The Foundational Questions Institute (Anthony Aguirre)

By Sean Carroll | March 28, 2006 5:08 pm

The Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi) was mentioned in the comments of Mark’s post about John Barrow’s Templeton Prize. This is a new organization that is devoted to supporting innovative ideas at the frontiers of physics and cosmology. It is led by Max Tegmark of MIT and Anthony Aguirre of UCSC, two leading young cosmologists, backed up by an extremely prestigious Scientific Advisory Panel.

Sounds like a great idea, but some of us have questions, primarily concerning the source of funding for FQXi — currently the John Templeton Foundation. The Templeton Foundation is devoted to bringing together science and religion, which may or may not be your cup of tea. I’m already on the record as turning down money from them (see also this Business Week article) — and believe me, turning down money is not part of my usual repertoire. But Max and Anthony and the rest are good scientists, so we here at Cosmic Variance thought it would be good to hear the story behind FQXi in their own words. We invited Anthony to contribute a guest post about the goals and procedures of the new institute, and he was kind enough to agree. Feel free to ask questions and be politely skeptical (or for that matter enthusiastically supportive), and we can all learn more about what’s going on.

———-

I (Anthony Aguirre) have been invited by Sean to write a guest blog entry discussing an exciting new project that Max Tegmark and I have been leading: Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology (“FQX”). This program was publicly announced in October, and the Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi) was formally launched as a legal entity in February, as was its first call for proposals. There is a plethora of information on FQXi at www.fqxi.org, but the kind invitation by Cosmic Variance provides a good opportunity to outline informally what FQXi is, why we think it is important, to address some reservations voiced in this forum, and to generate some discussion in the physics and cosmology community.

What is FQXi all about? Its stated mission is “To catalyze, support, and disseminate research on questions at the foundations of physics and cosmology, particularly new frontiers and innovative ideas integral to a deep understanding of reality, but unlikely to be supported by conventional funding sources.” Less formally, the aim of FQXi is to allow researchers in physics, cosmology, and related fields who like to think about and do real research about really big, deep, foundational or even “ultimate” questions, to actually do so — when otherwise they could not. We boiled this type of research down into two defining terms: the research should be foundational (with potentially significant and broad implications for our understanding of the deep or “ultimate” nature of reality) and it should be unconventional (consisting of rigorous research which, because of its speculative, non-mainstream, or high-risk nature, would otherwise go unperformed due to lack of funding.) The particular types of research FQXi will support are detailed in the FQXi Charter and in the first call for proposals, which also features a handy (but by no means whatsoever comprehensive) list of example projects, and their likelihood of being suitable for FQXi funding. In addition to straightforward grants, FQXi will run various other programs — “mini”-grants, conferences, essay contests, a web forum, etc. — focused on the same sort of science.

Why is FQXi important? There are a number of foundational questions that are of deep interest to humanity at large — and are the (often hidden) passion of and inspiration for researchers — but which various financial and “social” pressures make it very difficult for researchers to actually pursue. National funding sources, for example, tend to shy aware from research that is high-risk/high- reward, or speculative, or very fundamental, or unconventional, or “too philosophical”, and instead support research using fairly proven methods with a high probability of advancing science along known routes. There is nothing wrong with this, and it creates a large amount of excellent science. But it leaves some really interesting questions on the sidelines. We go on at length about this in the FQXi Charter — but the researchers FQXi aims to support will know all too well what the problems are. Our goal is to fund the research into foundational questions in physics and cosmology that would otherwise go unfunded.

More money to support really exciting, interesting, and, yes, fun research seems like an unreservedly good thing. Nonetheless, a couple of significant reservations have been voiced to us, both by writers on this blog and others. These are:

1) Some feel research that is very speculative or “borderline philosophical” is just a waste of time and resources — if the research was worth doing, conventional agencies would fund it. We won’t accept this criticism from anyone who has worked on either time machines or the arrow of time (so Sean is out) :), but from others we acknowledge that they feel this way, we respectfully disagree, and we think that many of the giants of 20th century physics (Einstein, Bohr, Schroedinger, Pauli, etc.) would also disagree. Ultimately, those who feel this way are free not to participate in FQXi. We also note that we think it would by great if some private donors were also to support more conventional research in a way that complemented or supplemented federal funding (as they do in, e.g., the Sloan and Packard fellowships); that, however, is not the case here: the donation supporting FQXi is expressely for the purpose of supporting foundational research. Which brings us to…

2) The second major reservation concerns FQXi’s current sole source of funding: the John Templeton Foundation (JTF), an organization that espouses and supports the “constructive dialogue between science and religion.” It is understandable that some people may be suspicious of JTF’s involvement with FQXi, and in today’s political climate in which Intelligent Design and other movements seek to undermine science in order to promote a religious and political agenda, such suspicion is especially understandable. But it is as important as ever to also be open-minded and objective. The salient points, we think, regarding JTF and FQXi are:

  • FQXi is a non-profit scientific grant-awarding organization fully independent from its donors (we are actively seeking other donors beyond JTF, see below) and operated in accordance with its Charter. Proposal funding is determined via a standard and rigorous peer-review process, and an expert panel appointed by FQXi. The structure of FQXi is such that donors — including JTF — have no control or influence over individual proposal selection or renewal. Specifically, scientific decisions are made (as enshrined in the FQXi corporate Bylaws) by the Scientific Directorate (Max & I), on the basis of advice from review panels and the Scientific Advisory Panel. The only condition of the JTF grant to FQXi is that FQXi’s grantmaking be consistent with the FQXi Charter, which, as stated previously, can be viewed in its entirity at fqxi.org.
  • JTF’s stated interest in FQXi is captured in the FQXi Charter: the questions being tackled by researchers funded by FQXi intimately connect with and inform not just scientific fields, but also philosophy, theology and religious belief systems. Answers to these questions will have profound intellectual, practical, and spiritual implications for anyone with deep curiosity about the world’s true nature.
  • While FQXi’s funding is currently all from JTF, we have been strongly encouraged by JTF to seek (and are actively working on finding) additional donors; furthermore, there is no guarantee of JTF funding beyond the first four years — though we certainly hope FQXi will go on long past the initial four-year phase.
  • As for JTF benefiting “by association” with FQXi and the great research we hope that it will support, well, we feel that JTF has been extremely generous not just in giving a large sum of money to science, without strings attached, and with a great deal of support through the complex process of setting up FQXi as an independent institute of just the sort that Max & I wanted. If all this reflects well on JTF, I would submit that they deserve it.

