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Chapter 26: New Intellectual Horizons
Despite fiscal, political, and legal challenges, the intellectual life of the University continued to thrive. During the 1970s a research team of UC San Francisco and Stanford University scientists developed recombinant DNA techniques and thereby set the stage for the biotechnological revolution. At UC San Diego, the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation was established to look beyond the weapons-oriented preoccupations of the Cold War and examine the broader issues that underlie global conflict.
And at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, a young physicist named Jerry Nelson developed the first major innovation in telescope design since Isaac Newton's reflector telescope. A group of UC astronomers had come to David Saxon in 1977 with a proposal to use Nelson's design to build the world's largest optical telescope, an instrument that would shatter the limits imposed by all previous telescope technology. It was not a promising time for an enormously expensive venture in pure science dependent on radically new instrumentation. But Saxon was convinced that astronomy and astrophysics were ripe for important advances and that the chance to build the first of an entirely new generation of telescopes was a unique opportunity the University should pursue. He encouraged the project despite the dismal prospects for funding. Saxon's successor, David Pierpont Gardner, was President by the time the University entered into a partnership with Cal Tech that ultimately resulted in not just one but two telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawai'i, with funding from the W. M. Keck Foundation of Los Angeles.
Engineers at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory successfully executed Nelson's complex and revolutionary design—a series of thirty-six mirror segments, computer-adjusted every half-second to function as a single reflecting surface—and in the process created a tool so sensitive that a viewer looking through the telescope on Earth could see a candle on the moon. Today the twin Keck telescopes, the largest in history, are enabling researchers to do pioneering work in mapping galaxies, exploring the formation of solar systems, and Wnding answers to such fundamental questions as the origin and ultimate fate of the universe. The seed planted in lean times has borne spectacular fruit.
In 1982, the year before Saxon left office, the Conference Board of Associated Research Councils rated Berkeley's graduate programs first in the nation in all fields except the biological sciences—that distinction went to UCLA. UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara were ranked among the universities whose graduate programs showed the most improvement. The University had added three new Nobel Prize winners to its roster since 1975. In spite of a series of draconian budgets, academic quality remained strong.
Yet the University had been damaged. Signs of difficulty in faculty recruitment were especially worrisome. Saxon's final message as President was that the University had gone as far as it could go in absorbing funding cuts; continuing fiscal erosion could precipitate an irreversible decline in quality. The University of California, he warned, was at a crossroads.
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Last updated 09/29/05.