At a hearing marked by bipartisan praise and positive exchanges about physics interspersed with laughter, members of the House Science Committee commended witnesses from the National Science Foundation, Caltech, Louisiana State University, and MIT, for leadership on a long-term scientific collaboration that led to the groundbreaking discovery of gravitational waves.
“Albert Einstein was right. Gravitational waves do exist,” declared House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) in his opening statement of a physics-heavy hearing that celebrated one of the most remarkable scientific discoveries in recent years. Members of both parties touted the discovery as a notable success for Congress and the National Science Foundation (NSF) that was decades in the making. Smith called it “one of the greatest discoveries we will ever hear about,” one that “rivets the attention and imagination.”
The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) based in Washington State and Louisiana measured gravitational waves moving through space-time for the first time last September. NSF has been LIGO’s sole sponsor from the time the National Science Board proposed the facility in 1990 to the beginning of experimental research in 2002 through congressional approval of an advanced LIGO facility in 2008. For decades, project leaders did not know for certain if anything would come of the experiment. In fact, they almost never got the chance to try as Congress nearly blocked funding for the LIGO collaboration in 1990 and again in 1991 before committing to it.
Smith and his colleagues across the aisle cheered the politicians and over 1,000 scientists and 80 scientific institutions involved in the scientific collaboration. Smith noted the history the scientists made and the extraordinary effort by many involved:
After decades of effort, scientists have now observed Einstein’s Theory [of General Relativity] in practice. They witnessed the effect of two black holes colliding, which released fifty times the energy of all the stars in the universe put together that emitted a gravitational wave across the Universe that was, for the first time, detected on Earth. The discovery was the work of hundreds of scientists, decades of ingenuity and innovation, and the commitment of the United States through the National Science Foundation.
Four scientific leaders of the LIGO collaboration testified at the hearing:
- Fleming Crim, Assistant Director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences at NSF;
- David Reitze, Executive Director of LIGO at Caltech;
- Gabriela Gonzalez, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Louisiana State University; and
- David Shoemaker, Director of the LIGO Laboratory at MIT.
Basic research investment in LIGO was high-risk, high-reward
LIGO was the first of NSF’s Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction projects and represents “the largest single enterprise undertaken by NSF,” at a cumulative price tag of $1.1 billion. Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) emphasized that LIGO was a high-risk federal investment in basic research, pointing to the gravitational wave finding as exemplary of the payoff that comes when the nation trusts its scientists and the scientific process:
The story of [LIGO] is a story about the talent, creativity, [and] perseverance of U.S. scientists and engineers. It is a story about the 65-year commitment of the National Science Foundation to high-risk, basic research. I truly believe that a Nobel Prize will be coming. And it is a story about what we stand to lose as a nation if we fail to maintain faith in our scientists and in the scientific process…
The hearing took place only a few weeks after the House passed Smith’s “Scientific Research in the National Interest Act,” which aims to align NSF-funded research with a particular definition of the “national interest.” Johnson, who opposes Smith’s bill, suggested LIGO would not have been funded in the early 1990s if the sole criterion had been whether it was in the national interest:
Twenty-five years ago, many Members of Congress did not want to fund the search for gravitational waves. After all, how was that in the national interest? But enough Members did dare to imagine, and here we are today.
Smith objected to this charge in a letter to the editor of the New York Times published on Feb. 25, writing: “The LIGO project would certainly fall under the legislation’s national interest definition to ‘promote the progress of science in the United States.’”
LIGO funding nearly blocked by Congress in the 1990s
Johnson pointed out that Congress withheld funding from LIGO the first year it was proposed and almost zeroed out funding again the following year. During congressional debate, members of Congress wondered what gravitational waves were and why we should care. One House Science Committee member suggested physicists were out of touch to assume that support for their scientific projects is “self-evident.”
The American Physical Society, an AIP member society, argued in a Feb. 12 statement that such discoveries are dependent on strong federal science budgets and leaders who are willing to take risks:
The NSF took a bold risk when it funded the project about 40 years ago. … The news of the discovery comes … in the wake of budgets that have declined in real terms for the last three years. A science budget that fails to even keep up with inflation is not a good prescription for future American discoveries.
Benefits of LIGO extend beyond gravitational waves discovery
Crim began his testimony at the hearing with a short video clip on LIGO and its detection of gravitational waves. In his statement, he praised LIGO as fundamental research that nonetheless has produced societal benefits that have redounded beyond its original purpose:
This science will advance education, inspiring students and developing the workforce our society requires. … [It] has already led to other unpredictable advances, enabling technology spin-offs ranging from vibration isolation to mirror coatings to vacuum technology, that make the Nation more competitive. Significantly, industrial manufacturers were crucial partners in an effort driven by the goal of making an unprecedented measurement.
In his first question for the witnesses, Smith inquired about the practical applications of gravitational waves. In a statement to Smith dated Feb. 24, president of the Optical Society (an AIP member society) and chairman of the National Photonics Initiative Alan Willner identified the widespread personal and societal applications of interferometers:
…which can be used as key building blocks in multi-functional sensors, filters, clocks, communication systems and gyroscopes. Commercial systems using interferometers can expect dramatic increases in performance in the future due to the optics and photonics advances from LIGO.
Committee members emphasize historic nature of discovery
In a clear indication of his personal interest in physics, Smith ended his opening statement with a quote from former Caltech astrophysicist Kip Thorne, who was a founder of the LIGO collaboration in the 1990s:
With this discovery, we humans are embarking on a marvelous new quest: the quest to explore the warped side of the universe – objects and phenomena that are made from warped space-time. Colliding black holes and gravitational waves are our first beautiful examples.
Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) spoke from the dais as a Ph.D. physicist and said he was probably the most excited of all committee members present:
A century after Einstein theorized the existence of gravitational waves; fifty years after Rai Weiss began thinking of an interferometric gravitational wave detector as part of a class exercise at MIT; forty years after the spin-down of orbiting neutron stars started giving the first hints that gravitational waves were being emitted from astrophysical sources; twenty-five years after the National Science Foundation began courageous and sustained funding for an international collaboration of hundreds of scientists to begin constructing this large and technically risky project, physicists have spectacularly confirmed Einstein’s theory.
This is a discovery that will live on in the science textbooks forever. And with this discovery, we have opened a new window into the universe, we have verified that our new telescope is working, and now the fun begins.