We’ve tried hard to make FQXi’s operation and goals as transparent as possible, so those in the community can make informed decisions on whether they would like to participate in what we are hoping to do. We are very excited by the proposals that are coming in so far, and invite interested scientists to take a look at the call for proposals before it is too late (April 2). For those who are not actively researching foundational questions, we hope to have a very active public discussion and outreach program for both scientists and the interested public; we invite you to periodically check the FQXi website.

Thank you for this opportunity to discuss FQXi at Cosmic Variance.

  • Moshe

    Hi Anthony,

    I personally see no harm in this initiative, and possibly very good benefits…I also have no apriori problem with JTF per se, as long as they are kept out of the decision making process (as they seem to be).

    The main confusion I have is with the word “foundational”, I doubt you can find two physicists who agree on the precise meaning of this word. So to clarify let me ask a couple of related questions:

    1. Is`”foundational” necessarily related to the goals of JTF, bringing together (or blurring the line between) science and religion?

    2. How technical can “foundational” be? one can think about lots of high risk/high gain scenarios that have no overlap at all with philosphy, theology, literature etc., is FQXi a natural home for those subjects?

    As an example one can think about Wilson’s long series of calculations (spanning a few years) leading to the concepts of the renormalization group: if I am not mistaken this work involved high risk to his career, certainly it was unconventional, and the gain was enormous for the way we think about physics, a true paradigm shift…

    And to anticipate somewhat- I am not trying to push an opinion here, or engage in any kind of polemics (there will be enough of that I think), I am really only asking for clarifications…

    one
    best,

    Moshe

  • Moshe

    OK, reading the charter I see that question 1 is not necessary (also it came out somewhat polemical in tone, sorry…), but I am curious about the second issue…

  • fh

    Moshe, they have an example page to clarify. Among the positive examples is:

    * Development of methods to compute probabilities for observables in a string theory/eternal inflation multiverse; or development of a novel dynamical mechanism for picking out a unique vacuum in it

  • Anthony A.

    Moshe,

    At this point, “Foundational” is operationally defined by the Charter and RFP (linked in the posting) in the sense that these are the documents from which the grant review panels will work and on the basis of which it will be decided whether projects are Foundational enough. From these documents I think/hope it is clear that:

    a) Technical is not bad, but a *purely* technical advance that did not change the way the physics is viewed would be of much less interest.

    b) High-risk/high reward is a plus, but is not sufficient in and of itself.

    On Wilson, my personal feeling would be that Wilson’s work would be something FQXi would have been please to have funded, but might have been difficult to recognize in advance as being paradigm-shifting rather than a purely technical advance; this will be the real challenge, of course, in deciding what to fund.

    Anthony

  • Moshe

    Thanks Anthony, this helps…also having a page of examples (linked by fh) is helpful and somewhat unusual practice.

    (BTW, I brought up Wilson, or at least the cleaned-up version of this history, to create a neutral context, I am sure you don’t want to discuss anything specific)

    Good luck!

    Moshe

  • Belizean

    A worthy and noble effort. But it doesn’t look like the funding levels (15%-40%) will do much to offset career risks. If one’s publication output, due to effort diverted to an ultimately unfruitful FQXi project, is reduced by up to 40%, especially during the early stages of one’s career, it could well mean the end of it.

    The sort of grant that would shelter academics from career risks would be one that would magically bestowed upon them an extra year or two of time, while the rest of the world remains frozen.

    As it stands, the FQXi would be most useful to physics Ph.D.s outside of academia. Unfortunately, the task of finding a nonacademic “physicist” (working, for example, as a financial analyst, an engineer, or at a government lab) that is demonstrably able to conduct the research of interest would be exceedingly difficult, though probably not quite impossible.

  • Anthony A.

    Belizean,

    Thanks for your encouraging words. Stopping time to allow foundational questions research is an excellent idea! Please submit a proposal.

    Seriously, though, your point is well taken, and the question of careers for FQXy people is an important and tricky one. I don’t think we can remove the all risk from doing high-risk/high reward research. (Even if we could fund people 100% for years, that would not help them if their research is ultimately unfruitful.) But we can hope to mitigate it a bit so that more risks can actually be taken and more rewards won. Moreover, keep in mind that the recognition and validation bestowed by actually obtaining a grant for one’s research can be invaluable careerwise.

    -Anthony

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Hi Anthony,

    Thanks so much for taking the time and care to write this post.

    I tend to think that a constructive dialogue between science and religion is hard to have, since I think the fundamental structure and goals of science are antithetical to those of a system based on faith. This means that I usually would not want to lend credence to such an effort by association (as you know, lending my name to an effort is a surefire recipe for its success :)).

    I do find your description of the organizational structure of FQXi reassuring, since it does seem that it is formally separate from JTF. [I should be clear that I don’t consider JTF an evil organization, it is just that I don’t agree with their goals (and their one-time funding of ID, if I understand it correctly, bothers me a lot).]

    However, although FQXi is entirely separate from JTF, I do see that on the JTF website the foundation appears in the list of their projects (in the horizontally scrolling banner at the top of the page) just like any of their other projects, such as those on “spirituality” and “unlimited love”. It is associations such as these that bother me. I have seen how scientists who take grant money directly from the foundation are often celebrated on the website and held up as examples of people doing research that lends support to the foundation’s philosophy.

    Of course, if it is one’s position that one should try to reconcile science and religion, and that they are not at odds, then one might quite honestly think this is fine.

