I am working on a story about a man who has dedicated his entire scientific career to conducting one experiment. Whose legacy rests on measuring one tiny number. I am told this type of dedication is not uncommon in the realm of academia.
But to me, a person who can’t seem to commit to one city for more than three years, the idea of identifying a cause before Neil Armstrong ever set foot on the moon and pursuing its execution for nearly 50 years until the government cancels the shuttle program because they now consider it unimpressive, is amazing. That someone can spend their whole life wedded to one idea. One purpose. And the faith to see it through to the end. Even when everything almost falls apart.
There were numerous frustrations along the way. Moments when funding was cut, when he had to justify his life’s work before Congress, when perhaps he wondered whether it was at all worth it. Finally, there was the moment when the experiment took flight, when 10,000 things all went right, when his future rode upon a machine off to test the inconceivable.
When this man took on the project back in the 1960s, the experiment was simple in theory. But it took five decades to invent and construct the instrumentation that made it possible. Scientists developed nearly a dozen different manufacturing methods to bring this 3 ton satellite to launch and latch onto the light of a distant star – already millions of years old by the time our eyes expand to greet it. It uses the past for guidance as a gyroscope made by the hands of dozens of men and women, some long since passed, measures how space and time interact.
I am awed when I think about what they have accomplished over the years. Because the entire goal of the project is to observe a displacement angle so small it is like viewing the width of a hair from two football fields away. Then all will be right in the world of modern physics. Proof that Einstein was right. Proof that man can do anything. And after half a century, the project is coming to a close this fall.
I could ask this man about all the various technologies that came to be because of his investigations. About all the people his project has propelled forward – the future nobel laureates whose names are linked to his lab. I could ask him about all the times NASA cut his program and then resuscitated it at the last minute. I could ask him what that felt like to hear – we no longer believe in what you are doing. But thank you for your time. I could ask about the moments he almost gave up – because surely, there must have been a few. Instead, I am more interested in learning: are you sad it’s over?