutes it took for radio signals to travel from Mars to Earth, thanks to two suitcase-sized satellites launched with InSight and timed to whiz by the Red Planet at exactly the right time to relay the telemetry. The MarCOs (Mars Cube One) became the first interplanetary CubeSats, and even snapped a picture of their InSight companion settling into its landing spot before hurtling off to deeper space.
Two weeks earlier, Caltech faculty, staff, and students gathered on the Olive Walk to celebrate Frances Arnold's 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It was a joyous outpouring for Caltech's first female Nobel laureate, a colleague who exemplifies the qualities that we hold dear as a community: excellence, fearlessness, reinvention, seizing the big idea, trampling disciplinary boundaries, connecting fundamental understanding of nature to technological innovation. As Frances explained in an interview with NPR: "I wanted to rewrite the code of life, to make new molecular machines that would solve human problems." Her revolution in evolution has set the stage for new types of chemistries and to greener pathways for chemicals.
These recent events remind us of the benefits of thinking big. They also underscore the extraordinary technological acumen that is necessary to realize the implications of big ideas. The Institute is known throughout the world for its mastery of fundamental science, but it is the connection of these fundamental precepts to engineering innovation that sets Caltech apart.
May the bright lights of this holiday season illuminate new discoveries—personal and professional—as we work together to create new and better worlds.