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Photo of Dr. France A. Cordova

Dr. France A. Córdova
U.S. National Science Foundation


California Institute of Technology Commencement

June 14, 2019

Photo: NSF/Stephen Voss

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

Chairman Lee, President Rosenbaum, and members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, administrators, honored guests, family and friends: it's great to be back home! To the undergraduates who make up the Class of 2019, to all the graduate students about to be awarded with Masters and PhDs — Congratulations! I am honored to share this day with you.

Four decades ago, I was sitting where you are now. I was so proud. My parents were in the audience. Some of my professors were sitting up here on the stage. I was able to succeed at Caltech and in my career because of their support and belief in me. Even so, they would be surprised to see me up here, giving your commencement address!

I have special memories from my time here as a student. It was one of the most important times of my life.

What distinguished Caltech for me was that the professors worked hand in hand with students in the laboratory, at the observatory, in the field. There was a spirit of adventure, of discovery here, of sheer joy at being the first to see new phenomena: new rings around planets, pulsations of stars, and solar systems in the making. There was a feeling of wonder to hear of new elementary particles from Nobel prize winners who were among our teachers.

It was an environment in which to grow, learn from imaginative individuals, work long hours, play long hours, learn to do things on our own and make our own mistakes — and relish it all. I hope all of this sounds familiar to you, graduates. I hope that you have enjoyed your Caltech years.

I'd like to share with you three things that I took from my Caltech experience. These shaped my goals, my pathway, my choices.

The first is about Caltech's legacy in basic research, its value, its impact.

Recently, an alumnus pointed me to a Time Magazine article from 1955. On the cover was Caltech's president, Lee DuBridge. The article was full of photos of Caltech leaders, including Robert Millikan, Caltech's first president. Some things are different today: there are many more women in STEM at Caltech! But some things haven't changed. For those of you from Ricketts House, there's a nice photo of it too in this issue and a description of its famous pranks.

The article is titled "The Purists" because Caltech has been devoted to basic research—pure research—since it's founding in 1921. Basic research is what brought me here in the mid-1970s. Cosmic X-ray sources had recently been detected and they pointed to the existence of black holes and neutron stars. What could be more exciting, and less useful, than that!?

In 1955, as today, there were questions from the public about why we do basic research. We peer into the dawn of time, or probe the smallest components of matter; we invest billions of dollars over decades to try to sense gravitational waves that are barely perceptible, or trek to the ends of the earth to install detectors in Antarctic ice hoping to catch the rare flash of a neutrino. For what purpose? As scientists, we are called on to explain what drives us to do these things.

Ira Bowen, who was in charge of Caltech's observatories at the time, gave his reason: "we are astronomers for the dickens of it,"” he said.

I might have said it differently. I'm an astronomer because I'm driven to learn about the nature of the universe, how it came about, how we came about. I simply want to know.

I want to know because at the end of that process of learning and understanding and assembling information, there is a moment where everything comes together and you can see something that has never been seen before. It's a Eureka moment, and I've been luck enough to have experienced it a few times, the first time as a graduate student here.

I inherited a love of that moment from Caltech. It's a moment of insight that touches the reality of nature. It's why I'm a scientist.

It was basic research that drew me to lead the National Science Foundation, whose mission is to further the progress of science. Our history at NSF is to fund high-risk projects with potentially high rewards. I'm proud that we funded Charles Townes as he pursued a path to the invention of masers and lasers, driven only by his curiosity about molecular interactions. More recently we funded the fearless Frances Arnold, Caltech's first woman Nobelist. And we funded — forever, it seemed — the famous gravitational wave experiment called LIGO, which led to Nobel prizes for two Caltech professors, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish.

I have discovered in my present job, however, that not everyone recognizes the intrinsic merit of basic research. When I came to NSF, more than five years ago now, we were facing questions from legislators about the relevance and importance of specific programs that we funded.

