This fall has been a triumph for science.
A little more than a century ago, Albert Einstein proposed the idea of gravitational waves, ripples in space-time, as part of his theory of general relativity. Half a century later, Professor Emeritus Rainer Weiss was tasked with explaining Einstein’s theory to MIT physics students. As an experimentalist, Rai naturally sought to turn this theory into measurable form; so with his class, he began thinking about how gravitational waves could be observed.
Rai’s curiosity set scientists and engineers on a path that led to the creation of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). The initial LIGO project grew from a joint venture between MIT and Caltech into an international collaboration of more than 1,000 scientists, physicists, and engineers. This collaboration built two large observatories, one in Hanford, Washington and the other in Livingston, Louisiana. Subsequently, the Virgo collaboration built a third observatory near Pisa, Italy. Fifty years later, Rai’s tenacity was rewarded with the first gravitational wave detection from the merger of two black holes 1.3 billion light years away. For this work, Rai and his longtime Caltech collaborators Kip Thorne and Barry Barish received the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics this past October.
Two weeks after the announcement of the Nobel Prize, scientists affiliated with the LIGO-Virgo global network of interferometers announced another astonishing discovery: the merger of two neutron stars. That event produced an accompanying burst of electromagnetic radiation seen by spacecraft and telescopes around the globe. These observations confirm our theories about the production of heavy elements, the origin of gamma-ray bursts, and the Hubble constant for the expansion of the universe. The detection ushered in a new era of “multi-messenger astronomy.”
We’re also making other fundamental discoveries across the School of Science. In this issue of Science@MIT, you can read about Justin Chen, a biology graduate student in Professor Hazel Sive’s lab, who is investigating the organizational processes behind embryonic cellular development — specifically the formation of animals’ faces. Sive, Chen, and others in the lab have shown how a small group of cells and the chemical signaling among them dictate how and when faces form. This basic research could have implications for the one in 700 babies in the United States born with craniofacial defects.
Similarly, broad societal impact motivates the philanthropy of Neil Rasmussen SM ’80 and Anna Winter Rasmussen. After supporting graduate fellowships in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) for several years, the Rasmussens recently committed a major capital gift to support new labs for climate science. Read more about their reasons for giving.
Climate science was on the agenda at this year’s Carlson Lecture featuring our own Susan Solomon, Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies, in EAPS. The Carlson Lecture series was established by a generous gift from John H. Carlson ’83 to the Lorenz Center, and features scientists who can clearly communicate climate science to the general public. In front of more than 200 at the New England Aquarium, Solomon discussed how science, public policy, industry participation, and citizen engagement are crucial to address current global environmental challenges, including climate change.
I want to draw your attention to two capital improvement campaigns that are integral to the Campaign for a Better World. In EAPS, we are looking to add 23,000 square feet of space for wet labs and teaching facilities that will advance climate science and collaboration on environmental issues. I am thankful for the generous support from the Rasmussens and MIT Corporation Life Member Neil Pappalardo ’64. In Chemistry, a matching grant challenge is underway to upgrade our current chemistry instrumentation facility. With pledges from the Institute and from my office, we are jointly committing up to $2 million dollars in a 2:1 match for any funds raised by the end of this calendar year. I am grateful to Judith E. Selwyn ’71 and Lee L. Selwyn ’69, who have kickstarted our fundraising efforts.
We must protect and nurture basic scientific research. It leads, sometimes unexpectedly, to new discoveries that make a better world. Moreover, the pursuit of fundamental knowledge lifts the human spirit and inspires us. As Rai Weiss said at the press conference for the Nobel Prize, “This prize … is an affirmation by our society of [the importance of] gaining information about the world around us from reasoned understanding of evidence.” Please join me in supporting the future of scientific discovery, here at MIT, and everywhere.
Michael Sipser, Dean of MIT School of Science