Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
LIGO: Flagship for Our Future Course
November 12, 1999
I'm delighted to have the honor to make some comments
It's truly a pleasure to join together to mark the
launch of this new observatory, but an even greater
honor to be eyewitness to the birth of a new field
of scientific inquiry.
I know we are also launching the hopes and dreams of
many. Those of us here today from Caltech and MIT,
from the National Science Foundation, and from around
the world all have much to celebrate.
As we look around this forested landscape, we cannot
see very far with the naked eye. In fact, as we know,
the appearance is deceiving.
Today, we're breaking a champagne bottle over the figurative
bow of a modern-day galleon--a gravity-wave observatory
that may ultimately take us farther back in time than
we've ever been.
The greatest promise is, perhaps, to catch the very
first murmurs of the universe in formation.
Aboard the ships of yesteryear, one surveyed the horizon
with the "captain's long-glass." It's hard to imagine
what we'll see with our new long-glass.
Its arms stretch 2.5 miles in length. How will the
universe appear "seen through gravitational eyes?"
I'm borrowing that phrase from the book, Ripples
on a Cosmic Sea. (I parenthetically recommend
this book by David Blair and Geoff McNamara to biologists
and anyone else seeking to understand the import of
what we're inaugurating today!)
At this time of new beginnings, on the brink of the
new millennium, it's become very popular to make all
sorts of predictions.
Science and technology certainly haven't been left
out. Of course, attempts to read the future of science
in the tea leaves are nothing new.
One of my favorite misfires is from Sir Frank Macfarlane
Burnet--a virologist who received the Nobel Prize
in 1960. He said, "Molecular biology is interesting,
but will have no commercial value."
Not all microbiologists lack foresight, I'm relieved
to report. It was the father of microbiology, Louis
Pasteur, who observed, "It's the characteristic of
science and progress that they continually open new
fields to our vision."
That's a fairly safe prediction, if only because it's
so general. It still leaves us gazing out at our vast,
unknown universe, not knowing what is before us.
Although I will forego prediction, let me suggest that
our course is not quite as featureless as that.
I would submit that we can plot several coordinates--a
kind of metaphorical latitude and longitude--to find
These navigational marks both frame LIGO's search for
gravitational waves, and help connect some elements
of a broader vision for science and engineering.
The first coordinate is the breathtaking boldness that
marks our hopes and vision for LIGO.
In this sense the observatory embodies the core mission
of the National Science Foundation.
This observatory is the largest enterprise NSF has
ever undertaken. Edwin Land, the inventor of Polaroid
film, had a gauge for the worthiness of a project
that captures the spirit of LIGO.
His requirement was for a venture to be "manifestly
important and nearly impossible."
High-risk, yet on-time and on-budget--LIGO's progress
exemplifies our willingness and our ability, working
together, to extend the frontiers of the future.
This observatory is the first of its kind--and represents
truly fundamental science, which no other federal
agency could have supported.
While LIGO will probe the distant past of the universe,
it will also carry us forward.
In this way it typifies NSF's investments in leading-edge
research and education. These are forward-looking
by their very nature.
Another example is the work of Joseph Taylor and Russel
Hulse which led to the discovery of the binary pulsar--or
two neutron stars.
NSF supported this work, which was awarded the Nobel
Prize in 1993. LIGO will be able to detect gravitational
radiation from the final moments in the life of such
LIGO and gravitational wave astronomy give us another
set of coordinates in their international scope.
Not only will this observatory sweep the cosmos in
its search, but on our own planet, it will cross national
LIGO will be an international facility open to the
scientists of the world. We are laying out the welcome
mat in capital letters.
Like the network of radio-astronomy observatories that
span the globe, LIGO will join with other gravity-wave
observatories to become more than the sum of their
LIGO leads the way in a network that will embrace facilities
in Europe, Japan, and elsewhere.
On a grand scale we will see much farther than any
individual observatory could on its own.
Next, LIGO gives coordinates for a third principle--a
basic tenet of NSF philosophy. It is that the advance
of fundamental science is tightly bound with technological
LIGO could not exist without the latest technology.
To refine the detectors' sensitivity so they might
detect the faintest stirrings of the universe--this
challenges the state of the art in many areas.
Whether it's computation, measurement, vacuum technology,
or seismic isolation, the observatory is charting
We know the practical spin-offs are just beginning--in
optics, materials science, laser research...the list
is long. Here is a textbook case of the marriage between
science and technology.
As one of NSF's flagship projects, LIGO suggests another
essential tenet in plotting our course for science--and
that is the importance of setting priorities, and
of persevering toward them.
Many of you know that, over and above our mission to
nurture the basic disciplines, NSF has currently targeted
priority investments in three areas: biocomplexity,
the 21st century workforce, and information
As an agency we put emphasis on areas most likely to
produce rich rewards by adding to the knowledge base
of science and engineering--and to progress for society.
These priorities cut across the disciplines and span
both research and education.
We have just launched the first year of our biocomplexity
This is another venture that will expand our vision
and--like LIGO--is only possible because of new ways
of handling and visualizing data.
This emerging field embraces the dynamic interactions
among the biological, physical, and social components
of the Earth's environmental systems.
Only when we understand these systems will we begin
to identify the principles of sustaining our planet's
environment. In our 21st--century workforce
initiative, it will also be essential to overcome
boundaries and barriers.
We support increased opportunities for students and
workers to acquire the skills they will need for the
We are working for much greater integration of research
We're committed to improving science, math, and engineering
education at all levels, from pre-kindergarten to
post-doctorate, and even beyond, to lifelong learning--and
we are committed to re-joining the bonds between K-12,
higher education, and science literacy of all citizens.
We need much stronger links between the now widely
separated components of our educational system.
Because LIGO will be at the forefront of discovery,
it has great potential to inspire young minds--and
minds not so young.
I am reminded of an aphorism of Einstein--that "Imagination
is more important than knowledge."
LIGO will bring us new knowledge, but its rarer gift
may be to open up our imaginations.
I know the actual data from observations will be available
to students to conduct their own research.
We anticipate opportunities for outreach to students
and the public that will be every bit as exciting
as the discoveries we await.
The flood of data we expect brings to mind NSF's third
priority area. No field of research will be left untouched
by the current explosion of information--and of information
Science used to be composed of two endeavors--theory
and experiment. Now it has a third component--computer
simulation, which links the other two.
NSF supported a five-year effort to simulate a binary
black hole system, one of LIGO's potential targets.
The team included physicists, astronomers, mathematicians,
and computer scientists using teraflop computers.
In fact, scientific questions generally are growing
more complex and interconnected. We know that the
greatest excitement in research often occurs at the
borders of disciplines, where they interface with
The solid foundation of information technology is fundamental
for these fields to fuse and to flower.
We're already watching discrete scientific cultures
come together. Information technologies help us to
see across disciplines and collaborate around the
I spoke earlier about the intimate links between science
and technology. We can find no better example than
LIGO and information technology.
Like so many of the fantastic new ventures in physics
and astronomy, LIGO will be a huge data factory--producing
data that need to be moved, mined, analyzed, and visualized.
Our new tools will both spur technological advance--and
Across the disciplines, whether physicists or biologists,
engineers or educators--we all have reason to celebrate
I turn as I close not to a scientist but to a philosopher,
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who said, "The history
of the living world can be summarized as an elaboration
of ever more perfect eyes within a cosmos in which
there is always something more to be seen."
All of you deserve congratulations for giving us a
new way of seeing--a gravitational vision--which promises
that we will see what Einstein was only able to imagine.