    Nevertheless, your post has certainly provided food for thought, and thanks once again for doing it.

  • Elliot

    Anthony,

    I visited the site and it appears there is a predisposition towards those affiliated with academic institutions. Should I assume that people outside the academic sphere would be precluded from being awarded a grant, or is it possible that the merits of a proposed project may outweigh the lack of academic pedigree?

    Thanks,

    Elliot

  • LambchopofGod

    I must say that I’m pretty amazed — and a bit disturbed — to hear that

    “A study of the arrow of time or boundary conditions in inflationary cosmology”

    and

    “Development of methods to compute probabilities for observables in a string theory/eternal inflation multiverse; or development of a novel dynamical mechanism for picking out a unique vacuum in it”

    are considered to be “unconventional” topics! I would have thought that nearly everybody would regard these as very mainstream topics, and that the dearth of papers about them is due entirely to the fact that we don’t know how to write them….

  • Anthony A.

    Mark,

    Thanks again for providing a nice forum to discuss these issues. I understand your concerns, and you should not participate in anything that troubles your conscience. I’d enjoy discussing this with you in more depth at some point. For now suffice it to say that while I am (obviously) pro science and vehemently against the IDers, creationists, etc., and their political/religious agenda, after a quite a lot of dealing by now with JTF I personally feel very comfortable in the program we are pursuing. But everyone in the community needs to, with as much real information as possible, make up their own mind on such issues.

    Elliot,

    The predisposition you sense is partly a legality: our tax status as a public charity requires us to grant only to other public charities (such as universities, nonprofit research establishments, etc.) In general, I think it is also true that, with some notable exceptions, most really strong researchers do have *some* sort of academic or nonprofit affiliation to which they can have grant money sent. In truly exceptional cases of unaffiliated researchers we would probably try to find a workaround.

    Lambchop,

    I would say that you may be right, in the sense that these are subjects that would have been very unconventional (and somewhat undfunded) a few years ago (they certainly were when I started thinking about them), but are much more mainstream now. And indeed there is a long history of this steady expansion of science into hitherto “philosophical” or “metaphysical” territory. Part of the goal of FQXi is, in fact, to be at the forefront of this expansion. The review committee might, indeed decide that they want to fund things that are less staid and dull than the multiverse ;-)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Hi Anthony,

    Thanks for the reply. We should definitely chat sometime. Beer/wine/cocktails should definitely be present also :) Hope to see you soon. Cheers,

  • Sam Gralla

    What an interesting post; this blog has really been picking up lately. I don’t have a problem with the funding structure here, but I don’t think this new money solves anything anyway. The leading cause of the lack of “fundamental questions research” is not lack of money but fear of tenure denial. Pleanty of professors turn to philosophical and speculative topics after tenure (and money is not an obstacle to this…), but only the most courageous, like Sean and his arrow of time, will do it before. And, though I certainly don’t know any details of his tenure decision, I’m not encouraged by the results. I want very much to tackle foundational questions, but I also want tenure someday. The way I’m feeling right now, you couldn’t pay me any amount of money to do this sort of research during any pre-tenure stage of my career.

    If we want young people working on foundational or high-risk topics, we need to change the system, not offer money. At least that’s how it appears to this young, philosophically-leaning graduate student.

  • http://vulpes82.blogspot.com Frank

    Any idea, yet, when the discussion forum on your site might be up?

  • a chinese student

    Sam,

    fundamental research is supported, though this is sort of getting philosophical, by Man’s curiosity. It is a slow, not-so-visible (to many people, I guess), yet steady process that has existed throughout the history of the humanity. It is true that few people are fortunate enough to have both talent and funding to work on ‘fundamental’ problems (whatever this word means). But the system of funding (or any cultural system people have constructed) is dictated by the psychology of the humanity, (and of couse, more locally speaking, of a society / a culture). China, for example, is a lot less likely to invest on fundamental research than the U.S. does. You say, “why not change the system of funding?” But that is ultimately equivalent to saying (or at least will lead you to the question of) “why not increase genuine curiosity toward Nature among people in the society?” which is also a slow, not-so-visible process. INCREASE PUBLIC OUTREACH PROGRAMS, you scientists!

    A philosophically-leaning graduate student such as yourself is encouraged to become more curious about the interrelations / psychological dynamics between culture and scientific enterprise, and how difficult or slow it is to change the psychology of a people / a culture. So, don’t be hasty. Arousing more curiosity toward Nature among the humanity is a long process.

    My opinion of JTF is that if it helps increase the curiosity toward science among the religiously inclined, it is good. Its motives might initially sound nonsensical (or funny?) to some or perhaps many scientists, but mutual understanding among different types of people is in general not achieved for a short period of time. It takes hundreds of years and it is still worth an effort!

  • a chinese student

    by ‘system of funding’ I meant not just money but, with a more broader sense, whatever structures supporting academic research, including the tenure system. Sorry for the ambiguity.

  • Elliot

    Anthony,

    Thank you for your clarifying response. It makes perfect sense.

    Elliot

  • fh

    acs, I think that beyond everything you say, which I agree with wholeheartedly, there is another problem internal to physics. This has nothing to do with the overall funding of science but how science internally distributes the funds available to it. The method/system we currently have certainly could be changed, or amended without having to change society on the whole. I think it is more along this lines that these kind of efforts work, and are worth it.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Anthony, your post has cleared up a lot of my own questions, especially concerning the connection with the Templeton Foundation. Like Mark, I don’t think they are evil or anti-science, but I do disagree with their basic aims. So it’s good to know that FQXi is formally separate, although troubling that Templeton is currently the only source of funding. I do hope you are successful at branching out.