They didn't know the history of scientific discovery. They didn't know that you can draw a line from today's technologies—everything from barcodes to cellphones to MRI machines to life-saving drugs, to the internet and Google —all the way back to a moment when someone simply wondered why and decided to figure it out.

Caltech, from the time Millikan came as president in 1921, has devoted itself to basic research. And from that research often came amazing applications. Thirty-eight Caltech faculty or students have won Nobel prizes, and many more have won other distinguished awards for basic scientific discoveries. From that research has come, over time, unanticipated applications. Looking back in time, it is easy to see the value of basic research. Looking forward, not so clear.

At NSF, we decided to imagine what the future might look like. We pivoted to a strategy that spotlights big ideas with potentially transformative return on investment. These are ideas that touch on quantum mechanics, big data, the rules of life, artificial intelligence, multi-messenger astronomy, and more—areas that are on the forefront of scientific research.

This strategy paid off. Other countries are emulating this approach. We are experiencing renewed support from lawmakers and the public. We've seen increases in our budget every year since we began focusing on these big ideas. And in the category of miraculous, this year no legislator singled out our projects for criticism.

Things changed when we stepped out and fought back. We had to speak up, loudly, clearly, about the benefits of basic research, to explain why it mattered, where and how we could envision its benefits. We needed to articulate a forward-looking strategy. That's a mission that will fall to you as the next generation of scientists, engineers, poets, and seekers of truth.

Treasure Caltech's past legacy, your past at Caltech. Let it help you invent your future.

The second thing I learned is the importance of focus. Caltech's middle name is focus. A century of discoveries and breakthroughs and progress happened here because the institution focused on what it can do best.

For those of you who chose to pursue science and engineering, it is rigorous thinking, it is inventiveness, it is tenacity in tackling hard problems and sticking with them that characterized your focus.

Some of you pursued the humanities, also with laser-like focus. Some people are surprised when they learn that I got my undergraduate degree in English. Your focus can change as your horizons broaden, but it is focus that let’s you know when that change is important. It is focus that lets you dream new concepts that will surprise you, focus that ultimately sets your imagination free.

Some of you probably have found your focus already. Others of you may still be searching, ready to explore a new focus. Don't worry: sometimes it takes time, sometimes it takes false starts.

I didn't find my focus until after I had an English degree. I was inspired by a public television show about neutron stars. (As an aside, I'm happy NSF still funds public TV!) I had taken an astronomy course, but I didn't have a background in physics or math. But I had found my focus, so I dug in.

I found my way to Caltech and asked for a job with an X-ray astronomy group headquartered in Downs Laboratory. I didn't have any computing experience, but was handed a copy of Chandrasekar’s book on Radiative Transfer and asked to put it into code. Caltech professors allowed me to audit their courses. And I did well enough that they admitted me as a grad student in physics. When I had those inevitable moments of doubt, fear of losing focus, my friends and mentors kept me on track. My focus is what made me an astrophysicist, and I believe Caltech saw that in me, just as it saw something in each of you.

When I became chancellor at the University of California, Riverside, I wanted the university to deliver more to the community. What did the region need most that the university was uniquely suited to deliver? The answer was a medical school. With a dearth of doctors in inland California, especially diverse family practice doctors, this was an urgent need. So that became my focus as chancellor. Today, the medical school is kicking. I am proud that it has a very diverse student body that will serve the local community.

Caltech has given you all the tools you need to accomplish great things and to solve problems no one else can. Focus is like a lens that bends everything you've learned here, your passion and your skills, to a single point that magnifies all of your efforts.

The third thing I learned was to abandon the idea of myself as a lonely researcher in the basement of the synchrotron lab, working in isolation. Today's landscape is an interdisciplinary one in which teamwork among experts with a wide variety of disciplines matters.

The landscape of mysteries and challenges is vast and only continues to grow in complexity. Navigating it requires us to work across the boundaries of any single science. Thinking and acting in interdisciplinary teams, teams with a common focus, is how we can leverage what we know.

