Reward Courageous Research in Physics

by Foundational Questions Institute
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Create the FQXi Courage Prize, recognizing scientists who exhibit intellectual courage by developing innovative, theoretical research.

  Research, Quantum Physics

Big Questions Need Big Answers… And Researchers Willing To Find Them

Roughly 100 years ago, the Theory of Relativity and the discovery of quantum mechanics ignited a revolution in scientific thought. Brave, curious minds all over the world were inspired by those discoveries and clamored to further them through their own research. Those minds were put to more practical service during World War I and the ensuing military conflicts of the last century... but the fascination with those kinds of ideas – revolutionary, foundation-shaking ideas – remains.

The opportunity to pursue those ideas, much less the funding, does not.

We want to provide a solution.

What We’re Trying To Do

How did the universe begin? Is there one universe, or parallel ones? What defines reality? These are questions we think humans can finally answer, and we believe the best way to pursue those answers is by supporting scientists doing the research related to these answers.

There’s just one problem: in order for scientists to obtain funding to pursue the kind of innovative, theoretical research to find these answers, they need a proposal with a defensible plan for achieving particular, well-specified outcomes. Big answers don’t have defensible plans. The research these scientists want to do doesn’t have those kinds of parameters, so their funding requests are often denied, forcing them to pursue safer, more conventional avenues of research. That leaves the biggest, juiciest ones unexplored… and the answers further away than ever.

This is why we want to create the FQXi Courage Prize. This award will recognize researchers who develop a rigorous and recognized research program in a direction that runs counter to this social pressure. We want to recognize intellectual courage that questions conventional thinking, and support research that is both foundational (with potentially significant implications for our understanding of the “ultimate” nature of reality), and unconventional (research that, because of its speculative, non-mainstream, or high-risk nature, would otherwise go unperformed due to lack of funding). These focus areas include:

Convened high successful scientific conferences.

FQXi conferences unite specialists not only for the usual talks and seminars, but also for creative group work and brainstorming in vibrant locales.

Created a vigorous editorial presence.

The FQXi website serves as a central resource for information and exchange, including access to original articles, blogs, scientific forums and podcasts.

Initiated a unique series of innovative essay contests.

These contests focus the minds and efforts of foundational thinkers on deep questions such as, “What is the nature of Time?” and “ What is ultimately possible in Physics?” Each contest awards up to twenty prizes via expert judging, and contests so far have attracted hundreds of entries and significant community attention.

Directed millions of dollars to cutting edge research.

Employing a scrupulous and independent peer-review process modeled after that of the National Science Foundation, FQXi directs millions of dollars in large and small grants through a donor advised fund (FQXi Fund) to an exceptionally diverse group of top scientists worldwide. This funding has resultied in measurable positive outcomes in a variety of media, including papers and lectures, books and movies, websites and wikis. Moreover, a number of FQXi Fund grantees have been able to leverage their success in and with FQXi grants to attract broader funding from more conventional sources.

Best of all, this prize would offer ongoing funding that would be dispersed at ongoing reviews on a schedule that we will establish. This security of funding will reassure scientists to pursue their passion because they’ll know they’ll have funding for it.

Introduction

We are FQXi, the Foundational Questions Institute. We offer scientists – and their supporters – the resources, encouragement, and funding to pursue answers to our biggest, most profound questions about life and the universe. Due to the advent of technology and an explosion in scientific advances, real, tangible answers are closer than ever. We are excited about that – and are doing everything we can to increase intellectual, organizational, and monetary support to find those answers.

For starters, we’re most excited about directing needed funds to this kind of research. Employing a scrupulous and independent peer-review process modeled after that of the National Science Foundation, we direct millions of dollars in large and small grants through a donor-advised fund. This funding has gone to an exceptionally diverse group of top scientists worldwide, and that’s resulted in measurable positive outcomes in a variety of media (including papers, lectures, books, movies, websites, wikis). Most exciting of all, a number of grantees have been able to leverage their success to attract broader funding from more conventional sources.

We have also retooled our website to serve as a free resource for multiple academic disciplines, initiated essay contests that encourage unique thinking, and hosted conferences that unite experts from diverse fields in creative problem solving. We post those lectures on our YouTube account for anyone to access. An example is below:

Wonderful as these things are, we wouldn’t be able to do any of it without the support of people like you. We consider it part of our mission to bring people together to support scientific research, and we believe this award is our best way yet to do that. By funding this project, you’ll have first-hand experience of the research you sponsor… and be the first to find out about their discoveries.

What We Need From You

We want to reward scientists who are tackling the big questions of the universe on their own. Here’s how you can help:

STEP 1 - Soliciting nominations.

In order to find the most worthy candidates who are pursuing courageous research, FQXi will solicit nominations from its members as well as accepting nominations via social media. We are looking for candidates who hold a PhD in physics or a related field, but have not reached faculty level. They must demonstrate extraordinary passion for unraveling the secrets of the universe, dedicating both time and effort to their project even though their work ran against the mainstream consensus and thus would not have been perceived as being immediately helpful to advancing their career. We’ll need your help to get the word out – and, of course, participate in the nominations!

STEP 2 - Judging.