    Here is a potential test case. From the description of potentially fundable ideas, it seems clear that public outreach and media projects would make viable proposals, as well as pure-research ideas. So let’s imagine that I wanted to take the idea behind my Why Cosmologists Are Atheists essay — a fairly straightforward defense of atheistic materialism in the context of modern physics and cosmology — and expand it into a book or a TV series, complete with careful examinations of the relevant physics issues. Do you think that would be potentially eligible for funding? I’m guessing from your description that the answer would be “yes” (although obviously one couldn’t say that it would actually get funding without first going through the process).

  • Doug

    Anthony,

    Your answers to Belizean’s and Elliot’s concerns indicate the basic dilemma such an effort as your’s inevitably faces: Foundational research implies challenging the current system of physical theory, which is established on the currently accepted foundations, while the funding process can only realistically consider funding those trained, approved, and supported by the institutions that have a vested interest in training, approving and supporting these same researchers. How likely is it then that such an organization will be able to even recognize, let alone support, a legitimate challenge to the foundations upon which it rests?

    For instance, the foundation of Newton’s program of research, which continues today as the practice of modern physics research, is the definition of motion; that is, it is founded on the belief that the structure of the physical universe may be described in terms of a few interactions among a few particles, provided that the function, x(t), holds as the basis for expressing the existence of a particle over time. In the last century, this idea was modified somewhat by the realization that certain rules of transformation replace the continuous existence of particles in the program, but still the definition of motion, upon which the program is based, remains its firm foundation.

    If one were to submit a proposal for a project in which this definition of motion was not the foundation of the system to be employed in constructing physical theory, what would a panel of scientists use as the basis for judging the merits of the proposal, since all of their knowledge and understanding of what constitutes physics is based on the accepted definition of motion? Moreover, what if the principal investigator were associated with a nonprofit research establishment, but had no academic credentials? In other words, he or she was not trained, approved and supported by the institutions of normal science? On what basis could the panel possible judge the merits of the proposal?

    Obviously, the answer is that they cannot do so. Hence, the proverbial wisdom to the contrary notwithstanding, those whose thinking is inside the box are in no better position to support those whose thinking is outside the box, than a man is who tries to lift himself up by his own bootstraps.

  • Doug

    Geez Sean, give it up! The position on religion of non-believers has nothing to do with the foundations of science, just as the position on science of believers has nothing to do with the foundations of religion.

  • Anthony A.

    Sean,

    I’m glad my post has clarified things. We also will be very happy to get additional funding sources for FQXi, as will JTF. So we’re all in agreement, all we need is the right donor ;-)

    In terms of your test case, which is an interesting one, in the RFP FAQ we write:

    Does FQXi have a preferred philosophical or scientific agenda?

    No. We are equally interested in all proposals with great promise and talent falling within the FQXi purview.

    We mean that. (Note that we put it first.) It would be up to the review panel to decide on the merits of the proposal on the basis of that and the other contents of the RFP and FQXi Charter. In terms of any possible displeasure by JTF at the funding of such a proposal, the pertinent question is whether it would be inconsistent with the FQXi Scientific Charter and as such be grounds to terminate future funding for FQXi. Funding the grant would include a tacit decision by the review panel that it is not. If JTF felt otherwise, that is a situation we would have to deal with.

    Note that everything I just said applies as well to any other proposal.

    cheers,

    Anthony

  • Elliot

    Sean,

    (Full disclosure – I have submitted an application for funding. Admittedly a very very long shot due to no current academic affiliation but not done lightly.)

    I think it would be wise to draw a careful distinction between philosophically disagreeing with the source of money and concerns that that difference in philosophy may lead to pressure on results or criteria for selection. For example lets say someone proposed a project entitled “A Scientifically falsifiable test for a Supreme Being” that was well thought out scientific experiment that would provide evidence for or against the existence of God. It would certainly meet the criteria perhaps get funded. Now suppose the result was evidence that there was no God. I see no evidence that these results would be suppressed or restricted.

    Lets take another example. Should all the scientists at Fermilab, Argonne, Los Alamos etc. quit their jobs because they disagree with Bush adminstration policies.

    Now again I will refer to the distinction above. Its one thing to take money. Its another to tak money with strings attached to the outcomes. In my view there is a huge difference.

    Elliot

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/03/on-gausss-mountain.html Plato

    I am glad this posting was put up. Thanks Sean and Anthony. I am wondering.

    That one is given further information to think about and not signing out with a conclusive statement about the aims and goals, hidden in agendas, as to the reasons why a new proposal like Seans might be accepted or not based on?

    This would have revealled it’s intention/hidden agenda would it not, if you had refused Sean’s proposal? :)What would the criteria be for acceptance?

    How many times could one “refuse funding/speaking for” and not be happy with the decision because of that possible criteria, while standing on a principle? :)

  • Anthony A.

    Sam:

    At every stage of an academic career challenges loom: 1) getting a postdoc, 2) getting a faculty job, 3) getting tenure, 4) actually finding time to do some research. The support FQXi can provide for foundational researchers at different levels varies but certainly we are thinking about all these steps (both in terms of helping, and in terms of not doing harm) and interested in creative ideas concerning them. As for step 3, I would not underestimate the usefulness of a) having a grant in hand regarding the “Foundational” work, and b) having senior people in the community also encouraged and supported in doing foundational work.

    Chinese student:

    Indeed such changes take time. I should say (and perhaps we are in agreement here) that I actually do not think the current system is really broken: in many cases the national funding system we have (at least in the US) works and does a good job — it mainly needs more money pumped into it (overall, and especially, I would say, in fundamental research). And the fact that, at least to some level, fundamental and even foundational scientific research is supported in our society is a marvelous thing, when viewed in the sweep of human history. FQXi is really meant as a complement to public and other more conventional funding, for a more narrow (though I think extremely exciting and even noble) purpose that is often missed by conventional funding sources.

    Doug:

    Indeed, the sort of researcher who is a) completely outside the traditional research establishment and b) completely outside the known and understood way of doing physics and c) actually doing something worthwhile would be extraordinarily difficult to distinguish from someone that is a) and b) but not c). Under the hypothesis that such people really exist, I don’t really know of a solution to this — if you have ideas please let us know.