Interdisciplinary science is about how we approach research at a fundamental level as the lines between disciplines and methods are blurring more and more every day.

The article I mentioned from 1955 included a quote by Caltech Physicist Robert Bacher. He said, "Nature is not physics or chemistry or biology. It is all three—and much more besides."

'Much more besides' only scratches the surface, which is why today we see an emphasis on bringing researchers together from different disciplines to address big questions and pressing challenges.

It's not a new idea, but it is increasingly important. When I became Vice Chancellor for Research at UC Santa Barbara, I started a program called Research Across Disciplines. It encouraged researchers to collaborate across disciplines to dream up new projects that most people would think were too high-risk to fund. But many of those projects produced important results, and after demonstrating that interdisciplinary research could be successful, those kinds of proposals were no longer high-risk, because people understood what could be accomplished.

That was in 1996, before there was much emphasis on interdisciplinary research. Today, it has changed the way we work at NSF. We now invite researchers to think outside their disciplinary boxes about how they can tackle grand challenge problems together.

If you want examples of how important interdisciplinary work is, just look at two of the biggest scientific achievements in the last few years: LIGO and the Event Horizon Telescope.

LIGO is, of course, one of Caltech's greatest recent accomplishments — detecting gravitational waves was a task that even Einstein thought would be impossible. But Rai Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish did not think it impossible. They worked doggedly for decades, improving the signal-to-noise of the detectors with ever-improved engineering. And this in spite of professional skepticism about whether this would work. They engaged numerical relativists to simulate mergers of black holes and neutron stars. In the end, they surprised even themselves! Not only did they detect a minute perturbation in space-time, but they identified the cosmic culprits that caused it — binary star systems with merging black holes! And today, with even more technology improvements, LIGO has become a true Observatory, discovering merging black holes weekly, and merging neutron stars as well.

And when the Event Horizon Telescope team of mostly young scientists set out to create the first image of a black hole, they were undertaking a mission that needed a telescope the size of the planet. Theirs was a relatively inexpensive experiment but it cleverly leveraged existing expensive assets, namely, millimeter telescopes that already existed.

Both projects also brought together teams of researchers from different backgrounds and various expertise. They required scientists and engineers who could conceive of and build new instruments, and who could figure out how to combine different detectors to operate in unison. They needed computational expertise to deal with massive amounts of data, and new algorithms and approaches for processing it.

The history of science is full of scientists who were able to make great strides on their own: Galileo, Newton, Curie, Einstein in his patent office. But the future of science is going to rely on teamwork. There are new people here, like incoming professor Katie Bouman, one of 200 people on the first EHT paper. Even among so many, her contributions shone. Thee challenge for your generation is how to make such large interdisciplinary collaborations work, and let each contributor's talents shine brightly.

As I close my remarks, I want to share with you one more important lesson I've learned. As a university president, I saw all kinds of eager young faces enter as students every year: students spanning a huge spectrum of background and wide range of doubt or confidence in themselves and their futures. Reflecting on my own Caltech experience has reminded me of my responsibility as a faculty member and administrator: I would influence their direction by my own example.

I vowed never to underestimate the wisdom of the next generation because they had clearer eyes on the future. You're closer to it, and you, more than us with all our experience, have a sense of what is coming.

The view from where I'm standing is wonderful: you all look great, I can sense the excitement. But I remember the view when I sat where you are in 1979. It was even better, because it was looking into the future.

You are the future. You will navigate your own path, and it will be a unique ride of discovery through the universe. You'll take with you your Caltech experience, and you'll have the compass your family gave you to help keep you on your path. There will be detours, new opportunities. You will have choices. You will need to have a strong sense of your values and what you stand for.

Wherever you go, remember what brought you here: you had a vision of yourself, the big ideas that motivated you. Hold onto that. I came here wanting to be a scientist. I let nothing stop me. Continue to think big, graduates. Let nothing stop you.