Livingston Parish’s place in gravitational wave discovery dates back to early 1990s, when Louisiana competed to bring project here

Decades before the detection of ripples in space-time announced this month, a group of physics professors, business leaders and public officials saw an opportunity to bring a cutting-edge science experiment to the piney woods of rural Livingston Parish.

The National Science Foundation had been funding research for laser interferometers — the next-generation detectors for potentially observing the ripples known as gravitational waves — since the late 1970s. In 1990, the National Science Board approved a proposal to build two of them thousands of miles apart.

“I’ll be honest. I didn’t think we had much chance to get it,” LSU Chancellor Emeritus James Wharton said. “That’s the really big league. I mean, the big, big, big league.”

The project, known as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, was a joint effort from the California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology — “some pretty important names,” Wharton noted, that would need convincing of Louisiana’s suitability to become home to one of the observatories.

Ultimately, to help the Livingston proposal rise to the top, it took about $700,000 in state funding commitments, strong support from Louisiana politicians like former U.S. Rep. Richard Baker and longtime U.S. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, the backing of key economic development officials in Livingston Parish and an enthusiastic group of scientists at LSU who promised to give the LIGO project an academic home.

The investment paid off on Sept. 14, when the twin detectors in Livingston and Hanford, Washington, recorded gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes more than a billion light years away. The signal confirmed a key prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1916 general theory of relativity and kick-started a new era of astronomy.

“We’re beginning to paint a map of the universe heretofore totally impossible to create,” Baker said. “And I’m just delighted that LSU and the state of Louisiana have been put in this particular light to be at the forefront of scientific inquiry.”

Louisiana fought hard to secure its spot at the forefront when the LIGO project began. The list of must-haves for each of the two observatory locations was exacting.

The site had to be large and flat, suitable to build two, 2.5-mile-long tunnels at a right angle, where the scientists could measure for tiny differences in the time it took a laser beam to travel down each and back again.

The site needed to be at least 1,500 miles away from the second prospective observatory site and also make a large geographic triangle with a third observatory in Germany or Italy, so the scientists could better track the position of any gravitational wave source they might detect.

And the site had to be in an area developed enough to have access to roads, utilities and construction materials, and yet also quiet enough that the scientists could be sure the vibrations they detected were from space, not the Earth and its inhabitants.

LSU Physics Professor Bill Hamilton, who had been conducting gravitational wave experiments using the first cryogenic bar detector in the basement of Nicholson Hall, approached Wharton about a plot of land in Livingston Parish that just might fit the bill.

Fellow professor Warren Johnson had been keeping up with the LIGO project from afar while also working on the cryogenic bar detector and he was the one who actually zeroed in on the spot for the proposed observatory, Hamilton said.

“He went off and got a bunch of topo(graphical) maps and basically looked for anything he could find near here that looked like it was going to be a good site and not have a huge mess of landowners to have to negotiate with,” Hamilton said.

Finding a large enough chunk of property held by a single landowner only a short drive from LSU was a stroke of luck, but getting the owner to sell would be no easy feat. The land, then owned by Cavenham Forest Industries, was right in the middle of prime logging territory.

It meant canceling hunting and mineral leases, figuring out train schedules and looking for gopher tortoises or other possible sources of seismic disturbances or construction hazards, Wharton said.

To gather local support, Wharton went to Skip Smart, who was then executive director of the Livingston Economic Development Council.

“I helped put together meetings with the landowner,” Smart said. “I wouldn’t say I was the conduit, but I was a resource, and I was more than happy and extremely excited to help make it happen.”

Wharton said the late Bob Easterly, a founding member of the development council, also played a key role in securing local support.

“He had a lot of influence in Livingston Parish,” Wharton said of Easterly. “We had to build a bandwagon, so to speak, because we were going to have to chop up Cavenham’s land. … It really required a sales job to get them to agree to sell.”

Johnson said one of the crucial challenges was convincing people that this project, while pushing the bounds of science and technology, was a serious and worthwhile endeavor. That took heft and influence from Wharton, he said.

“Like with many scientific enterprises, there’s this stage at which these ideas seem really far out there,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to take it seriously. And it’s the crucial element, in my estimation, that there are influential people in the room who have credibility who can say, ‘No, this is not ridiculous. This is high risk, yes, but there are also high payoff possibilities in the future.’ ”

Johnson said there was “an excellent chance” that the LIGO detectors would detect nothing, “that nature didn’t happen to provide things that we could see.” Scientists for decades have been collecting circumstantial evidence of gravitational waves, but this project was about gathering direct proof.

The possibility — and eventual probability — of a detection made the quest worthwhile.

Once Cavenham agreed to carve out the irregular-shaped piece of property, the selling price was quite generous, Wharton said.

“They sold us a strip about 2.5 miles long by 75 feet wide and then a right angle to that, about 150 feet wide,” Wharton said. “You can imagine how that chops up their land, but they sold it to us for $200,000.”