    All:

    I should make a disclaimer here that the comments posted by me on this blog should be construed as my personal take on various issues, consistent with my knowledge, but not as fully official FQXi positions; that is, other FQXi people (and Max Tegmark in particular) may disagree in detail with some things I have said, and opinions I have stated. Detailed and individual-case questions should be make through our most wonderful Project Manager, Kirsten Hubbard, via our official channels. We are, however, working on an “official” FQXi FAQ that will address many of these same questions; look for it on the website soon.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Hmmm, to qualify for the grant you must already have five or more publications about the project you are applying the grant for.
    :(

    Even Max Tegmark himself would barely qualify. He has a few articles on constraining neutrino masses etc. using anthropic reasoning.

  • Anthony A.

    Count Iblis:

    An application will not be automatically rejected if the five listed papers are insufficiently connected to the proposal. But one of the criteria for success is “The qualifications of the principal investigator and team with respect to the proposed topic”, and this clearly plays into that criterion.

    Anthony

  • Doug

    Anthony,
    My point is that there is no solution to this approach. Therefore, the implication is that you won’t be able to fund any projects that are truly addressing foundational questions, because all those who are not a) and b) will also not be c), in all likelihood, because, in this context, “doing something worthwhile” is, by definition, not recognized as such, or else they wouldn’t be in need of funding! It’s a catch 22, if I ever saw one.

    One possibility that might enable you to avoid this is to focus on the proposed project more than the researcher. Many inside academia and/or the traditional research establishment are often labeled “crackpots” for seeking support of their unorthodox views. For instance, the signers of the “Open Letter to the Scientific Community,” which included hundreds of scientists from all over the world, including Halton Arp, the erstwhile student of Hubble, were so labeled by Sean himself, a sentiment with which the majority of other scientists, who are absolutely convinced of the efficacy of BB cosmology, concur completely.

    Well, if these people are regarded as “crackpots” by the established majority and denied funding because their ideas, not their credentials, are rejected, yet it’s just these types of unorthodox ideas that you are interested in funding, then why bother with imposing criterion a) and b) at all? The only useful criterion is c), which cannot be determined, by definition.

    However, focusing on the proposal, one could ask at least three important questions:

    a) Is this idea a new approach to fundamentals? That is to say, does it truly break with the past in some fundamental respect?

    b) Is it self-consistent? Does it contain any obvious logical contradictions?
    c) Is it contradicted by any established observations? Here, one would have to be extremely careful, because many times contradictions with existing theory are misconstrued as contradictions with established facts.

    Given these preliminary criteria, the researcher of any proposal that passes muster could then be granted an opportunity to advocate it in greater detail, which would quickly reveal whether or not the researcher was competent to carryout the project, and not just someone able to spout meaningless jargon, on the one hand, or someone unacquainted with reality, on the other.

    Otherwise, I’m afraid your efforts are going to be vain, just like blowing into the wind.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Anthony, thanks for the clarification.
    Had I known about this initiative a year ago, I would have written a few relevant articles. :)

    Doug, I disagree. There are a lot of interesting projects in the field of the anthropic principle that you can’t finish on a rainy sunday afternoon and would require funding. See e.g. here:

    http://arxiv.org/abs/gr-qc/0303070

    http://arxiv.org/abs/physics/0302071

  • Doug

    Count Iblis,

    I’m sure there are, but there are also some obscure innovators out there whose ideas are the ideas that FQXi and society need. However, the “peer review committee” process excludes them, mostly based on their amatuer status. History is replete with examples.

  • Elliot

    Doug,

    With respect, it will be interesting to see what projects are actually funded. I think you may be rushing to judgement here without any evidence to back it up. It may be that the actual outcome backs up your concerns but it sounds like the defense attorney who is complaining about the severity of the sentence before the verdict has even been read.

    Like any other field, music, art, literature, politics, it is always more of a challenge if you are an ‘outsider’. There is some value in “paying your dues” in a particular field and that needs to be respected. That is not to say some brilliant/charismatic/creative newcomer can’t blow the doors off but I philosophically agree that those who do this as a profession every day should have that taken into account and appropriately weighted. And I say this as a non-practicing scientist like yourself.

    Like I said. The jury is still out. Let’s see what they come back with. They’ll be plenty of time for Monday morning quarterbacking later on.

    Cheers,

    Elliot

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    In the early 1990’s, when people were thinking about closed timelike curves in GR, Kip Thorne was told by the NSF that he wasn’t allowed to use any of his grant money to support research on “time travel.” (He mentions this in the acknowledgements section of one of his review articles from the time.) That’s the kind of situation where I imagine something like FQXi might be useful.

    It sounds like a good idea, but (as Anthony seems to agree) I’d prefer a more diverse funding stream.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/03/on-gausss-mountain.html Plato

    Layman, just thinking out loud.

    So comparative associations between Kip’s interest in Time Travel, and atheistic valuation, would be considered “on par?”

    That while Kip might have been granted under this program, Sean, yours would be in question.

    So from that perspective, the example sighted of atheism might not have been an “appropriate example of the policies” on which to issue a grant under that program?

    Hmmm….I would hate to think of the repercussions then, if other agendas were allowed while some wouldn’t, the example by Sean, would then seem important?

    How do you remain clear in the pursuate of, if such philosophical flavours are injected?

    I struggle.

    Would I have to abandon “such beliefs,” atheistic or not, if working the principals of science’s questions in regards to reality?

    While this organization might be clear then, how might it have moved into the territories of the Templeton Fund without loosing it’s credibility . Is this what can happen?

  • Elliot

    So Sean,

    after you win the WSOP, you’ll donate of course :)

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/03/on-gausss-mountain.html Plato

    Sean: Why Cosmologists Are Atheists essay — a fairly straightforward defense of atheistic materialism in the context of modern physics and cosmology-

    In terms of your test case, which is an interesting one, in the RFP FAQ we write:

    Does FQXi have a preferred philosophical or scientific agenda?

