The payoffs of risky research

National Science Foundation director reflects on how studies of collisions in galaxies far, far away offered scientists a new understanding of our universe.

By Rachel Evans

The observation of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO)-Virgo project not only fulfilled decades of National Science Foundation-funded research but also shed new light onto the events of a collision of neutron stars. NSF Director France A. Córdova wrote of her pride in the research, and the researchers behind it, in her October newsletter. Córdova emphasized that this type of work is “high risk, high reward,” with such discoveries taking years of dedicated research.

What makes the LIGO-Virgo discovery so exciting is that scientists were able to simultaneously observe the gravitational waves produced by the collision of two neutron stars.  These neutron stars are highly dense, and, once collided, produced these waves for over a minute, with light from the collision visible for mere seconds.

The observatories for LIGO are located at the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with detectors all over the country. When two detectors registered the gravitational waves, decades of research and effort convened to record and analyze this amazing event. In collaboration with the European Virgo Project, as well as over 70 laboratories worldwide, researchers revealed the immense production of light across the electromagnetic spectrum.

The research also showed us what exactly is produced when stars collide — some of our heavy metals, including gold, were results of this collision.  These immediate findings provide insight into our universe and in the future may continue to inform our understanding of theories such as general relativity.

Cordova’s message reminds us that, when funding seems uncertain and projects seem risky, we must be patient, persistent and collaborative in our efforts to discern some of the fundamental questions of our universe.

Researchers Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish behind the LIGO project were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics this year.  But many researchers worked together to make this project a success. Decades of work to support and innovate LIGO detectors and software allowed researchers to quickly understand the complexity of the collision. And because of their collaboration with the Virgo project, analysts could identify the exact position of the stars. Labs all over the world recorded this event to provide a 360-degree view of a collision that is thought to only take place once every 80,000 years.

Clearly, investing in innovative, elegant research and collaborating is essential in continuing to probe our universe for answers.

Read more about the discovery.

Rachel Evans (revans46@jhmi.edu) is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health. Her research focuses on understanding malaria transmission and improving malaria treatments.

 

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