Newt Gingrich, Al Gore, and Bill Clinton sing the National Anthem at the 1997 Presidential Inaugural Swearing-in Ceremony. Under their watch the gravitational wave detectors got built. (credit: US National Archives)
It seemed an inauspicious time to seek funding for a large physics experiment. During the midterm elections in 1994, with Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America at the vanguard, Republicans stormed to power in Congress after successfully painting President Bill Clinton as a “tax-and-spend” liberal. Gingrich and his new majority promised to balance the country’s budget.
Meanwhile, at the offices of the National Science Foundation, the foundation’s director wanted to press ahead with the construction of gravitational wave detectors that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. There was no guarantee that these instruments would find gravitational waves. In fact, many scientists predicted they wouldn't work. And even if they were successful, the discovery of gravitational waves would not advance the interests of the United States in any material way.
The foundation’s director at the time was particle physicist Neal Lane, who would go on to become President Clinton’s science advisor. When I asked him about the Gingrich revolution and the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors, he chuckled. “When Gingrich came to town with the Republicans, that could have definitely been a major hiccup,” Lane said.