    No. We are equally interested in all proposals with great promise and talent falling within the FQXi purview.

    Because atheist determination is a “philosophical endeaver” the clear dividing line between scientific pursuate and bias injected, can become “the denigration of the values,” would be as close to those less desired in any association sought by the templeton group?

    While I have no association, I wanted to see in what light this comparison might have issued in a public statement, as to the polices with which care and judgement is issuing from the standards being set by Cosmic Variance.

    KC Coles introduction to responsibility in journalism is a wonderful addition here, and I am listening.

    Words Matter

  • Belizean

    Anthony,

    Perhaps the best response to Doug’s cogent posts is to ask whether FQXi would have supported Einstein in 1904.

    The answer appears to be “no”. He didn’t have 5 relevant publications (he may have had precisely zero). He wasn’t even employed as a physicist. Were he able to gather any recommendations, they would not have been glowing.

    While I applaud your effort, it’s somewhat disturbing to realize that you would not have supported the greatest known exemplar of breakthrough physics.

    I can’t shake the feeling that among the tens of thousands of nonacademically employed physics Ph.D.s there’s at least one with a breakthrough idea. You would expect such a person to be a “free spirit” — rebellious, creative but lazy, undisciplined, and not held in particularly high esteem by former professors (i.e. very Einstein-like). Such a person would of course be unlikely to secure an academic post. And, finding no leisurely employment (this being much harder to come by today than in 1904), such a person’s contributions to physics would be lost.

    Perhaps the next iteration of FQXi’s proposal evaluation method could be modified to increase the likelihood of funding such an out-of-the-box person.

  • Anthony A.

    Belizean (and Doug),

    While I don’t think I agree that Einstein was lazy and undisciplined, I do agree that it would be great if there were a way to a) identify and b) support thinkers that are (primarily by choice) not part of the research establishment. I think there are modern (perhaps sub-Einstein) examples. As I posted before, the indentification part is a real challenge. But for FQXi, part b) is also tough because what is really needed is multi-year, full-time support and our current budget would not provide that for many people. We are definitely trying to think of creative ways to address both issues, however, so hopefully FQXi can do something stronger in this direction in the future.

    Anthony

  • chuko

    I think there was a guest post in this blog (or maybe Sean’s old blog) a while back by Lee Smolin talking about an essay he wrote about issues in the community with non-mainstream ideas. The background was loop quantum gravity of course, but the essay was more broad. Perhaps someone can find the reference?

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2005/07/lee-smolins-case-for-background.html Plato

    Maybe this one?

    A foundational perspective insinuated perhaps? :)

    The case for background independence

    Lee Smolin:

    The aim of this paper is to explain carefully the arguments behind the assertion that the correct quantum theory of gravity must be background independent. We begin by recounting how the debate over whether quantum gravity must be background independent is a continuation of a long-standing argument in the history of physics and philosophy over whether space and time are relational or absolute. This leads to a careful statement of what physicists mean when we speak of background independence. Given this we can characterize the precise sense in which general relativity is a background independent theory. The leading background independent approaches to quantum gravity are then discussed, including causal set models, loop quantum gravity and dynamical triangulations and their main achievements are summarized along with the problems that remain open. Some first attempts to cast string/M theory into a background independent formulation are also mentioned.

    The relational/absolute debate has implications also for other issues such as unification and how the parameters of the standard models of physics and cosmology are to be explained. The recent issues concerning the string theory landscape are reviewed and it is argued that they can only be resolved within the context of a background independent formulation. Finally, we review some recent proposals to make quantum theory more relational.

  • Doug

    Anthony wrote:

    …I do agree that it would be great if there were a way to a) identify and b) support thinkers that are (primarily by choice) not part of the research establishment.

    The challenge to identify “thinkers” in the early days of Einstein didn’t really need to be so much of an explicit task then, because the “crackpots” in those days (and to some extent, even today) were not able to converse in the lingua franca of the scholarly world. Describing physical concepts in the language of complex mathematics was relatively new then, and those who simply expounded their ideas in essays only were thereby almost automatically excluded from publication.

    Nevertheless, Einstein’s ideas were initially too radical for some publications, indicating some editors judged his thinking not acceptable; not that he wasn’t actually a “thinker,” but that he wasn’t an appropriate thinker. Aye, there’s the rub. A more modern example might be Peter Lynds.

    Peter’s ideas have been rejected by many editors, but “I got to a point in my life where I was asking deeper and deeper questions,” he says. “If you want to understand reality, you have to get into physics. And if you’re really interested in physics, you have to ask really big questions.” This reminds me of Einstein who said something like he wasn’t any smarter than anyone else, he just spent more time thinking about foundational questions than anyone else did.

    But obviously you wouldn’t be able to tell this by just reading a CV!. If you haven’t already read it, Josh McHugh’s article on Lynds, “Time’s Up Einstein,” in Wired Magazine, is right to the point: the search for a revolutionary approach to foundational questions automatically entails a lonely quest only one obsessed to the point of insanity is likely to be willing to endure. Certainly, it’s not likely that the casual life of the career mangaged, wine tasting, exotic cheese aficianado of the established physics community is going to suddenly find a revolutionary insight into the foundations of physics, as soon as he/she can fit some time into his/her busy social/professional calandar to think about it (but what a CV it makes!).

    It might take only one, correct, probably deceptively simple, idea about the nature of space and time to revolutionize our understanding of the structure of the physical universe. Certainly, while some of those most determined in searching for that idea could use a little help, there not likely to get it, if they are asked to prove that they are thinkers first, by producing an impressive CV.

    It seems to me, that the way to identify a “thinker” is to ask him/her what it is he/she is thinking about, and how much time he/she spends thinking about it, and what their conclusions are. The depth and commitment of his/her thinking about foundational questions in physics and cosmology can be reflected in a CV, but not necessarily so. However, evidence of the required dedication, and even some measure of significant progress, can be found, if the individual is given the opportunity to demonstrate his/her thinking in front of those who care. In my opinion, that is what you should be funding. Fund the opportunity for a shot at the basket, which is based on evidence that the shooter takes the task seriously, whatever form that evidence might take. In a word say:

    “Show me the thinking!”

