In February 2016, scientists from MIT, Caltech, and the National Science Foundation did something not easy to top: They confirmed a prediction Albert Einstein made a century ago.
Through an effort known as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), the research team directly observed gravitational waves caused by the collision of black holes. Einstein had anticipated the behavior, but he lacked the technology and the tools necessary to observe the waves’ rippling and imperceptibly faint messages.
The LIGO news was, of course, groundbreaking in its own right. But it also demonstrated, on a grand scale, why and how human beings pursue deep scientific questions—and why it matters.
The world knows MIT as a place that leverages innovation to solve complex problems, in service to humanity. But without basic science—without a deep passion for answering fundamental questions like the one the LIGO team set out to address—you don’t get innovation. It’s that simple.
The challenge of conveying the value of basic science is that its payoff takes time, four decades in LIGO’s case. But its impact can be catalytic. In addition to revealing thrilling new insights into the cosmos, LIGO has given the world gifts of immediate practical value, like a crucial training ground for thousands of top young scientists and engineers, and tools that are already being used in commercial manufacturing. And if history is any guide, we will feel its full impact far down the road—just as 1940s experiments with nuclear magnetic resonance led to the MRI scanner, a 1950s effort to create clocks to measure how gravity warps time made GPS possible, and research in the 1960s and 1970s gave the world the Internet.
To me, basic science is the engine that produces so much of what matters to us all: security, prosperity, competitiveness, health, jobs. But an engine doesn’t build itself. To uncover fundamental truths about the world around us tomorrow, we must act today—with a commitment of time, funding, and patience. These efforts may be painstaking, but their value to the nation and the world is clear. That much is without question.
L. Rafael Reif