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Photo of Dr. France A. Cordova

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


Symposium in Honor of Dr. Vera Rubin
Lohrfink Auditorium, Georgetown University

June 24, 2019

Photo: NSF/Stephen Voss

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

Title slide title: Exploring the
Unanswered Questions
of our Universe

Slide words: Dr. France A. Córdova
Director, National Science Foundation
June 24, 2019
Lohrfink Auditorium, Georgetown University

Slide image: Photo of Vera C. Rubin

Image credit: Image courtesy of Mark Godfrey

Thank you, Katherine, for that warm introduction.

It's an honor to be here to celebrate the pioneering life and legacy of Dr. Vera Rubin. As a young astrophysicist, I was inspired by Vera and her investigation of the universe. As my own research career advanced, it was a joy to meet her, socialize with her, and become friends.

For her seminal contributions to the field of astrophysics, the President awarded Vera Rubin the National Medal of Science in 1993. I was pleased to be a member of the National Medal committee that proposed the nominees to the White House. In the time since Dr. Rubin provided further evidence of the existence of dark matter, she has inspired a great deal of work to illuminate our understanding of galaxy dynamics. This has continued to be a fundamental area of investigation in astrophysics, with substantial NSF support for a number of projects.

Slide title: Dark Energy Survey (DES)

Slide image: night photo of Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile

Image credit: The Dark Energy Survey

Notable among them is the recently completed Dark Energy Survey, which yielded the most accurate map of dark matter in the universe to date. DES used the NSF-supported, 4-meter Blanco telescope of the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. Its early measurements of the amount and distribution of dark matter in the present-day cosmos are fairly consistent with results of the European Space Agency’s Planck observatory, allowing scientists to understand more about the ways the universe has evolved over 14 billion years. Analysis of the full six years of DES data will provide much improved constraints.

It wasn't enough for Vera to relish in making her own distinguished mark on our field. She was determined to ensure that every woman who shared her aspirations and talent could have the same opportunities as well.

Slide title: 1965 Georgetown Astronomy Department

Slide image: 1965 photo of Georgetown University’s Astronomy Department with Vera Rubin

Image credit: Georgetown University Archives

From the looks of this 1965 photograph of the Georgetown Astronomy Department, it's quite possible that Vera was often the only woman in the room. Having played that role many times in my own life, I can say it is a distinction one looks forward to outgrowing. The question often for us is how to ensure more women have a seat at the table.

Once, Vera was asked why she was able to become a successful woman astronomer, while so many other women ended up dropping out. "That's a question we only ask someone who has been successful," she answered. "There may be hundreds and even thousands of women who would have made great astronomers and never really had the opportunity. They're the ones that ought to be asked what would have been necessary to make it possible for them to become successful astronomers."

During Dr. Rubin's time here at Georgetown, she raised four children, each of whom went on to earn their own PhDs in science or mathematics. For a long time, the professional development track for researchers effectively penalized women who wanted to have families – and those problems persist today. Like Vera, it would have been impossible for me to walk my path if I had not been able to find a balance between my career and personal life. Many women in science are not so fortunate.

NSF has adapted its programs to try to address these issues. Take our Career Awards for example, which I'm proud to say were the first NSF awards received by many prominent scientists. For a long time, "early career" translated to an age cap. That limited opportunities for women who took time off for maternity or family leave. NSF streamlined and simplified the eligibility criteria, recognizing that early-career faculty members must develop their careers at whatever rate is appropriate for them, given their personal and professional choices. Therefore, we removed the qualifying dates for receipt of degree and first appointment.

Slide title: Waterman Award

Slide image: photo of Dr. France Córdova with Kristina Olson, 2018 Waterman awardee, and Maria Zuber

Image credit: Rich Riggings, NSF

We took a similar step with the Alan T. Waterman Award, NSF's highest honor for promising, early-career researchers. The very next year after the revised eligibility criteria, our winner was Dr. Kristina Olson -- the first psychologist and the 6th woman ever to receive this honor. She would not have been eligible had we not changed the requirements to give all people more time since earning their degree to make early career accomplishments.

When it comes to the balance of work and family, sometimes science itself can help us level the playing field. Such is the case with the advent of telepresence technology, which is now enabling research vessels to communicate with scientists on shore in real time through streaming video and audio. Thanks to this new technology, Dr. Melissa Omand, an expectant mother and oceanographer at the University of Rhode Island did not have to pass up on a career-changing opportunity to lead her first research expedition. She did it remotely!

And then there are the research environments, where no technology and only a firm policy position could be a remedy. Which brings us to one of the most significant developments out of NSF over the past year, a term and condition added to all our new awards aimed at stamping out harassment, including sexual harassment.

As both an astronomer and advocate for women in science, Dr. Rubin is a powerful example, reminding us all to ask the right questions. And to adopt or revise policies that are within our purview. Each of us has a responsibility for change and a unique frame of reference to effect it.

As it is our common love for the cosmos which has brought us all together, I'd like to discuss how NSF is helping to address some of our unanswered questions about the universe.