    Anthony wrote:

    As I posted before, the indentification part is a real challenge. But for FQXi, part b) is also tough because what is really needed is multi-year, full-time support and our current budget would not provide that for many people.

    I disagree. A shot at the basket is all you really need to provide. If the shooter can show that he/she can hit the basket consistently, it doesn’t mean that he/she can win the game for the team all by him/herself. We just need to find the right clue that will lead us to the full answer to a given foundational question, Anthony, not the full Monte.

    The legal and tax aspect of the grant award is more tricky, but not impossible to work. The government should be asked to help, given the billion dollar funds being expended in search of these crucial answers, a clue to which someone like peter, dwelling in a cave somewhere in New Zealand, may be holding in his crazed cranium.

  • Belizean

    Doug,

    The problem with your “some me the thinking” approach is that it would easily exhaust FQXi’s resources allocated for applicant evaluation. Imagine how long it would take to understand the thinking of, say, a thousand applicants, many of whom are subtle crackpots.

    You will always need a crude filter to lessen the number of applicants. While I think that FQXi’s current filter — which requires, among other things, that applicants have published at least 5 relevant papers — is a bit too stringent (in that it would have filtered out Einstein), I recognize the need for a crude filter of some sort.

  • http://deferentialgeometry.org/ Garrett

    Doug,

    It is a catch 22: how to identify a researcher capable of good foundational research, before they’ve done it? In my opinion, the best way is the traditional path of looking at what someone has done — check their CV, read their proposal, skim through a few of their papers. Other screening techniques just wouldn’t be efficient. The potential for doing something really new and interesting is going to be visible in their history, which may well be a colorful one.

    Working on foundational questions is a huge career gamble for a young physicist. But that risk with their time (the most valuable personal commodity) is one they must choose to take or not. Wether to fund them… that’s FQXi’s risk. That risk may not be as great, but that’s not a reason to denigrate the effort, even if the search for researchers to fund is necessarily a bit conventional. Personally, I’m thrilled this organization has come into being at all, and expect some really cool work to come as a result — whether they fund my proposal or not. ;)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    (Sometimes I read some of the comments, and just can’t help myself …)

    Certainly, it’s not likely that the casual life of the career mangaged, wine tasting, exotic cheese aficianado of the established physics community is going to suddenly find a revolutionary insight into the foundations of physics, as soon as he/she can fit some time into his/her busy social/professional calandar to think about it (but what a CV it makes!).

    That’s right; you tell those effete, overpaid, spoiled, elitist “thinkers”! Real progress can only be made by a socially maladjusted, misunderstood, semi-crazed, seemingly underqualified “genius”, who is prepared to think outside the box and not follow the mainstream path that the Man has laid down.

    Definitely the way to move forward is just to ask people what they’re thinking about and how much time they spend thinking about it. For example, a “professional” physicist, once you get the wine and cheese out of the way, can only spend a limited time thinking about the subject that a decade of postgraduate training prepared them for. But if you interview someone who says

    “While I am not formally trained, I have figured out how Einstein was wrong and how a completely different way of thinking will revolutionize physics. I spend 20 hours a day thinking about this, curled up in my bedroom at my Mum’s house, and have detailed notes, scrawled in my own feces on the bedroom wall.”

    then get your chequebook out – you’ve found a winner!

  • Doug

    LOL! Mark :)

  • Belizean

    Garrett wrote:

    In my opinion, the best way is the traditional path of looking at what someone has done — check their CV, read their proposal, skim through a few of their papers.

    I’m not so sure. All the CV of young applicants is likely to tell you is that they can a) reason, b) calculate, c) choose a topics of interest to working physicists. Evidence of originality, inventiveness, and productively unconventional thinking usually isn’t obvious during the early stages of one’s career. That’s because one is normally attempting to establish one’s credibility then. So one’s early papers tend to be maximally conventional.

    Properties a), b), and c) are almost as well evinced by the applicants having earned a doctorate.

    I’d like to see a screening process that, had it been in place in, say, 1980, would have funded an unpublished Ph.D. who proposed, for example, to “generalize the Church-Turing hypothesis — which assumes classical physics — to the quantum case”.

    This particular proposal would not have been funded by any known physics funding source in 1980. The CV of the guy who actually carried this out merely showed him to be a solid physicist. He had no relevant publications this area, because no one did. So FQXi, had it existed, would almost certainly not have funded him. That’s disturbing. Especially since the birth of quantum information theory is arguably physics’ greatest advance over the last 25 years.

  • http://deferentialgeometry.org/ Garrett

    Belizean,

    Good point. For someone without a track record… you’d have to look at their school performance, and their proposal.

  • Doug

    Mark’s comment was priceless. I’m still laughing at the pictures he created in my mind. He is a talented writer. However, it’s not the social extremes at either end that are at issue here, even though I must admit that I left myself open for that sharp wit of his. The issue at this level is between the amateur and the professional, not between the cave dweller and the sophisticated urbanite.

    The amateur is not going to have an impressive CV. He’s not trained enough to write like the professional, and even if he were, he wouldn’t be able to get his (let’s pretend the pronoun is gender neutral) unconventional ideas published without professional credentials, even on the preprint archive for crying out loud, where access is denied even to certain individuals with credentials, precisely because their ideas are unconventional.

