Where Discoveries Happen

by Shane L. Larson

On a cold spring morning in Virginia, the leaden clouds had cleared off leaving the morning skies a clear deep blue that reminded me of being home in the Rockies.  Surrounded by hundreds of bustling Virginians, I emerged from the Ballston Metro station, and walked down the streets of Arlington.  Nestled amongst the glass and brick towers of this modern suburbia is a broad and nondescript building, not unlike many others on nearby blocks.  But this building is different.  On this building, emblazoned in burnished steel letters on the overhang that covers the entrance, are three simple words: National Science Foundation.

It is not one of the hot destinations for visitors to the Washington DC area.  Ten year olds want to visit the Air and Space Museum; a steady stream of people walk reverently past the Constitution and Declaration of Independence at the National Archives; dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum may as well be alive and walking around; and many sit in the National Gallery immersed in their contemplation of the wondrous works of master painters and sculptors.  I suppose even the Woodrow Wilson House must get more visitors than the National Science Foundation.  But I wanted to come here, to stand in front of this building, and bask in the glory.  When I had previously stopped in front of NASA Headquarters to get my picture next to the sign, there were others who had made the same pilgrimage as me.  We helped each other shoot pictures, traded tales of wanting to visit NASA since we were young, and how we always wanted to be astronauts and work on the Hubble Space Telescope.

But today, under the late winter skies of Virginia, few stopped (well, none really) to share the moment with me, and that is a shame. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is responsible for as many wondrous and profound discoveries as our friends at NASA, but their press is lighter and the visibility of the Foundation is much lower, much to my dismay.  For myself as a young scientist, visiting the NSF is like getting to stand on the pitcher’s mound at Dodger Stadium or visiting base camp on Mount Everest.  I suppose to some, however, it is less grandiose: more like visiting the heaviest ball of twine in Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin, or like visiting the first Wendy’s in Columbus, Ohio.  But the National Science Foundation is a place of wonders –– it embodies, more than any other edifice of our civilization, the defining character of the human species: the desire to know.  The ineffable quality of our psyche, that usually is glibly referred to as “curiosity”, is what the NSF is all about.  The recognition of curiosity as a tool has evolved into a uniquely human endeavour called “science.”

Since its formation in 1950 by an act of Congress, the NSF has become the hub of a large fraction of the research and development efforts of the scientific community in the United States.  The mission statement efficiently captures their mandate from the Congress: “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense.”  As is the case for all of us, we encounter instances in our lives when a few short words cannot always capture the deep meanings that some endeavours hold for us.  Our formal language is inadequate to the burdens of our hearts, and to make up for that, we tell stories.  Let me tell you three stories, vignettes about what the NSF does in the hope of illustrating their mission and the role they play in our society.

The Tale of a Scar.  Some of my close friends have often noticed a one inch scar on the outside orbit of my left eye.  It’s my big movie star scar, though it has not served me as well as Harrison Ford’s chin scar.  In 1982, I was a small and admittedly nerdy young kid. I read books on Einstein, I waited breathlessly for every launch of the space shuttle, and I lived and breathed Star Trek.  I was also bullied.  I received my Indiana Jones scar when an older and much larger student took my prized possession of the day, a collected volume of the novels of H. G. Wells.  When I dared to try and get it back from him, he forcibly threw me across the room into a metal desk chair. The result was 8 stitches, less than a quarter of an inch from my left eye.  It was not the first, nor my last encounter with bullies.  Bullying is a vile and pernicious expression of cowardice that many, unfortunately, view as an unavoidable part of childhood. One of the truths of the modern age is that as our lives become more integrated with technology, old forms of pathological behaviour find new forms of expression, not the least of which is bullying. The advent of social media and the globalization of information in our society has attracted the bullies and expanded the scope of their social terrorism.  Now, your children receive the full brunt of an attack not on the playground, but on their small screens at home while surrounded by family and friends; what was once a fortress of protection has been breached by 3G wireless coverage and cell phones.  Research suggests that in today’s world, 20-40% of all youths are the victims of cyberbullies at least once.  Perhaps more startling, the new ranks of cyberbullies are not confined to our children –– adults have increasingly become victims as well.

As our society evolves, propelled into the future by our ever-changing technology, the NSF is there to understand its impact on our culture.  The psychology, practices, and impact of cyber-bullies on our culture, and the role that the technology plays are well within the purview of the science funded by the Foundation (read the first part of three articles here: http://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=121847).  As a scientist, I can sit up a little taller, proud that my profession is trying to do something to make the world a better place. But the person really taking notice is the 12 year old kid still trapped inside of me, hopeful that these scientists can prevent some other hopeful young soul from growing up with a very public scar from the dark shadows of their youth.  Sometimes, the mission of the Foundation is to help us protect ourselves.

