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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at World Science Festival

Category: National
May, 2018
World Science Festival

World Science Festival

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

I am delighted and honored to be here at the World Science Festival—and to have the privilege of offering to this distinguished audience a few thoughts about scientific progress in advance of the announcement of the Kavli Prizes.

Such prizes, which celebrate fundamental discoveries and the scientists who drive them, are truly important. They are especially essential now, when in the United States, and in some other nations, there seems to be a waning appreciation for all that discovery science does to elevate our knowledge of our world and the universe, and to improve lives on a grand scale.

Certainly, there has been waning public investment in research and development in the United States, as a share of the federal budget—a decline from over 10 percent of the federal budget in the mid-1960s to under 3 percent in 2017. There is also a worrisome degree of skepticism among the general public about the work that we scientists do, particularly in fields such as climate change. Tellingly, an on-going survey found that a majority of Americans now believe that although it has many benefits, science is changing the nature of human life too quickly.

 Meanwhile, other nations are investing vigorously in scientific discovery and technological innovation, especially China, whose research and development enterprise has experienced torrid growth over the last 15 years—with more to come under its newest Five-Year Plan—and which has now surpassed the United States in its number of peer-reviewed science and engineering publications.

Ultimately, the longstanding dominance of scientists who are citizens of the United States in major awards such as the Nobel and Kavli Prizes may shrink, as China focuses on groundbreaking research in fields that include brain science, quantum communications and computation, and deep space exploration. They are not the only country making such investments.

We know that research is inherently collaborative—across nationalities, geographies, ethnicities, genders, generations, and disciplines. Nonetheless, the decline of support for basic and applied research is especially frustrating to our community of scientists in the United States, because a declining national focus on research is playing against the rapidly expanding possibilities for discovery brought about by powerful tools such as CRISPR genome editing, human-induced pluripotent stem cells, petascale computing power, advanced data analytics, and leaps forward in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Scientific careers always have required tenacity and courage, and today, surely, more than ever. So, this morning, I would like to briefly consider the nature and value of that tenacity and courage, reflected in the different ways that great discoveries are made—and all that we gain, as a nation, a society, and a species, from those discoveries.

One need not look any further than Dr. Rainer Weiss of MIT, who shared the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics in 2016, and the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2017, for his foundational work in the detection of gravitational waves, to understand one way that discoveries occur. When I was an undergraduate Physics major at MIT, Dr. Weiss was an assistant professor of Physics there—known for his brilliance.

Although gravitational waves—distortions in spacetime caused by the acceleration of massive objects—were postulated by Henri Poincarè in 1905, and predicted by Albert Einstein in his general theory of relativity in 1916, it was long thought that instrumentation sensitive enough to detect them directly could never be made. Then Dr. Weiss was asked to teach a class on general relativity at MIT, and in speaking with students about potential detectors for gravitational wave phenomena, a spark was lit.

In 1972, as I was completing my doctorate, Dr. Weiss laid out the design for a Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory—what would become the twin detectors of LIGO—and spent the next forty-plus years realizing that vision—until September 14, 2015, when both LIGO detectors recorded the gravitational waves generated by the collision of two black holes nearly 1.3 billion light years distant. Drs. Rai Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work to detect gravitational waves.

Because of his persistence, the persistence of his co-winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics—and that of more than a thousand collaborators, as well as the National Science Foundation, which invested over a billion dollars in LIGO—Dr. Weiss has not only confirmed Einstein's prediction of gravitational waves, he has given us new information about, and ways to study, black holes and neutron stars.

Beyond that, we now possess a new way to conduct astronomy using gravitational waves, rather than electromagnetic radiation— which could one day allow us to peer further back in time, even beyond the surface of last scattering, when the universe became transparent to light, to study phase transitions in the earliest universe. Science is, indeed, a source of wonder!

Of course, an unwavering and intentional focus on a fundamental question about the nature of our universe is not the only kind of tenacity that matters in science. There is also the tenacity of pursuing an explanation for puzzling phenomena that arise unexpectedly—the alertness to anomalies that do not fit the current scientific paradigm, as described by Thomas Kuhn in his classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

In 1978, I had the great pleasure to be a theoretical physicist at AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, when my Vice President for Research, Dr. Arno Penzias, and his colleague Dr. Robert Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.

In 1963, Dr. Penzias and Dr. Wilson, radio astronomers, were using a powerful radio telescope that had been built by Bell Labs to demonstrate the feasibility of communications satellites. When the first satellite for television transmission, Telstar, had its transistors ruined by high-altitude nuclear tests, Dr. Penzias and Dr. Wilson were then free to use the telescope for their own investigations.

Attempting to detect a halo of gas surrounding the Milky Way, they found that the sky was too bright in microwave radiation for the halo to be located—and everywhere they looked, space was slightly warmer in temperature than it should have been by about three degrees Kelvin.

Was there a source of contamination? They tested whether heat from New York City was affecting their results. It was not. They even expelled the pigeons nesting in the antenna, but the background radiation persisted—as did they.

Sharing their puzzlement with others, they learned that astrophysicists at Princeton University had predicted that if there had been a Big Bang, there would be lingering cosmic microwave background radiation from it. Drs. Penzias and Wilson had discovered the first experimental evidence that supported the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, a truly serendipitous discovery, in which perseverance played a large part.

