Editor’s Note: Dr. Don Lincoln, a senior physicist at Fermilab, does research using the Large Hadron Collider. He is the author of “The Large Hadron Collider: The Extraordinary Story of the Higgs Boson and Other Stuff That Will Blow Your Mind,” and produces a series of science education videos. Follow him on Facebook. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Don Lincoln: This week's announcement about the observation of ripples of a neutron star collision is more than just a breakthrough
It's a reminder that the most important scientific advancements take investments of time and money in infrastructure and brilliant minds
If you have even the smallest interest in science, you couldn’t miss this week’s big excitement. The LIGO and Virgo collaborations, along with a very loose worldwide association of scientists and astronomers, announced that they had observed ripples in space and faint light in powerful telescopes that marked the collision of two neutron stars, which are dead stellar remnants with the mass of our sun, crushed to the size of a city.
Scientists will be analyzing the data for years, but this discovery will shed light on where heavy metals like gold and platinum came from and will allow scientists to make fundamental measurements about dizzying concepts of space and time and the speed of gravity in the universe.
This moment is being celebrated as the first known instance of what’s called “multi-messenger astrophysics” – one source in the universe (the collision) emitting two kinds of waves: gravitational and electromagnetic.
But how was this amazing discovery made possible? It’s not like gravitational wave detectors and large telescopes are easily available. This step forward took a concerted effort, involving brilliant minds and decades of work. Building scientific infrastructure takes time, and it also takes money. That’s a lesson we’re in danger of forgetting, as many voices clamor for limited public funds to support a diverse set of competing programs and budget priorities.
We live in a society that values successful investment and believes that investing in science and technology has the power to improve our lives. That belief has translated into public (government-provided) and private research funding, often followed by significant breakthroughs.
When I was younger, a diagnosis of AIDS or certain cancers was a death sentence, but years of support for medical research through such organizations as the National Institutes of Health has given hope to people stricken with these awful diseases. Early funding of ARPANET, an early computer network, by the Department of Defense in the early 1960s, and NSFNET by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the 1980s produced the Internet, which has revolutionized the world.
Public support in the 1990s of both supercomputer facilities and complex algorithms made it possible to accurately model hurricanes and predict their paths, saving countless lives – a function that is proving its worth ever more as we face larger and more intense weather systems.
And, of course, there is this week’s announcement, which was made possible by the NSF having the foresight and determination in the early 1980s to explore the technologies to build gravitational wave detectors, by organizations across the globe to make amazing telescopes, and others – like my own Department of Energy – to build powerful cameras able to peer at the heavens.
The common feature of these and so many other tremendous scientific successes is that all of them took decades for these efforts to result in a real return on the investment. Science allows us to explore our world and the universe around us. It is indisputable that the knowledge we gain can make life better for everyone, but it can take a while to see the fruits of our labors.
There are many ongoing scientific projects that will require prolonged support and effort that have the possibility of having profound impact on society.
Baby boomers are getting older and will be facing many maladies of age, such as Alzheimer’s or osteoporosis. Perhaps less obvious is an acute need to support research efforts in geology, especially earthquake prediction.
While many know of California’s San Andreas Fault, the Cascadia Subduction Zone in the American Northwest is far more dangerous. About every 250 years, an earthquake and accompanying tsunami ravage that region with an energy release about 20 times higher than anything the San Andreas can do. And the last time this happened was in 1700, 317 years ago. The area is overdue for a quake and a FEMA told The New Yorker in 2015 that the next earthquake will be deadly, devastating everything west of interstate 5, which connects Seattle to Portland and points south.
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Long-term research is not just about avoiding tragedy, however. It also ennobles the human spirit. Society’s commitment to NASA has placed men on the moon, allowed robotic probes to explore every planet in the solar system, and helped scientists discover planets around distant stars. Actually, sending humans to those planets is an incomparably more difficult endeavor.
And our nation’s support for its constellation of national laboratories has resulted in new materials and technologies that have revolutionized our society. (In the interests of full disclosure and though I do not speak for them here, I am a scientist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, which, in my not very humble opinion, is one of the nation’s finest research facilities.)
It is impossible to call out all of the worthy scientific programs. There are just too many of them. The core point is that scientific research teaches us how to exploit the laws of nature and that knowledge gives power of which earlier generations could only dream.
Discoveries take time and protracted effort and we should remember the resolve, focus, and resources that went into triumphal announcements such as this most recent observation of neutron stars.
And if we continue to do that, there will be many more such successes in the future.