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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


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 this morning.

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 our way.

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 star systems.

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 borders.

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 parts.

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 progress.

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 new territory.

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 technology.

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 initiative.

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 new century.

We are working for much greater integration of research with education.

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 technologies.

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 each other.

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 world.

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 require it.

Across the disciplines, whether physicists or biologists, engineers or educators--we all have reason to celebrate today.

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.



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