For decades, our agency has invested in theoretical research into the workings of the cosmos and built the observational infrastructure needed to test those theories. The universe echoes with "messengers" carrying information over billions of light years. As we are all aware, photons are messengers, as are cosmic rays and neutrinos. Four years ago, NSF's LIGO allowed us for the first time to detect another messenger -- gravitational waves.

Slide title: Windows on the Universe

Slide image:
(top) aerial photo of LIGO Observatory in Livingston, Louisiana
(left) photo of the IceCube Neutrino Observatory in Antarctica
(right) photo of Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), Chile

Image credits:
(top) LIGO Scientific Collaboration
(left) Mike Lucibella, NSF
(right) NRAO/AUI/NSF

Our Windows on the Universe Big Idea -- one of ten research priorities identified by NSF -- capitalizes on this era of multi-messenger astrophysics. When we announced it, even we could not have anticipated how soon we'd see new, groundbreaking discoveries in the years that followed. The detection of two neutron stars colliding in 2017, which involved photons and – thanks to NSF's LIGO – gravitational waves, marked the first observation of cosmic phenomena through two messengers.

NSF's IceCube Neutrino Observatory in Antarctica played a pivotal role in the second discovery, helping to reveal — in collaboration with ground and space-based gamma-ray observatories, a flaring blazar as a source of high -energy cosmic rays.

Slide images:
(left) photo of a black hole taken by the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

(right) photo of EHT Press Conference, National Press Club, Washington, DC, April 10, 2019
(left to right) Participants: Sheperd S. Doeleman, NSF Director France A. Córdova, Dan Marrone, Avery Broderick, Sera Markoff

Image credits:
(left) Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al.
(right) Joel Goldberg, NSF

And we continue to see new breakthroughs from the researchers and instruments we support. The Event Horizon Telescope, which gave us our first-ever image of a black hole, may play a role in multi-messenger astronomy in the future. NSF supported the Event Horizon Telescope effort for almost two decades, and we were thrilled to share the stage with its collaborators when they came together to deliver this image to the world.

Slide: The Engineering achievement of EHT

Slide image: global land and space map of the EHT collaborative telescopes

Image credit: Lukacs tamas/Shutterstock, design by NSF

Behind this breakthrough was an enormous engineering achievement. There were countless technical challenges involved in linking a heterogenous group of telescopes into one enormous virtual dish. For over a decade, astronomers, engineers and computer scientists traveled telescope by telescope, installing the atomic clocks, data recorders and other hardware necessary for the task.

In some cases, specialized equipment was required. At the South Pole, a new receiver had to be built to detect the radiation they needed and extra precautions made to ensure all the equipment would work in the cold and harsh environment of the Antarctic. Once each facility was functional, they had to be tested and re-tested, site by site, ensuring researchers could seize the finite window of observation available to them. Over many years and multiple trips, new bridges of international cooperation were built. Ultimately, a team of 60 institutes working in more than 20 nations contributed to this breakthrough.

Slide words: The Era of Multi-Messenger Astrophysics

Slide image: graphic map of NSF's global research infrastructure

Image credit: Nicolle R. Fuller, NSF

This map of NSF facilities illuminates the truly global nature of our work. To realize the full potential of multi-messenger astrophysics, collaboration with our interagency and international partners is vital. That was just as true of the LIGO and IceCube discoveries, as it was to image a black hole. And thanks to NSF's sustained investments in multi-messenger astrophysics, we are poised to lead this burgeoning field for the foreseeable future.

Slide title: The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST)

Slide image: Sunset photo of LSST

Image credit: LSST Project/NSF/AURA

Dark matter studies advanced by Vera Rubin have also played a central role in the development of state-of-the-art facilities like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, currently under construction on Cerro Pachon in Chile. LSST promises to deliver a wider and deeper view of the Universe – advancing observations from static images to a 10-year movie of the sky. The facility is an 8.4 meter-class wide-field optical telescope designed to carry out surveys of nearly half the sky. When completed, it will produce a comprehensive data set enabling hundreds of fundamental studies in astrophysics.

LSST has the potential to advance every field of astronomical study from the inner Solar System to the large-scale structure of the Universe. And, of course, it has the potential to provide much-needed new information about dark matter through gravitational lensing and other means that we heard about earlier today.

Private partners were integral in the early stages of LSST, investing in its design and development prior to NSF's construction award. Today, the facility is a collaboration between NSF and the Department of Energy. This is another in the many innovative partnerships NSF is undertaking across sectors. These are efforts that are at the core of our continuing growth into a more agile and responsive agency.

We hope that the impact of LSST will be just as far-reaching. That's why we are working to ensure its data will be made accessible to the community at large -- from professional astronomers and citizen scientists to students and educators alike.

But grand goals often come with grand challenges, and the goals of LSST come with the challenge of processing complex data as vast as the Universe itself. The speed and depth with which LSST intends to map the southern sky will produce an enormous volume of data -- about 20 terabytes or 20 trillion bytes of raw data per night. The facility is expected to catalog 18 billion objects in its first year alone. It's no wonder that nearly half its cost during operations is dedicated to data management.