Once we’ve got our nominations, the FQXi Fund committee will review them during our Large Grant selection process. We will use the same rigorous, peer-review process that we use for that selection process, and the candidates will be judged by leading scientists in fields related to foundational questions in physics and cosmology.

STEP 3 -Granting the award.

Once we’ve got our finalists (and your input!), we will select a candidate along the same timeframe as our Large Grant selection process. We will make the announcement online – possibly live, if the winner is available. We are looking to grant one award, but depending on the amount we raise we may increase the number of winners.

This campaign is Flexible, meaning that the project leader will receive whatever donations are collected at the end of the campaign whether or not it reaches its goal.

Research Areas

FQXi therefore aims to support research that is both foundational (with potentially significant and broad implications for our understanding of the deep or “ultimate” nature of reality) and unconventional (enabling research that, because of its speculative, non-mainstream, or high-risk nature, would otherwise go unperformed due to lack of funding).

ULTIMATE REALITY: In a category not usually found in other funding agencies’ dockets, FQXi Members boldly ask questions at the foundations of reality itself. What do “parallel universes” mean physically and philosophically? What does it mean for something to be physically real? Why does physics work, and why is it mathematical? Are there truths that physics can never determine?

COSMOLOGY: Cosmology is that subset of astronomy that asks the biggest questions of all: What is the structure of the universe on the largest scales? How did it begin – indeed, did it begin? Did the universe undergo early “inflationary” expansion, as recent astronomical data appears to suggest? Are there other universes, and what are they like? What are dark matter and dark energy?

QUANTUM GRAVITY AND QUANTUM COSMOLOGY: General relativity and quantum mechanics successfully explain most phenomena but in separate domains:The very large and the very small. And where they should overlap – at the big bang, for instance – no complete joining of thae theories has yet been found. The Holy Grail in physics is a union of these two theories in one all-encompassing quantum- gravitational “Theory of Everything.”

QUANTUM FOUNDATIONS: After a century of debate, we still do not understand the central aspects of quantum mechanics. Bizarre “quantum questions” are among the most fascinating and popular in science, and the most important for understanding our world. Yet FQXi remains one of the few sources for support of quantum foundations research. What happens when we make a measurement?

TECHNOLOGY: Transformational technologies often follow revolutions in physical understanding, so progress is generally made by investing in nominally “pure” research.

Scientific Directorate

The Scientific Directorate provides the scientific leadership of FQXi, advised and overseen by the Advisory Council.

Scientific Director Max Tegmark is Professor at MIT. A native of Sweden, Tegmark earned his Ph.D. in physics at Berkeley in 1994. He then worked as a research associate at the Max-Planck-Institut für Physik in Munich, as a Hubble Fellow and member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and as faculty at the University of Pennsylvania before joining MIT in 2004. Tegmark's research has focused on cosmology theory and phenomenology, but has also included diverse topics such as interpretations of quantum mechanics, predictions of inflation, and parallel universes.

Associate Scientific Director Anthony Aguirre is Professor at UC Santa Cruz. Aguirre received his Ph.D. in Astronomy in 2000 from Harvard University. He then spent three years as a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (narrowly missing Tegmark) before accepting a Professorship at the physics department of the University of California at Santa Cruz. Aguirre has worked on a wide variety of topics in theoretical cosmology, ranging from intergalactic dust to galaxy formation to gravity physics to the large-scale structure of inflationary universes and the arrow of time.

Members

FQXi has developed a robust international community of foundational thinkers, earning broad and deep respect from the scientific community and the general public for its efforts to further scientific inquiry via a global, inter-institutional community of researchers in the fields of our purview. As a result, today, the great majority of top thinkers in foundational questions are FQXi Members. Such Members are the lifeblood of our organization, consisting of top researchers and outreach specialists in our fields of interest. Prominent Members include David Tong, Lisa Randall, Frank Wilczek, Brian Greene, Leonard Susskind, Janna Levin, Eva Silverstein, Sean Carroll, Stephen Wolfram, Steven Weinberg, Sara Seager, and Gerard 't Hooft.

Large Grants

Approximately $7.4M in Grants have been awarded to Researchers and Outreach Specialists Worldwide, in three Large Grant Request For Proposals (2006, 2008, and 2010). Large Grants are awarded (through the FQXi Fund, a donor advised fund at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation) as research grants to theorists and experimenters in support of personnel, equipment, travel, workshops, and experiments; some funding also targets projects that effectively disseminate information about foundational questions in physics and cosmology to laypeople. Proposals are subject to a standard competitive process of expert peer review similar to that employed by national scientific funding agencies. A small selection of such winners is shown below.

Mini-Grants

Two rounds of Mini-Grants are available to FQXi Members each year via a streamlined application process. Mini-Grants are suitable for travel, lecture programs, workshops, and other small projects initiated by Members. A small selection of such winners is shown below.

  Budget Breakdown

  Risks and Challenges

Team

  • Project Leader: Foundational Questions Institute (Non-profit)
  • Location: Decatur, GA, United States
  • Organizer:

    Kavita Rajanna

    Contact the organizer

Reward Courageous Research in Physics

Create the FQXi Courage Prize, recognizing scientists who exhibit intellectual courage by developing innovative, theoretical research.