Time Capsule in the Ice.  Sometimes, the discoveries of the NSF give us an opportunity to think deeply about our existence on this small world.  One of the last great unexplored areas of this planet are the vast, icy reaches of Antarctica.  Protected by international treaty in 1959, the continent cannot be developed for military or commercial resource purposes.  In the United States, our presence in the frozen reaches of Antarctica is managed by the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs (http://www.nsf.gov/dir/index.jsp?org=OPP).  One small part of the Polar Programs is an ongoing effort called ANSMET — the Antarctic Search for Meteorites (http://geology.cwru.edu/~ansmet/).  ANSMET’s mission is to search the icy surface of Antarctica every austral summer for meteorites.  Meteorites are hunks of rock and metal, fallen to the surface of the Earth from outer space.  Buried in the Antarctic ice after making Earth-fall, meteorites are easy to spot when the Sun warms them each summer, melting the ice around them so they are visible on the surface, a bold dark spot in the vast sea of white.  Since the end of the Apollo era, ANSMET is one of the only ongoing scientific efforts that provides direct samples of extraterrestrial materials.  Scientists are deeply interested in meteorites because they are time vaults, sealed capsules that harbor information about the primordial composition of the early solar system and, sometimes, pockets of the early volatiles from when the planets were born.

In 1984, two scant years after I received my scar, a meteorite team was deposited in the Allen Hills region of Antarctica by the NSF Polar Programs.  The first meteorite the team found that season was given the nondescript name ALH84001.  It is an achondrite, or stony meteorite, similar to basalt found on Earth.  It was returned to the United States, where it was archived with all the other meteorite samples, and analyzed for its age, structure, and composition.  We also determined its probable origin –– Mars.

That might have been the end of the story of ALH84001, but in August of 1996, during a routine micrograph scan of thin slices taken from the meteorite, scientists stumbled on a remarkable and tantalizing discovery –– mineralized structures that look, for all the world, like fossilized bacteria. The micrographs from ALH84001 captured the imagination of the world.  It was the first time the human race had ever had to seriously contemplate the possibility that Earth was not the sovereign haven of life in the Cosmos.  It is one thing to think about extraterrestrial life, to debate it in the backyard on a summer evening with a beer in one hand and a bratwurst in the other.  But to be faced with plausible evidence of the prospects gives one pause.  It reminds us that we are small and the Cosmos is vast, and that there is much we have yet to learn.  This is not a demeaning insight, but an uplifting and inspiring recognition that the Cosmos has created beings such as we, who can ponder the questions of our own existence.  Sometimes, the mission of the Foundation is to help us know ourselves and our place in the Cosmos better.

What Einstein Thought was Impossible.  In 1918, Albert Einstein was working with general relativity, which he had written down several years before.  General relativity was a new way to think about gravity that had resolved some old observational problems in astronomy and had suggested that there were new things for astronomers and physicists to think about.  Einstein was interested in how gravity propagated through the Cosmos –– how did it get from one place to another? What happens when the source of gravity, say a  planet or a star, moves?  In 1918 Einstein was trying to answer this question, and he made a remarkable discovery: gravity propagates in waves, just like light.

Like every good scientist, Einstein did his due diligence and immediately calculated what it would take to detect these waves.  Imagine you lay two rocks on the ground, and measure the distance between them.  Gravitational waves stretch and shrink the distance between points in space (your rocks) as they travel by.  The more separated the rocks, the greater the change caused by the gravitational waves.  So how big of a change did Einstein predict these gravitational waves might cause?  If you have one rock here on Earth, and another rock near the Sun, 150 million kilometers away, the gravitational waves will change the distance by less than the width of an atomic nucleus.  Einstein thought that it would be impossible to measure this effect, and promptly moved on to new projects.

But now, fast-forward a century.  We’ve replaced Einstein’s fountain pen with ball point pens, phonographs with iPods, and linked the world with a global network of computers, fiber cables, and satellites.  Today, immersed in technology undreamed of in Einstein’s day, we can seriously contemplate looking for these gravitational waves.  In one of the most awe-inspiring scientific undertakings ever imagined by humans, the National Science Foundation has been building the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory –– LIGO (http://www.ligo.org/).  The premise of LIGO is to replace your rocks with carefully constructed mirrors and to measure the distance by timing how long it takes laser light to fly back and forth between them.  The observatories that house the mirrors and lasers are enormous, 4 kilometer by 4 kilometer L-shaped installations that make the measurement in two perpendicular directions at once.  When they come online sometime after 2015, we will begin our first serious astrophysical reconnaissance of the Cosmos using gravity as our messenger.  We should be able to detect the collisions of neutron stars, the shrunken dead husks of stars collapsed to the size of a small city; we should be able to listen to the siren song of black holes spiraling together to form new, bigger black holes; and maybe, if Nature lets us, we may hear the faint murmur of gravitational waves from the Big Bang, the whispering signature of the creation of the Cosmos.

The scope of LIGO is awe-inspiring, and more than anything else it reminds us that our species is truly limitless.  It reminds us that our ingenuity and curiosity and perseverance can overcome any challenges, that we can tease any secrets from Nature with enough diligence, and that we can indeed solve any problem that was once thought impossible.  Sometimes, the Foundation reminds us that there is nothing we can’t do.

There are many such tales we could tell like these.  Standing there outside the National Science Foundation on that spring morning, I was thinking that despite everything we know, despite everything we can do, the vast majority of the world is still a complete mystery!  The goal of science is to explore those mysteries and to use the answers to improve our lives.  That is the mission of the National Science Foundation.


The NSF uses the tagline, Where discoveries happen.  You can explore the vast mosaic of discoveries made by NSF funded science, and their applications to our world at the NSF Discovery site:  http://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/

You can also watch a spectacular array of video summaries at http://science360.gov (also available as an app for your iPad –– Einstein would have loved that!).


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