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Physicists told to confront those big questions

Nature volume 440, page 7 (02 March 2006) | Download Citation


Foundation hunts for far-out research proposals.

Time travel, multiple universes and extraterrestrial intelligence might seem more the purview of Star Trek scriptwriters than of serious researchers. But the scientists behind a new institute have announced their intention to change that perception.

On 27 February, the Foundational Questions Institute (FQI) made its inaugural call for proposals from scientists interested in asking the really big, and really odd, questions about the Universe — questions such as: why does time flow in a single direction, or, can intelligence survive in our Universe in the very long term?

Boldly go: a new institute will fund work at the frontiers of science. Image: PARAMOUNT TELEVISION/THE KOBAL COLLECTION

“These are the very questions that a lot of scientists got into physics and cosmology to tackle,” says Anthony Aguirre, a cosmologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the FQI's associate scientific director. “But they don't tackle them, because they either don't have time or don't have monetary support.”

The institute's directors hope it will remedy this. The FQI was set up last October with a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, which promotes research at the boundary of religion and science. With US$8 million in seed money from the foundation, the FQI will fund dozens of researchers' part-time work on these questions, Aguirre says. All proposals will be peer reviewed, he adds.

“I'm very happy to see that a project has started to address these needs,” says Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, who is also on the FQI's scientific advisory board. Smolin says he believes the project will help shake up the current culture, “which emphasizes technical brilliance over ambition and originality”.

But not everyone welcomes the institute's unusual remit. There is no shortage of crazy ideas in theoretical physics, says Paul Steinhardt, a cosmologist at Princeton University, New Jersey. “Metaphysics is running rampant through string theory and cosmology,” he says. “I would like to see things go a little bit in the other direction.”

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