Editorial: Listen to the waves of the universe

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Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory Co-Founder Kip Thorne speaks next to a visual of gravitational waves from two converging black holes, right, during a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, Thursday, (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) OTKAH

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A chirp from black holes colliding a billion light-years away might not sound like much to the average person, but it was an historic victory for basic science.

It was a discovery on par with Watson and Crick’s discovery of the double helix model of DNA, some scientists say, as momentous as the sound of Alexander Graham Bell’s first words over a telephone: “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.”

The faint rising tone announced Thursday was picked up by super-sensitive antennas in Louisiana and the state of Washington known as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory. The tone was direct evidence of gravitational waves and, as the New York Times reported, confirmed the last prediction of Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Scientists are expected to be excited by such breakthroughs, and they were. But the rest of us should be celebrating, too.

First, because it was hard to do. It took a commitment of $1.1 billion and more than 40 years by the National Science Foundation to achieve something that, if confirmed, could prove to be one of the great mileposts of scientific discovery.

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Second, because as hard to grasp as basic science may be, it’s the source of many of the advancements we take for granted in our daily lives. No one who worked on the development of the hydrogen maser foresaw it would help lead to the GPS systems we use to navigate city streets. But we’re grateful when our GPS routes us around a traffic jam or accurately leads us to an obscure address.

The LIGO research already has led to some advances, such as a special laser that helps make computer chips and an algorithm that improves radar and sonar.

Sadly, basic research has long been in decline in the United States. Too often, it’s scorned in favor of applied research, which is designed to produce prompt results. Members of Congress sometimes poke fun at arcane scientific projects. But that’s a mistake. While applied research can lead to new projects, basic research brings us the new understanding that can open a world of advances no one had imagined.

A success such as LIGO requires many scientists and engineers working for years on end around the country. It needs a long-term financial commitment. Fortunately, the National Science Foundation, a federal agency that backs basic research, stuck with the project even though no one knew if gravitational waves could be detected. The equipment that recorded the waves from the black holes needed to detect changes as small as one ten-thousandth the diameter of a proton.

The congressional 2016 spending bill approved in December actually gave a funding boost to science, after years of decline. The success of the LIGO project shows that was a wise decision.

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