How To Kill A Gravitational Wave

Congress almost defeated the LIGO program before it was ever built.
LIGO at sunset

LIGO at sunset

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Jason Socrates Bardi, Editor

Inside Science Minds presents an ongoing series of guest columnists and personal perspectives presented by scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and others in the science community showcasing some of the most interesting ideas in science today. The opinions contained in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Inside Science nor the American Institute of Physics and its Member Societies.

(Inside Science) -- Call it the ripple heard round the world: the signal from a pair of giant scientific instruments known as LIGO, built in Louisiana and Washington, that detected the collision of two massive black holes that smacked into each other some 1.3 billion years ago and sent a subtle wave passing through the vastness of space until the faint chirp fell quietly upon Earth, echoing Einstein's name.

The howl from the physics and astronomy community has been as loud as that first gravitational wave ever detected was soft. It began with swirling rumors and ended in a crescendo yesterday with cameras rolling, champagne flowing, people struggling to understand what it all means and experts lining up to tell us.

Every generation in the last half century has enjoyed its big science moments: the moon landing, the eradication of smallpox, the decoding of the human genome, the detection of the Higgs boson. And every time there is plenty of praise to go around. The campuses of Caltech, MIT and the National Science Foundation have been awash in LIGO's glow this week.

But one unsung hero of the day is not big science but big federally-funded science facilities -- an American innovation that was born out of the fears and horrors of World War II, when the Manhattan Project paved the way for the national laboratory system. Big science supported by government has come to define late 20th and early 21st century science and improve life in so many ways.

People call them high-risk, high-reward programs, and LIGO is a classic example of this type of project, weighing in around $1.1 billion at final tally. Even Einstein did not envision such an instrument could be built when he postulated the existence of gravitational waves. He famously predicted we would never be able to detect one.

What you may not have heard is the story of how we almost never did, how LIGO was almost never built and how the greatest hurdle the project had to overcome was less about the science than the politics. It came perilously close to winding up on the scrap heap during a recession-fed era of congressional hand-wringing and belt-tightening in the early 1990s -- a nearly forgotten history when many openly questioned whether it would actually work.

A recent search of the news archives here at the American Institute of Physics has uncovered this saga many have forgotten, which was chronicled by one of my former colleagues Dick Jones in a series of reports in his FYI Bulletin of Science Policy News.

Funding for LIGO was under scrutiny for years, Jones reported, and many in Congress and the physics community were highly skeptical of the project. This is all laid bare in his coverage of contentious committee hearings in the House and Senate in those years. During one House appropriations subcommittee hearing in 1990, for instance, a member of Congress asked former NSF Director Erich Bloch, "What's the great loss?" if LIGO were not built.

That subcommittee zeroed the request for LIGO funding, though eventually a barebones appropriation of $500,000 was restored in final spending legislation, keeping the effort limping forward for another year. The next year, after another contentious meeting, the House passed a bill prohibiting LIGO construction altogether and again underfunded LIGO at a level far below the $23.5 million request of the Bush administration. Jones reported that one member of the House appropriations subcommittee noted, "Often physicists assume that the need for support of many of their projects is 'self evident' -- a position that only a physicist with an advanced degree would think."

If scientific value appears abstruse to some members of Congress, then the wiles of science appropriations must surely seem equally baffling to many scientists. One thing that comes out in these old FYI reports is how underfunding a project, especially a big one, is a well-worn path toward killing it.

As Jones reported in 1994, a Congressional Research Service analysis of 30 federally funded scientific mega-projects found that several similar big science projects were canceled after they had experienced significant delays and cost increases. But the analysis also found that many, though not all, of the cost overruns were linked directly to earlier congressional action in the form of withering appropriations that gave less money to the programs than needed to keep them on track.

It's a technique Congress seems to have borrowed from the farm: hobble the cow to make it fatter, slower and easier to cull from the herd.

LIGO would eventually prevail -- not on its scientific merits, but by taking on a political life of its own. On Feb. 19, 1992, then NSF Director Walter Massey stood for a half-hour press conference with members of Congress from Louisiana and Washington, and he announced that LIGO's facilities would be built in their respective districts. Their support was critical for the success of the project, Jones reported, and this was reflected in Massey's speech, which focused largely on LIGO's benefits as a jobs program.

In 1999, nine years after its funding was nearly cut, LIGO was completed. And now, all these years later, any lingering doubts about whether this beautiful instrument would actually work have been dashed.

This is a big win for basic science, but it's also a basic lesson for big science. LIGO is a classic example of the type of payoff we as a society get when we fund a major high-risk project and stick with it. History will remember its theorists, its experimental teams. It will even remember its funders. But I hope it also recalls the machinations needed to secure the funding in the first place -- laws, sausages and gravitational waves!  

Here are links to three FYI reports written by Dick Jones in the 1990s about the fight over funding for LIGO.

Author Bio & Story Archive

Jason Socrates Bardi is the former News Director of the American Institute of Physics and a longtime science writer.