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Photo of Dr. France A. Córdova

Photo by NSF/
Stephen Voss

Dr. France A. Córdova
National Science Foundation


Before the
International Astronomical Union General Assembly
Honolulu, Hawaii

August 3, 2015

[Slide #1: Exploring the Heavens, Discovering Our Humanity]

Thank you, Günther, for that warm introduction.

Let me also recognize Governor Ide, Mayor Caldwell, and Dr. David Lassner. And let me thank President Kaifu, President Urry, and Director Hasinger for their invitation to deliver this address before the 29th General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union.

It is a great honor to represent the Obama Administration at this historic event. As an astrophysicist myself, I am delighted to say "Aloha" to my fellow IAU members and welcome all of you to this meeting.

I am also honored to represent the National Science Foundation – the premier U.S. research agency for basic science and engineering, and one of the world's leading institutions in astronomy.

For more than six decades, NSF-funded researchers and facilities have been exploring the most intriguing mysteries of the heavens. Today, among those mysteries are the origin and evolution of stars and galaxies, the formation of solar systems, the existence of habitable planets, and the nature of dark matter and dark energy.

And what do we seek to discover from our observations of the heavens?

"To know the unknowable"--a quotation familiar to native Hawaiians from Queen Lili'uokalani in 1917.

[Slide #2: We Look at the Night Sky and Wonder]

In my own case, as a girl I had an early yearning to understand the mysteries of the universe. I didn't know what astrophysics was, but I had always loved looking at the night sky and asking, "Why are there stars? How are they formed? Why are there so many--and no more? Why are some bright, while others are barely visible?"

Thinking about those questions resonated with me, as I am sure it does with you.

I started my career as an X-ray astronomer. Some years later, I was honored to become NASA's first female chief scientist.

And let me take this opportunity to congratulate our NASA colleagues for the spectacular success of their New Horizons Pluto Mission--talk about new mysteries to solve!

[Slide #3: Astronomy Night at the White House]

As New Horizons has so vividly reminded us, people everywhere have a deep-seated yearning to understand the universe in which we live.

In October 2009, President Barack Obama invited a group of astronomers to the White House to mark the International Year of Astronomy, the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first use of a telescope to observe the night sky.

The President has long emphasized the study of science in order to increase understanding of the natural world--and to encourage greater scientific cooperation across national borders.

Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ei-ichi Negishi, in his 2010 speech accepting the prize, said "The final reward for any researcher is to see his or her lifetime of work extend beyond academia and laboratories, into the mainstream of global society where it can breathe hope into the world."

Isn't that the goal that all of us in the global research community strive to achieve? The U.S. is proud to partner with many countries around the world in exploring the heavens.

[Slide #4: Laniakea Supercluster]

Basic research is the primary focus of the National Science Foundation, including astronomical breakthroughs that have changed our understanding of the universe.

One significant NSF-funded effort resulted last year in University of Hawaii at Manoa astronomer Brent Tully being awarded the 2014 Gruber Cosmology Prize and the 2014 Victor Ambartsumian International Prize.

Dr. Tully--pictured on the right--led an international team of astronomers in defining the contours of the supercluster of galaxies containing our own Milky Way.

Those astronomers named the supercluster "Laniakea," meaning "immense heaven" in Hawaiian, to honor Polynesian navigators who used knowledge of the heavens to voyage across the immense Pacific Ocean.

The name was suggested by Nawa'a Napoleon, an associate professor of Hawaiian Language at Kapi'olani Community College. He is on the left in the slide.

The slide depicts a slice of the Laniakea supercluster in the supergalactic equatorial plane.

[Slide #5: Big Data in Astronomy]

One new significant challenge for the National Science Foundation is the enormous increase in raw research data resulting from vastly increased computational capabilities – also known as "Big Data."

The growing field of machine learning--in which computers learn from large data sets and find patterns that humans don’t easily recognize--has great long-term implications for astronomy.

For example, this slide is from Solar Superstorms, an ultra-high resolution demonstration that takes viewers into the magnetic fields and super-hot plasma surrounding the sun as it produces dramatic flares, violent solar tornadoes, and coronal mass ejections.

This groundbreaking scientific visualization is based on computations from the NSF-supported supercomputing initiative, Blue Waters, at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois.

As dramatic as this visualization is, it is only a hint of the advances Big Data may produce in years ahead.

[Slide #6: International Partnerships | Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA)]

While the National Science Foundation is widely recognized as our Nation's premier basic scientific research agency, we find there are more international partnerships emerging that enable NSF to extend our ability to produce significant scientific research.

We have found that global collaborations accelerate the progress of science and improve health, security, and prosperity throughout the world.

For example, the Atacama Large Millimeter/ submillimeter Array--or ALMA--telescope has received more than $1 billion in investments from a broad international coalition including Europe, East Asia--led by Japan--and Chile, with North American funding led by NSF.

ALMA is providing a testing ground for theories of star birth and stellar evolution, and solar system and galaxy formation.

Shown here is a remarkable ALMA image of the young star HL Tau and its protoplanetary disk, revealing multiple rings and gaps that herald the presence of emerging planets as they sweep their orbits clear of dust and gas.

