Gil Refael and Taylor Lawrence
September 7, 2017

Caltech Trustee Establishes a Professorship in Theoretical Physics

Growing up in rural Alabama, Caltech trustee Taylor Lawrence (BS ’86) was a self-professed “geeky, physics-and-math-loving kid” who thought of scientists—people like Richard Feynman—as rock stars and Caltech as the stage where they performed thrilling acts of science.

Yet, as a high school senior, Lawrence looked to a different stage in the East, which would influence a career spent in service to the nation. He enrolled in the U.S. Naval Academy and studied there for two years until his physics professor encouraged him to apply to Caltech as a transfer student. Lawrence got in and went on to meet many of the scientists he admired. The insights they and other Caltech faculty members shared with Lawrence helped shape his worldview on the importance of diversity of thought and of knowledge that is grounded in facts and data.

“Caltech taught me how to think—how to step back and analyze problems and see them from different directions,” says Lawrence, who is a vice president at Raytheon Company and president of its Missile Systems business.

In gratitude, Lawrence has established a $3 million professorship at Caltech. Professorships are a priority of Break Through: The Caltech Campaign.

“Taylor’s generous gift makes a statement about how to engage with the world: to query, to explore, to use one’s talents to further the activities of others,” says Caltech president Thomas Rosenbaum, holder of the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics. “We are enormously grateful that Taylor W. Lawrence Professors will illuminate the physical laws that govern our universe for generations to come.”

Lawrence remembers how Feynman encouraged him to rethink his perspective on mathematics and how it informs the laws of physics. Kip Thorne, Caltech’s Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus, and his quest to detect gravitational waves taught Lawrence about perseverance and curiosity. And physics professor Harvey Newman showed him up close how bold ideas take shape. During the early years of Caltech’s SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships) program, Newman brought Lawrence to CERN (Center for European Nuclear Research/Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) just as conversations about building a whole new generation of particle accelerators were gaining momentum.

And the value of Lawrence’s Caltech education was not confined to the sciences. Lawrence also credits Jenijoy La Belle, professor of English, emeritus, for instilling in him an appreciation of the humanities and a lifelong love of Shakespeare. He publicly shared his fondness for Shakespeare thanks to Shirley Marneus, lecturer in theater arts, emeritus, who encouraged him to act in Romeo and Juliet and other Theater Arts at Caltech productions.

“As an undergraduate at Caltech, you can interact closely with professors, some of whom are Nobel laureates. These are invaluable opportunities.”
- Taylor Lawrence

Lawrence, who also serves on Caltech’s Space Innovation Council, continues to be curious about new developments in science. While attending a scientific conference two years ago, he happened to get an update from Gil Refael, the Caltech scholar who would become the inaugural Taylor W. Lawrence Professor of Theoretical Physics.

“By chance, I got to know Taylor while at a conference in Aspen,” says Refael, who studies condensed matter physics. “Taylor, it turns out, also has a PhD in condensed matter physics; he carried out a seminal experiment in the early days of high temperature superconductivity, and I had the pleasure to bring Taylor up to speed in current-day physics and condensed matter.”

When Caltech awarded his namesake professorship to Refael, Lawrence called to tell him how honored he felt. The two met for lunch at the Athenaeum and celebrated over a glass of wine.

“It is a delight to see the passion for science of our esteemed alumni, and it is an honor to carry out the mission of expanding our knowledge with their support,” Refael says. “Generous gifts like Taylor’s strengthen science as a whole, and Caltech in particular.”

As an endowed position, the Lawrence Professorship will honor and benefit Caltech physicists far into the future. This type of long-lasting support is important to Caltech—and to Lawrence.

“Caltech is a beacon of rational thought,” Lawrence says. “There are few places that believe in the pursuit of intellectual knowledge. Caltech brings the best minds from all over the world so they can work together to discover amazing things. We need institutions like this and we need to support them.”