Finding someone to put up the cost was the next hurdle. The LSU system would not buy the land, Wharton said, and the state was clinging tightly to its purse strings.

“The state of Louisiana was remarkably obtuse in understanding what any of this was about,” Johnson said. “Fortunately, Edwin Edwards became governor shortly thereafter.”

Wharton visited Edwards his first day in office in 1992 and explained the situation.

“We were about to run out of time on the purchase agreement and lose a great opportunity,” Wharton said. “He told me he would have a check for me the next morning, and sure enough, at 6:30 the next morning, there it was.”

Wharton said LSU leases the land to Caltech using the same legal provision it uses to lease property to fraternities, sororities and churches.

“You can consider LIGO to be a church,” he said.

While Wharton was tying up loose ends on the land deal, Baker, a Republican from Baton Rouge, was rallying lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to fully fund the National Science Foundation’s programs — including LIGO — at a time when Congress was cutting other science projects, like the Superconducting Super Collider in Waxahachie, Texas.

“For various reasons, I had been a big advocate of that project (the super collider), even though it was in Texas,” Baker said. “I just thought with its scope it had enormous scientific implications.”

Baker said it was an in-flight perusal of a science magazine — Scientific American, he thinks it was — while flying home from Washington, D.C., that brought the LIGO project into focus for him.

“This was much smaller in scale in overall dollars than the super collider — millions rather than billions — and I thought we (Louisiana) had some inherent advantages for this type of project that would put us in the hunt,” Baker said.

One of those advantages was LSU’s physics department, which had been pursuing the detection of gravitational waves since 1970, when Hamilton joined the department from Stanford.

“Dr. Hamilton was one of the first people to really take the idea seriously,” Johnson said. “He came to LSU and started one of the very few groups that were seriously trying to make gravitational wave detectors.”

Hamilton said the need to “scale up” a detector larger than the cryogenic bar — which could detect tiny vibrations but had not found gravitational waves — provided some of the impetus for LIGO co-founders Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Ronald Drever to develop the interferometers.

The National Science Foundation received 18 proposals from 17 states, offering up 19 potential sites for the two LIGO detectors, said LIGO Chief Scientist Stan Whitcomb, of Caltech.

Others submitting proposals included Los Angeles County; the state of Mississippi; Syracuse University; the state of Tennessee; and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, of West Virginia, according to news reports at the time.

The need to create a geographical triangle with another observatory in Europe — either Virgo near Pisa, Italy, or GEO600 near Hanover, Germany — favored site pairs including Northwest and Southeast U.S. locations, Whitcomb said.

“Pretty much all the sites in the West had some significant advantages over almost all the sites in the East,” Whitcomb said. “The land is just a lot emptier in the western part of the country, and it’s a lot easier to do some of the construction.”

Those areas also have lower water tables and fewer frost concerns, he said.

What put Livingston at the top of the list was that, in addition to meeting all the scientific and construction requirements, the site also had strong backing from the state of Louisiana, Whitcomb said.

In addition to the $200,000 land acquisition cost, the state spent about $500,000 building an access road into the LIGO site, according to news reports at the time.

“The state made some substantial commitments to us,” Whitcomb said. “They had an arrangement to acquire the site. They were working with the owner to grant access to the site. And they told us they would support a strong group of scientists at LSU working on LIGO, to give us an academic home in Louisiana. All of those were intangible pluses.”

Livingston and a sister site in Hanford, Washington, were officially named the winners of the site selection process in February 1992. Construction of what is now called Initial LIGO, at a total cost to the National Science Foundation of $272 million for both sites, began in 1995 and was completed in 1999. The detectors went through a commissioning, or fine-tuning, period and then began operations in 2002, collecting data simultaneously as well as with the GEO600 observatory in Germany.

Baker continued to shepherd LIGO funding legislation through the U.S. House of Representatives throughout the construction, as well as securing funding to build a Science Education Center at LIGO-Livingston, where exhibits and tour guides teach visitors of all ages about the science behind the project.

The LIGO detectors got a $205 million upgrade — to become Advanced LIGO — between 2010 and 2014. The new equipment has the potential to make the detectors 10 times as sensitive, allowing scientists eventually to see up to 1,000 times more volume of space. The detectors had reached about three to four times the sensitivity of Initial LIGO when the gravitational waves detection was made in September, said Joseph Giaime, head of the Livingston observatory.

The upgrade brought the National Science Foundation’s total investment in LIGO to more than $1.1 billion, including pre-LIGO research and design and operational costs, spokeswoman Ivy Kupec said. This year alone, the NSF will provide LIGO with $40 million for operational costs.

“This is an example of the federal government — partly by very good luck and partly through an astute understanding of physics and astronomy — being willing to take a bet on this enterprise,” Johnson said. “No corporation or private business could conceivably do this. It would be crazy for a business to do this. But it is one of the things that our society, as a group, can do through the agency of government, something that is remarkable and inspiring to all of us.”

Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen, and call her at (225) 336-6981.

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