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Year as a Congressional Science Fellow
and the National Science Foundation beautifully communi- cated to my host office and the rest of Congress how they had picked up the signature of a binary black hole merger (Abbott et al., 2016). If the energy released in gravitational radiation is compared with that of sound waves, this merger was the most powerful transient event humans have ever recorded, by more than 25 orders of magnitude!5 Several legislators expressed their excitement that a multidecade investment in basic science had yielded a new channel for listening to the universe plus significant spinoff technology. At least one House member also argued that this achieve- ment proved the value of pursuing science “in the national interest,” the subject of a bill widely perceived as trying to stifle curiosity-driven research. That language reminded me how subtle the conversation about federal funding can be and how important it is to continually nurture a two-way relationship between scientists and our representatives in government.
As I finished my time in Washington, I marveled at the fact that the Congressional Science Fellowships have not only persisted but grown in number over the past four decades. In the busy congressional office buildings, where free desks are rare, it is encouraging that members of each political party make space for technical experts. Likewise, the resources that organizations like the AIP and ASA devote to this pro- gram say something quite positive about our professions.
In sharing these reflections, I hope I have conveyed how worthwhile I found the fellowship experience. But perhaps you are feeling what a group of scientists expressed after ask- ing me about my year with Congress. “Working there must
be neat,” they said, “but we would be too frustrated by all the politics, the bluster, the irrational thinking.” To me, that ap- proach sounds slightly defeatist and maybe a bit responsible for the current distance between some politicians and the science we wish they appreciated. We have many options for building closer connections, and I highly recommend the Congressional Science Fellowship as one of them.
Rachel Carr is a Pappalardo Fellow in Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. Her research focus is experimental particle physics and astrophysics, particularly searches for dark matter and investiga- tions of neutrino properties. In connec-
tion with these projects, she is interested in applications of particle physics techniques for nuclear security and renew- able energy generation. She received her PhD from Colum- bia University, New York, NY, where she studied features of neutrinos produced in nuclear reactors.
Abbott, B. P. et al. (LIGO Scientific Collaboration and Virgo Collabora- tion). (2016). Observation of gravitational waves from a binary black hole merger. Physical Review Letters 116, 061102.
Adair, R. (2001). The crack of the bat: The acoustics of the bat hitting the ball. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 109, 2497.
Fidell, S. (2015). A review of US aircraft noise regulatory policy. Acoustics Today 11, 26-34.
      5 This conservative figure comes from comparing the gravitational energy ra- diated by the black hole merger LIGO observed on September 14, 2015, with the total energy released in the August 1883 eruption of Krakatoa. That vol- canic event, a good candidate for the loudest sound in recorded history, was audible to people thousands of miles away. The black hole signal was much “quieter” when it reached Earth, about a billion light years from the source.
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