This coming Sunday, December 10, millions of people around the world will watch as eight U.S. researchers—two of them foreign born—receive prestigious Nobel Prizes in Stockholm for major scientific contributions that “have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.” These outstanding individuals have helped put America at the pinnacle of human achievement.
The Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine goes to Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young “for their discovery of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm.” This diurnal cycle of wakefulness and sleep governs the levels of many hormones that regulate our daily activities.
The chemistry Nobel Prize will go to Jacques Dubochet of Switzerland and U.S. scientists Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson for developing electron-microscopy techniques that enable researchers to form high-resolution three-dimensional images of complex biological molecules and processes. This recent, stunning advance has stimulated a revolution in biochemistry, which “is now facing explosive development,” noted the Nobel press release.
The Nobel Prize in physics, awarded to Rainer Weiss of MIT and Barry Barish and Kip Thorne of Caltech for their “decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves,” merits our highest personal admiration as physicists. Predicted a century earlier by Einstein’s general theory of relativity, these incredibly subtle shimmers in the fabric of space-time caused by the merger of two massive black holes were first witnessed on September 14, 2015, by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration using a pair of gargantuan two-arm detectors called laser interferometers in Louisiana and Washington state. Since then, three more black-hole mergers and a spectacular fusion of two neutron stars have been observed by LIGO scientists and a European-led collaboration operating a similar detector in Italy. These events, sure to rank among the most important scientific breakthroughs of the century, mark the auspicious birth of the exciting new discipline of gravity-wave astronomy.
The idea of using laser interferometers to detect gravity waves sparked in the fertile mind of Weiss, a German-born physicist at MIT, who began building a ten-meter prototype in 1974 with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Another such project was initiated at Caltech under theoretical physicist Thorne, who recruited Scottish physicist Ronald Drever (recently deceased), an instrumentation expert who led construction of a second NSF-funded prototype. From the outset, both efforts involved researchers of other nationalities, for science knows no boundaries.
Based on the success of these prototypes, the NSF authorized and funded the joint LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) project in 1984, headquartered at Caltech and led by Rochus Vogt. As the time approached to construct LIGO, NSF leaders—especially Marcel Bardon, David Berley and Richard Isaacson—recognized it would necessarily be a complex Big Science project requiring the leadership and management expertise that veteran high-energy physicist and detector-builder Barish could provide. Starting in 1994 and continuing through 2005, he transformed the combined MIT/Caltech effort into a major international scientific project, organizing the LIGO Laboratory to build the two sprawling, four-kilometer interferometers. And he established the LIGO Scientific Collaboration in parallel to attract top scientists from around the world to pursue its research program.
After more than two decades of sophisticated engineering and research, supported by patient NSF funding that amounted to about a billion dollars, the two upgraded Advanced LIGO detectors recorded the first gravity-wave signals during an engineering run just prior to planned data-taking. It was a triumph of international science in which U.S. physicists—including several of foreign birth—had played the crucial leadership roles.
The three breakthroughs recognized by the Nobel Prize committees illustrate that scientific research—and the innovative, questing spirit that accompanies it—is what has truly made America great. Vast reserves of coal and petroleum may have helped build our industrial might a century ago, but much more than abundant fossil fuels are required if the United States is to remain a world leader in the information-rich 21st-century economy.
As adherents of the 18th century Enlightenment, our Founding Fathers revered science based on empirical evidence and rational argument. Benjamin Franklin was a leading natural philosopher of his day, recognized in Europe as the “father of electricity.” Thomas Jefferson devoured a library full of books about recent scientific findings. We wonder what they might think about our current political “leadership.”
Over the ensuing twenty-four decades, American innovations such as the telegraph, telephone, electric light, airplane, transistor, microchip, laser and the Internet have made our modern, closely connected world a reality. This wealth- and job-creating process accelerated markedly after World War II, when the NSF and other far-sighted federal agencies began investing billions on research and engineering, spawning economic returns of much greater value. Indicative of the scientific productivity that this support promoted, U.S. scientists have garnered the lion’s share of Nobel prizes ever since—as they have yet again this year.
But Donald Trump and his shortsighted acolytes are about to dismantle the fragile edifice of U.S. science and technology, which until recently was the envy of the world. They have ignored and even denigrated the worldwide scientific consensus on climate change, on which the Paris Climate Agreement is founded. They have tried to slash research funding across the board, especially for climate change, including at NSF. In fact, government scientists have been told to avoid using this phrase, which is now being expunged from several agency web sites.
And more than ten months into his term, this president has yet to name his science adviser and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (a position one of us held in the Clinton Administration), as required by law. It must be extremely difficult to find an accomplished, reputable scientist who could accept an offer of this important job, given the current administration’s apparent anti-science agenda.
Fortunately, the U.S. Congress—especially the Senate—has resisted these frontal assaults, which, along with tight constraints on discretionary funding, are taking an inevitable toll on U.S. research. The corporate tax cuts now making their way through Congress will only tighten the screws. Scientists are beginning to look elsewhere, for example to China and Europe, for the support needed to continue pursuing their research.
And the best graduate students may not be far behind. The House just dealt what may become a crushing blow to U.S. science with its tax-reform bill (if the Senate goes along with the House language in conference committee). A provision to tax tuition waivers usually granted graduate teaching and research assistants would make it extremely difficult for all but the wealthiest students to pursue advanced degrees. Many foreign students would not even apply to U.S. institutions—a trend already beginning to occur because of this administration’s anti-immigrant policies.
If these troubling trends persist and the U.S. scientific enterprise continues to be degraded by ill-informed politicos looking backward more than a century, the satisfaction of watching U.S. scientists accept the Nobel Prize will eventually become a distant memory. America will end up much the poorer, both spiritually and materially, its future foreclosed by climate ignorance and fossil foolishness.
Marcia Bartusiak, Einstein’s Unfinished Symphony: Listening to the Sounds of Space-Time. Joseph Henry Press, 2000.
Harry Collins, Gravity’s Shadow: The Search for Gravitational Waves. University of Chicago Press, 2017.
Thomas L. Friedman, “China Could Sell Trump the Brooklyn Bridge,” New York Times (14 November 2017).
Lawrence Krauss, “Donald Trump’s War on Science,” The New Yorker (13 December 2016).
Michael S. Lubell and Burton Richter, “Why the Tax Bill Is Bad for Science, Innovation and America,” The Hill (16 November 2017).
Jeffrey Mervis, “Got Gravitational Waves? Thank NSF’s Approach to Building Big Facilities,” Science (12 February 2016).
Michael Riordan, “Trump, Science and Reason,” Northwest Citizen (1 August 2017).
Erin Rousseau, “The House Just Voted to Bankrupt Graduate Students,” New York Times (16 November 2017).
Michael D. Shear, “Trump Will Withdraw U.S. from Paris Climate Agreement,” New York Times (1 June 2017).