[Slide #7: Gemini North (Hawaii)]

Another significant NSF partnership involves the Gemini team of twin 8.1-meter optical/infrared telescopes on Cerro Pachón in Chile and on Maunakea here in Hawaii.

The International Gemini Observatory is a partnership of the U.S., Canada, Australia, Brazil, Argentina and Chile, as well as the University of Hawaii as the host of the northern site. Korea is also becoming a new partner.

Gemini's capabilities--full-sky coverage, rapid response to transients, agile scheduling, and specialized optics--enabled it to capture this image of Kronberger 61 nebula, showing an ionized shell of expelled gas resembling a soccer ball. Incidentally, the nebula was named for an amateur astronomer in Austria.

The color composite image was made by the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph--GMOS--in the Gemini North telescope on Maunakea.

[Slide #8: Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST)]

Another cutting-edge, NSF-supported observatory is the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, now under construction on Haleakala. This next-generation solar telescope represents a collaboration of 22 institutions, reflecting a broad segment of the solar physics community.

Once completed, it will be the premier ground-based solar observatory. Thanks to the people of Hawaii, it will enable astronomers everywhere to glean new insights into solar phenomena, including what are the mechanisms responsible for solar storms that ultimately affect the Earth.

Furthermore, we expect that this increased understanding of the sun will help protect vital space-based assets--such as communications and weather satellites and the power grids here on Earth.

[Slide #9: Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST)]

The top recommendation of the 2010 National Academy of Sciences decadal survey of astronomy was the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope--LSST--which is now under construction on Cerro Pachón in Chile. Just a few months ago, I participated in the exciting "first stone ceremony" to launch LSST construction, with the President of Chile, as shown in the bottom right photo.

LSST will be a wide-field "survey" telescope that photographs the entire available sky every few nights. Advanced computers will gather and analyze the millions of gigabytes of data LSST will generate each year.

The photo at the top right comes from a pilot project called the Deep Lens Survey, which uses imaging from NSF's four-meter telescopes to suggest what half a degree of sky will look like when LSST is in operation, projected to begin in 2022.

An innovative Citizen Science program will involve people of all ages in LSST discoveries, making discovery opportunities available to K-12 students as easily as to the professional astronomer. This is just one example of NSF's commitment to engaging the public in the thrill of discovery and increasing public understanding of scientific research.

[Slide #10: IceCube]

Far from Chile lies NSF's IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica.

IceCube is the world's largest neutrino detector, and is among the most ambitious scientific construction projects ever attempted. It searches for neutrinos from the most violent astrophysical sources: exploding stars, gamma-ray bursts, and cataclysmic phenomena involving black holes and neutron stars.

In the lower right image is a representation of the highest energy neutrino ever observed by IceCube, with an estimated energy of 1.14 PeV. IceCube physicists nick-named it "Ernie."

[Slide #11: High-Altitude Water Cherenkov Observatory (HAWC)]

I recently attended the inauguration of the High Altitude Water Cherenkov--or HAWC--gamma ray observatory near Puebla, Mexico.

HAWC represents a unique partnership between the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, and CONACYT--Mexico's National Council of Science and Technology. HAWC will give scientists a new window for detecting and recording gamma rays and cosmic rays emitted by black holes, merging neutron stars, streams of hot gas moving at close to the speed of light, and other exotic phenomena in the Universe.

HAWC will monitor approximately two-thirds of the sky every 24 hours with unprecedented sensitivity to the highest energy gamma rays. HAWC will complement the operations of NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and the VERITAS gamma ray Observatory.

It will also be part of the growing field of "multi-messenger astrophysics" that includes cosmic ray observatories, IceCube and the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory--or Advanced LIGO.

[Slide #12: Hawaii – a Unique Treasure for Scientific Research]

Finally, I would like to say a few words about the setting that the IAU chose for its first General Assembly in the U.S. in nearly three decades.

No doubt the IAU was attracted by Hawaii's breath-taking beauty, unique cultural heritage, and aloha spirit of its friendly people--all great reasons for holding this assembly here.

The National Science Foundation--and many other scientific institutions worldwide--come to Hawaii to partner in scientific research at an extraordinary site.

Because of its biodiversity on land and in the ocean, its unique geological history and formations, and its high mountain peaks, Hawaii is one of the Earth's great scientific treasures. It is a treasure that all of us want to see honored, preserved and protected.

The National Science Foundation has partnered with the Hawaiian people and Hawaiian institutions for many years and takes seriously its responsibilities to be a good steward of Hawaii’s unique natural resources and cultural heritage--and to be respectful of Hawaii's people and customs.

We hope to continue our partnerships to create opportunity for our next generations of seekers of knowledge for many years to come.

[Slide #13: Exploring the Heavens, Discovering Our Humanity]

Let me again thank the International Astronomical Union for the opportunity to be with you for this historic General Assembly. Just as the Universe knows no borders, the science community's exploration of its mysteries has always been an international endeavor. We look forward to the promise of even greater cooperation among nations and institutions as we expand scientific understanding of this endlessly fascinating challenge.

I wish you all a very productive meeting. Mahalo!