We know that data mining or the exploration of large data sets can lead to extraordinary new discoveries. This is the crux of NSF's Harnessing the Data Revolution Big Idea, which promises to shed new light on this and every research area through fundamental research in data science. We anticipate an array of exciting discoveries sparked by the outpouring of LSST data, which is around the corner!

Our agency-wide investments in Harnessing the Data Revolution are aimed at developing an advanced data cyberinfrastructure for researchers as well as a data-capable workforce.

To maintain U.S. global leadership in science and technology, NSF identified critical gaps in its own approach to furthering the progress of science. One persistent gap we are working to address is the development and acquisition of mid-scale infrastructure for our research communities.

Slide words: New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics

Slide image: NAC Journal cover

Image credit: National Research Council of the National Academies

The need for a well-defined mid-scale funding program at NSF has been recognized by various boards and committees, including the 2010 astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics. The report cited 29 white papers describing astronomical projects that could be classified as mid-scale instruments and facilities and recommended the establishment of a "Mid-Scale Innovations Program."

In response, we began the Mid-Scale Innovations Program, or MSIP, in the Division of Astronomical Sciences in 2014. This program is designed to support astronomical projects costlier than allowed through the Major Research Instrumentation, or MRI, program but below the MREFC threshold. The MSIP funding range fills part of the mid-scale gap, from $4M to $30M.

Proposals for the latest round of the MSIP were due in November 2017, resulting in 9 awards. Funded projects cover a range of astronomical science from the cosmic microwave background, to hydrogen emission during Cosmic Dawn, to the enigmatic Fast Radio Bursts whose origins are currently unknown. Instrumentation projects include high resolution adaptive optics, advanced spectroscopic cameras, and a 110-element radio telescope array. Given that the Event Horizon Telescope was funded through the MSIP program and MRI, there is no telling what extraordinary outcomes can come from investment in mid-scale infrastructure.

Slide title: Mid-scale Research Infrastructure (Mid-scale RI)

Slide words: MRI, Mid-scale RI-1, Mid-scale RI-2, MREFC

Slide image: photo of an open drawbridge

Image credit: Hardesty & Hanover

With its Major Research Instrumentation and Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction programs, NSF supported infrastructure projects at the lower and higher ends of the infrastructure scale. When NSF lowered the threshold of higher end projects to $70 million, it was an important first step in shrinking the infrastructure gap but still left an unmet need.

NSF has established the Foundation-wide Midscale Research Infrastructure program as one of its 10 Big Ideas. This initiative will provide us with an agile process to fund experimental research capabilities between our lower and higher end thresholds for research infrastructure.

What we hope to accomplish is seen in this depiction of our very own Woodrow Wilson Bridge! Here we see the gap between MRI and MREFC being closed by the two Mid-scale funding opportunities that are part of our Big Idea.

Two Mid-scale Big Idea solicitations were published last fall and resulted in more than 300 preliminary proposals, totaling a request for over $4.5 billion. This response provided an excellent measure of what the community identified as unfulfilled infrastructure needs. We anticipate making the first mid-scale awards this year!

Slide title: Convergence

Slide image: illustration suggesting convergence

Credit: National Research Council of the National Academies Press

I recently had the opportunity to address the graduating class at Caltech. It was a great honor to be able to go back "home" to speak to the next generation about the lessons I had learned. One of those lessons was the importance of working on grand challenges from the outset in teams with interdisciplinary skills.

At NSF, we call that convergence, and it has changed the way we work. Multi-messenger astronomy is a great example of this concept in action. Answers to big challenges can be found by widening our circle of computation, theoretical, and experimental partnerships. Because LIGO included numerical relativists on the team, we now know not only that gravitational waves exist, but the nature of the phenomena that cause them. We now know of large black hole binaries. Who knew?!

NSF is also uniquely positioned to put this into action by building bridges between academia, government entities, industry, and other sectors. As astronomy and astrophysics build bigger and more sensitive telescopes, we will need better and more efficient ways to manage them and process the data they produce.

As seen by your presence tonight, Vera's legacy continues to be an inspiration to us all. She broke down many barriers, in science and in the culture of science. If there isn't a path, make one! That was her attitude.

I'm excited to see what the future of multi-messenger astronomy reveals about our universe. We are building on a foundation that Vera laid throughout her career. I'm proud to be a part of that effort and proud of how significant Vera's influence has been on our community and discipline. And I very much hope that the answer to the riddle of dark matter will be solved before I take leave of our planet.

Thank you!

Slide title: Exploring the
Unanswered Questions
of our Universe

Slide words: Dr. France A. Córdova
Director, National Science Foundation
June 24, 2019
Lohrfink Auditorium, Georgetown University

Slide image: Photo of Vera C. Rubin

Image credit: Image courtesy of Mark Godfrey