Sometimes considerable personal courage is required to pursue an explanation for anomalous data. In the realm of nanoscience and materials, it was long thought that crystals occurred only in periodic patterns that repeated themselves in three dimensions. The discovery by Dr. Dan Shectman (of the Technion) of an ordered structure without translational symmetry met with such resistance in the scientific community that he was asked to leave his laboratory group. But he would not back down from his findings, and as a result, discovered a new kind of phenomenon in nature (quasi crystals)—structures that had appeared in medieval Islamic mosaics, and that had displayed the "golden ratio," a mathematical constant which relates to the Fibonacci sequence—in which each succeeding number is the sum of the prior two numbers. The golden ratio also appears elsewhere in art, including masterpiece paintings.

Neuroscience had a similar prohibition: It was long taken as an article of faith that the formation of new neurons ceases before adulthood in mammals. Thanks to the courage of scientists willing to question conventional wisdom—and to admit when more neurons appeared under the microscope than were expected—this has been broadly refuted. However, scientists continue to look for new methods to settle the question of adult neurogenesis in humans. In the last two months, two studies were published, one of which found evidence of adult neurogenesis in the human hippocampus, and another that did not.

It is known, for example, that multi-potent adult neural stem cells can give rise to the adult primary cells of the nervous system. More specifically, the biomolecular cues that comprise the extracellular matrix can drive the differentiation of neural stem cells into neurons, the basis of neurogenesis.

At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, our researchers are manipulating these biomolecular cues to enhance neurogenesis in vitro, which will lead to in vivo studies. In collaboration with colleagues at Rockefeller University, our faculty are performing neuromodulation, using magnetic fields, to control gene expression within various neurodegenerative disease models.

So, out of the struggle to answer the fundamental question of whether new neurons continue to form—into adulthood in humans—has come a new appreciation for the complexity and plasticity of our unique nervous system—and new hope that we will devise better therapeutics to address injuries and neurodegenerative diseases, whether through neuromodulation, targeted pharmaceuticals, even by harnessing nervous system interactions with the microbiome and the immune system.

It often is assumed by those outside the scientific community that progress always flows downstream—that it is the discovery of fundamental principles which leads to new technologies. Indeed, basic physics understanding at both the smallest and the largest scales undergirds astonishing technologies that allow us to address great challenges. An example is the Global Positioning System (GPS) that uses satellite-based and ground-based atomic clocks for position and time determinations. In order to have accurate GPS determinations, both special relativity and general relativity must account for time dilation and gravitational effects—both of which create frequency shifts in the atomic clocks.

Sometimes, new technologies have to be invented to enable the pursuit of science itself. The exquisite precision of the LIGO detectors—which were designed to register a compression or stretching of spacetime one thousandth the size of a proton, while tuning out all vibrations endemic to life on earth— required advances in many technologies, including lasers, optics, vacuum technology, and software algorithm development.

More recently, major advances in computation and connectivity certainly have driven science—allowing for the genomic revolution, for example. But, science also drives innovations in computation and related technologies. An example, of course, is the invention of the World Wide Web in 1989 by Sir Tim Berners-Lee at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, to allow information sharing among physicists.

When we consider the structures that support science and engineering, the metaphor of an ecosystem is a very apt one. Complexity theorist W. Brian Arthur has compared the evolution of technology to a coral reef that "builds itself from itself." Curiosity-driven and applied research reinforce each other; as do the investigations undertaken by universities, government, and industry for very different purposes; advances in one field seed advances in another. What is important is the unending pursuit of knowledge, and all of the ingenuity that flows from it.

I served on the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, from 2009 to 2014, which helped the nation to understand both its opportunities and vulnerabilities in science and technology, including in advanced manufacturing, flu vaccinology, and cybersecurity, among many other arenas.

The applications of scientific advances, of course, can have vast social consequences. Today, in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in which the digital, physical, and biological worlds are merging, we have astonishing new avenues of discovery at the smallest, largest, and most complex scales. But at the human scale, all us of are leaving digital footprints and crumbs wherever we wander. Innovations designed to connect us, to heal us, and to empower us may also cost us security, privacy, even a sense of our own worth as individuals. It is important that we scientists be tenacious, as well, in insisting that our work is applied on the right side of the knife’s edge of good or ill, on which scientific discovery and technological innovation always sit.

Scientific progress and technological innovation require all of us—the entire talent pool. This is why STEM education is so important, and why it must be available and encouraged for all of us.

We need scientists to advise and to be invited to advise, policymakers—and to do everything possible to help the public at large overcome its fears about too much change, too fast—and to understand why it is so important to preserve and expand the ecosystem that generates fundamental knowledge. The World Science Festival is a critical part of that ecosystem.

As we probe dark energy, dark matter, and the origin of our universe; or the ways that the physical matter of our brains gives rise to consciousness; or the startling properties of materials and structures considered at the level of the atom or molecule—the pursuit of science ennobles our lives, enriches our culture, educates the next generation, and allows humanity to stretch, in both its intellectual capacity—and in the array of tools we can use to uplift lives and to change the world.

I am proud to be here today, at this great celebration of science—and I congratulate, in advance, those remarkable people who will shortly be awarded Kavli Prizes for their groundbreaking work.