The Science Committee today held the first congressional hearing to explore the recent groundbreaking discovery of gravitational waves, as first predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago. Earlier this month, scientists from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) published findings that confirm the existence of gravitational waves, opening up exciting possibilities and new fields of gravitational astronomy.

Witnesses today discussed the meaning of this discovery for American science and innovation, the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) role in supporting LIGO, and what new research and applications may be generated by this breakthrough.

Chairman Smith: “After decades of effort, scientists have now observed Einstein’s theory in practice. The NSF’s support for the LIGO project is a great example of what we can achieve when we pursue breakthrough science that is in the national interest. With this discovery, we embark on a new and exciting time for American physics and astronomy. And we move closer to a better understanding of the universe.”

A video of Chairman Smith’s full statement can be found here.

Forty years ago, a group of scientists submitted a proposal for funding to the NSF. In 1990, the National Science Board approved funding for the project. Since that time, NSF has supported development of the LIGO. This included construction and upgrades, operations, and research awards to scientists who study LIGO data. Construction funding was approved in 1994 by the Republican-controlled Congress.

The operation was carried out by LIGO’s team of scientists, engineers, and staff at Caltech and MIT, and the 1,000 scientists that make up the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, with members from over 80 scientific institutions world-wide.

Einstein’s theory was that what we perceive as the force of gravity is an effect of the curvature of space and time, interwoven into a single whole known as “space-time.” In the presence of matter and energy, space-time can evolve, stretch, and warp. Einstein proposed that objects with mass–such as the sun and the Earth–curve the geometry of space-time like a marble placed on an outstretched sheet of fabric or a pebble that causes ripples in a pond.

Witnesses today highlighted the potential short term value to U.S. industry from this discovery, in the form of advances in lasers, engineering, computer science, materials science, and more. While the long term benefits are not yet known, witnesses said that science and technology leadership will continue to boost U.S. economic and national security.

The following witnesses testified today:

Dr. Fleming Crim, Assistant Director, Directorate of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, National Science Foundation
Dr. David Reitze, Executive Director of LIGO, California Institute of Technology
Dr. Gabriela González, Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Louisiana State University
Dr. David Shoemaker, Director, LIGO Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology