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Photo of Dr. France A. Cordova

Dr. France A. Córdova
U.S. National Science Foundation


A Global View of Astroparticle Physics
APPEC European Astroparticle Physics Roadmap
Residence Palace Brussels

January 9, 2018

Photo: NSF/Stephen Voss

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Title slide title: A Global View on Astroparticle Physics

Slide words: Dr. France A. Córdova
Director, National Science Foundation
APPEC European Astroparticle Roadmap
Residence Palace Brussels
January 9, 2018

Slide image: illustration of two merging neutron stars

Image credit: National Science Foundation/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet

Good morning.

It's a pleasure to be here. I'd like to thank Professor Masiero [Antonio] for inviting me here to speak, and APPEC Secretary General de Kleuver. It is a pleasure to see Director General Smits from the European Commission, and Dr. Gianotti, Director-General of CERN.

I'm France Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation. I am pleased to visit Brussels together with NSF's new Assistant Director for Mathematics and Physical Sciences, Dr. Anne Kinney.

Slide image: illustration of NSF's history wall

Image credit: Nicolle Rager Fuller, NSF

For those who may not know, NSF is a U.S. federal agency, the only one that invests in fundamental, basic research across all of the scientific disciplines. For nearly 7 decades, we've supported innovative research at U.S.-based universities and colleges, and at research facilities around the world, advancing the frontiers of knowledge on scales ranging from the subatomic to the cosmic. With our interagency partners, we have built the backbone of the U.S. science and engineering enterprise, and we continue to shape that enterprise through our investments in cutting-edge research.

Slide title: Era of Multi-messenger Astrophysics

Slide images (clockwise from left): photo of antenna at Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile; aerial photo of LIGO detector site in Livingston, Louisiana; photo of IceCube Neutrino Observatory in Antarctica

Image credits (clockwise from left): ©ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO); LIGO Scientific Collaboration; Sven Lidstrom, IceCube/NSF

In 2016, NSF unveiled a set of 10 Big Ideas. These are bold, long-term research and process ideas that identify areas for future investments at the frontiers of science and engineering.

One of these ideas is called Windows on the Universe: The Era of Multi-messenger Astrophysics. Windows on the Universe seeks to focus our investments on projects that bring together electromagnetic waves, high-energy particles, and gravitational waves to study the universe and probe cosmic events in real time.

Currently, NSF is engaged in all three of these windows. In the electromagnetic spectrum, we support everything from radio to optical telescopes.

Spurring the growth of particle astrophysics are facilities like the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, which NSF began funding construction of in 2005. The work conducted at IceCube, which is managed through our U.S. Antarctic Program in one of the most unforgiving, least hospitable places on Earth, would not be possible without international cooperation.

We also support a number of large particle physics experiments, including dark matter experiments at the underground laboratory at Gran Sasso in Italy.

And then, of course, there are the two NSF-funded interferometers that make up the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO. It was the addition of gravitational wave detectors to our toolbox that pried open that final window on the universe, and we are pleased that the Virgo gravitational wave observatory in Italy has joined the quest.

Slide title: Scientific Questions

Slide words: How did the universe begin and why is it accelerating?

What is the nature of dark energy and dark matter?

What are the properties of the most exotic objects in the universe?

What are the masses of the neutrinos?

For centuries, we have asked how the universe began. As our knowledge deepens, we also ask questions like "What is the nature of dark energy and dark matter?" and "How have neutrinos shaped the evolution of our universe?"

Different versions of these questions appear in our various roadmaps, in our particle physics strategies, and in our decadal surveys and other documents. Today, we are finally closer to being able to answer them.

For the first time, we have a critical mass of highly sophisticated tools that allow us to combine messengers in a way that was previously impossible, to search for the kind of evidence that will yield answers to these age-old questions.

Slide title: Multi-messenger Discoveries

Slide image: gravitational wave chirp spectrogram with IceCube Neutrino Observatory and LIGO data graphs

Image credit: LSC/Alex Nitz

With each new discovery, many long-standing theories are confirmed while others must be re-visited.

Professor Van den Brand (from the Virgo Collaboration) spoke about the binary neutron star merger detected last year.

The detection of that long "chirp" by LIGO and Virgo alone would have been significant, but quick coordination among the international community enhanced the discovery considerably.

Suddenly, in the span of a few seconds, this event confirmed what scientists had theorized for decades: that merging neutron stars are one source of short gamma ray bursts, and possibly other very high energy phenomena observed in the universe.

Follow-up observations by electromagnetic telescopes detected the spectral signatures of elements like gold and platinum, evidence that these types of events produce and distribute heavy elements in the universe.

Slide image: report from IceCube neutrino event 170922A

Another result from a discovery involving the neutrino observatory, IceCube, and the space and ground-based gamma ray telescopes, Fermi and MAGIC (respectively), marks the first time that Very High Energy gamma rays have been measured from a direction consistent with a neutrino event. This may herald a new method for finding sources of high energy cosmic rays in future.

Slide image: Artist impression of a pair of galaxies from the very early universe

Image credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF, D. Berry

And last year, the ALMA observatory in Chile confirmed that a large luminous object first detected by the South Pole Telescope was in fact two supermassive, primordial galaxies. Though scientists previously posited that such supermassive galaxies would have formed many billions of years after the Big Bang - coalescing from smaller, younger galaxies - these two star-filled galaxies dated to less than a billion years old.

Undoubtedly, more surprises are in store for us as we settle into this new era.

Slide title: LIGO's Long Journey to Discovery

Slide image: graph showing LIGO's timeline with the following words:
NSF funds Caltech, MIT for laser interferometer research and technology design for prototype.

National Science Board approves LIGO development plan.

NSB approves LIGO construction proposal.

Hanford, Livingston selected as LIGO sites, Caltech signs LIGO cooperative agreement.

Construction begins at Hanford, Livingston sites.

LIGO Scientific Cooperation established, expands with British/German GEO collaboration.

Initial LIGO design sensitivity achieved, first wave search begins.

LIGO begins collaboration with Italian Virgo interferometer.

2011 - 2014
Advanced LIGO installation and testing.

Sept. 2015
Before first official search begins, Advanced LIGO detects first gravitational waves.

Oct. 2017
First detection of gravitational waves produced by colliding neutron stars.

Slide image: computer simulation of gravitational waves

Image credit: Werner Benger/Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics

Of course, none of these discoveries would be possible without substantial investments, often over a very long time horizon. This is at the very heart of what NSF does best - high-risk, high-reward investments that greatly advance our state of knowledge about the universe.

Here you see LIGO's journey, which began in the 1970s.

Four decades, $1 billion, and a Nobel Prize later, we finally detected gravitational waves 100 years after Einstein first predicted their existence. I was delighted to attend the ceremony in Sweden when Kip Thorne, Barry Barish and Rainer Weiss accepted their Nobel Prizes in physics. They gave much credit to the thousands of colleagues - and NSF - who worked for this result over four decades.

Today, the work of LIGO is enhanced significantly through its partnership with the Virgo Collaboration, and thanks to contributions from our Italian, German, UK and Australian partners.

So what's next?

Slide Title: Gravitational Wave Observatories

Slide image: world map of Gravitational Wave Observatories


  • LIGO Hanford
  • LIGO Livingston
  • GEO600

Under Construction



  • Cosmic Explorer
  • Einstein Telescope
  • LIGO India
  • LISA

Image credit: LIGO

For the gravitational wave community, present generation detectors such as LIGO will continue to undergo upgrades. LIGO's goal is to increase its range by a factor of 2 by 2023, which would increase the rate of detections by a factor of 8 approximately.

The addition of Japan's KAGRA to the global network of gravitational wave detectors is eagerly anticipated. KAGRA's underground location, cryogenic mirrors and other bells and whistles will surely enhance detection efforts.

In the future, Europe's Einstein Telescope, the U.S.-based Cosmic Explorer and LIGO-India will greatly expand our global coverage and our ability to localize cosmic events with greater precision.

Complementing the detection of stellar-mass black hole mergers by these ground-based observatories will be the launch of LISA in the 2030's, which will open up a new window for detecting supermassive black hole mergers at different frequencies.

Slide image: composite image of the center of the Crab Nebula

Image credit: J. Hester (ASU), CXC, HST, NRAO, NSF, NASA

At the same time, another active area of funding using millisecond pulsars to detect low-frequency gravitational waves is expanding the scale and scope of our search. The collaboration and sharing of data between pulsar timing array groups -- NANOGrav in the U.S., the European Pulsar Timing Array, and the Parkes Pulsar Timing Array in Australia - are likely to lead to the detection of waves from entirely new sources.

Slide image: photo inside Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

Image credit: Reidar Hahn/Fermilab

Last year, when I visited the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, I and several others talked about how countries choose and commit to global scientific partnerships with high costs and long time horizons. Antonio probably remembers this conversation, which we had with Italy's former prime minister and a US congressman.

This is a very important and relevant conversation to be having as we look ahead to even larger-scale infrastructure projects, such as the next, 3rd - generation gravitational wave detector, which will leverage the financial resources and brain power of a number of international partners.

These partnerships are complex assemblages when you consider the legal, financial, cultural, infrastructure capacity and other issues that differentiate countries.

In spite of this, global partnerships are essential if we are to realize the full potential of this multi-messenger era and continue to expand our windows on the universe.

When it comes to large global infrastructure projects, funding agencies should look to better synchronize the review process and funding. The costs, designs and schedules of such projects must be defined years, even decades, ahead of the desired date of delivery, giving funding agencies time to react and plan.

Slide title: Gravitational Wave Agencies Correspondents

Slide images: logos from:
Department of Science & Technology, Government of India
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft
Australian Government, Australian Research Council
Science & Technology Facilities Council

Ideally, the gravitational wave community would be served by an international consortium of funding agencies, in much the same way that the Funding Agencies for Large Colliders (FALC) supports accelerator science.

The 12 members you see here comprise the Gravitational Wave Agencies Correspondents, a group that may one day form the backbone of a FALC-like funding consortium.

There are clear benefits to better strategizing at the global level, including avoiding unnecessary and costly delays. The coalescing of multiple Liquid Argon dark matter experiments into the DarkSide program to facilitate the direct detection of dark matter, for example, enhances efficiency, promotes greater technology development, and reduces redundancies.

Slide title: Challenges and Opportunities

Slide images (clockwise from top left): word graphic about data science; photo of a broken bridge; photo of LIGO headlines in various publications; photo from LIGO-VIRGO press conference October 16, 2017

Image credits (clockwise from top left): James Kurose, NSF; ©; NSF (2)

There are a couple of other areas that impact our field and deserve extra attention.

The first is the need for a cyberinfrastructure that will optimize what we learn through our detectors. Investing now in the development of a cyberinfrastructure able to store, analyze, coordinate and distribute data in near real-time to all observatories before an event "disappears" will enable the next great discovery - or the next great many discoveries.

For this reason, Harnessing the Data Revolution - another of NSF's Big Ideas - has become a high-priority area for us.

It has also become a high priority for NSF to look at opportunities for investment in research infrastructure that are diverse in space, cost and implementation, and to develop agile processes for funding experimental research capabilities at the mid-scale range. This would give us more latitude to collaborate with our global partners on mid-scale projects, ensuring we don't leave essential science undone.

New instruments for the next generation of 30-meter-class telescopes, for example, are experimental capabilities in the mid-scale range that will enable fundamental discoveries about the universe.

Equal in importance to our investments in large- and mid-scale infrastructure is our investment in the next generation of scientists. Ensuring our young researchers have access to international research experiences exposes them to diversity of thought, equipping them with the skills and temperament to collaborate on a global level and fully exploit the multi-messenger era. Facilities like IceCube, LIGO, Virgo, ALMA and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) provide excellent training grounds for this kind of preparation.

At the same time, we must make sure the field of astroparticle physics, and all the sciences, are widely inclusive and supportive of all talent. This is something NSF is heavily invested in on the U.S. side, and I know this is an area the APPEC roadmap has identified as a priority. Having people from diverse backgrounds enriches our scientific ecosystem, and brings new experiences and perspectives to bear on complex scientific challenges.

Finally, set against the backdrop of limited budgets and competing national priorities, public understanding of and engagement in science has never been more important. We see the excitement generated by gravitational wave and other discoveries. The ability to seize on these moments to communicate frequently and clearly about our work and why it matters is key to maintaining public support for large infrastructure projects.

Also key to maintaining support is reminding the public and policymakers of the societal benefits that stem from curiosity-driven research.

When I visited INFN's underground laboratory at Gran Sasso last year, I learned of a commercial venture that grew out of the search for underground argon for the DarkSide program. The argon search in Colorado turned up a previously unknown source of helium, the global supply of which is currently in decline.

This has implications for society - which uses helium to cool the magnets of MRI scanners - and science, which uses helium to cool accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider. In 2015, Air Products, a multi-million-dollar plant, opened its doors at the Colorado site, with the goal of extracting the helium for the commercial market.

These societal byproducts that derive from our search for answers about the universe are unexpected yet important benefits of doing basic research.

In the next 5-10 years, it's likely we'll detect gravitational waves from a new source, possibly a supermassive black hole.

With new detectors searching for dark matter planned for 2020 and beyond, we may finally detect or rule out WIMPs as a source of dark matter.

By combining data from electromagnetic and neutrino messengers, we may learn more from the search for sources of Ultra High Energy cosmic phenomena.

It is certainly an exciting time for the astroparticle physics community, with so many possible discoveries waiting around so many corners. The National Science Foundation looks forward to collaborating with our global partners as we forge ahead in this new era.

Thank you.

Slide words: Thank you!

Slide image: aerial photo from space looking down at Earth through clouds

Image credit: ©