    The point is that, historically, the amateur many times is the one who comes up with the breakthrough idea, but he almost never is a “researcher,” or practitioner of “normal science.” David Gross hit the nail on the head when he told that interviewer on PBS:

    In order to achieve a true understanding of string theory, some new idea will be required, and most likely, some break with the concepts on which we’ve traditionally based physical theory. This has happened before. In the last century, there were two such revolutions having to do with relativity and with the quantum theory, which was an incredible break with the classical notions of physics. Those revolutions were achieved in the end by discontinuous jumps that broke completely with the past in certain respects. It’s not too hard to predict that such a discontinuity is needed in string theory

    What’s harder to predict is what kind of discontinuity is needed. Discontinuity jumps like that—revolutions—are impossible to predict. They require some totally new idea. A lot of us are waiting for such a new idea that will give us an alternate to our traditional notion of space and time perhaps—or perhaps some other new idea. Something is missing that is most likely not just another technical development, another improvement here or there, but something that truly breaks with the past. And all the indications are that it has to do with the nature of space and time.

    New ideas like this are usually simple, often just a new way of looking at fundamental assumptions, and, as such, they are just as much within the purview of the amateur as they are the professional, only the amateur sometimes doesn’t know any better, which turns out to be a great advantage many times.

    Bottom line: we need to be careful not to exclude the amateur, if what we are looking for is a “totally new idea” that “has to do with the nature of space and time.”

  • http://deferentialgeometry.org/ Garrett

    The main problem with amateur’s is they lack the know-how to prove themselves wrong before bothering others.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    …we need to be careful not to exclude the amateur, if what we are looking for is a “totally new idea” that “has to do with the nature of space and time.”

    I agree, but why then not change the way theoretical physics is practised? I mean, there are far more theoretical physicists than there are amateur physicists…

  • Belizean

    Doug,

    I hope that you’re only considering reasonably qualified amateurs. Slogging through a gigantic slush pile of proposals from anyone who wants to play physicist is a task that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

    The minimum qualification in my view should be a doctorate in physics. Unlike FQXi’s current criteria, this would not have disqualified the Einstein of 1904.

    [I’m well acquainted with how clueless some of these “amateur physicists” can be. My graduate advisor was a famous physicist who appeared on TV from time to time. Crackpots would actually come to his office. He would politely steer them to my office. I’d have to listen to their nonsense for a few minutes, then tell them whatever it took to get rid of them. A tough job. Some of these people were literally insane.]

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Belizean,

    One could think of ”accepting people”, but putting the payment on hold until an article is published. So, if you don’t perform or are a crackpot in disguise, you don’t get anything. But if you are an Einstein and know that you will produce results after a few months of work, then you could go ahead without facing much financial problems.

  • Doug

    Belizean,

    You are right, the pendulum certainly swings both ways. However, the FQXi proposal process already eliminates those extremes you refer to, since an aspiring amateur investigator has to be associated with a tax-exempt research organization (or a work around arranged), and submit a 500 word proposal summary that makes enough sense to intrigue seasoned researchers.

    At best, it would be a long shot that any insane “crackpot” would make it past the initial stage of this process. A good 500-word summary of a specific proposal is difficult to prepare, since it needs to be a concise description of a difficult challenge, which succinctly identifies key issues in a convincing manner, not an easy task.

    It doesn’t take long to read these short summaries to screen out the specious ones, but, like panning for gold, chances are a precious nugget or two can be found in the grains of sand, making it worthwhile to go through the process. However, to expect that the gold can only be found in certain designated rivers, or man-made canals, is a mistake. “God moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform,” we might say. Amateurs have traditionally been the best source for revolutionary ideas in many fields.

    Again, this is probably due in large part to their intense interest and lack of preconceived constraints. However, these people by definition will not have a history of being in the box. Because they are out of the box, they can think out of the box, but requiring them to produce a list of “in the box” publications automatically excludes them.

    It’s a difficult challenge to be sure, but then so is coming up with “innovative ideas integral to a deep understanding of reality.”

  • Elliot

    I just have to laugh. Doug et al going on and on and on about finding an “out of the box” thinker and then complaining about the “rules”.

    “badges…we don’t need no stinking badges…”

    Elliot

  • Belizean

    Doug,

    If we had a few examples of Mongolian yak herders or Nebraskan proctologists making big contributions to physics, it might be worth the effort to find such people. But we don’t. We do have cases such as Einstein and Deutsch were doctorates where present, but relevant publications weren’t.

    It’s not absurd to imagine someone in condensed matter theory making a significant contribution to astrophysics, or a recent doctorate in cosmology making a contribution in that specialty despite being employed as a financial analyst.

    But someone without at least a doctorate in physics (or mathematics) is exceedingly unlikely to contribute, the Freeman Dyson example not withstanding. The miniscule chance of finding such a person would not justify the substantial resources the task would require. Those resources would be better invested in funding more proposals.

    FQXi’s approach to screening applicants is fundamentally correct. Given their stated objective, their approach just requires a slight tuning in the liberal direction in my view. I think, however, that they are right to err on the conservative side for their debut. They can always adjust their procedures in either direction based on their initial results.

  • Doug

    Belizean,

    I guess Elliot is still laughing, because this is so much like a tempest in a teapot now. However, I want to point out, for arguments sake, that your point of view assumes that the product, which the schools produce, the philosophical doctors, gain a knowledge of reality that is not accessible any other way. Yet, Lee Smolin just wrote an article regarding the lamentable, but not subtle, built-in disincentive, which exists in those very schools vis-à-vis contemplation of foundational questions. Smolin laments that the famous words of Feynman, just “shut up and calculate” have become the “mantra” of the schoolmen.

    Mastering the practice of science might be a prerequisite for understanding the issues of science, but not for understanding reality. The discovery of “innovative ideas integral to a deep understanding of reality” requires only one thing — thought. The title of PhD is not an authorization to think, issued by those who are in charge of thought. I’m sorry. The greatest minds the world has to offer in the last couple of generations have been working feverishly day and night to understand the structure of the physical universe, based on some fundamental assumptions that the schoolmen try their best to avoid, and what’s the result?

    Turmoil and confusion. “Something’s wrong!” exclaims Gross. “Many physicists feel stuck”, says Baez. They “continue to make predictions but they are usually wrong or not yet testable. This has led to a feeling of malaise. Why are they failing?” he wants to know. Well, in the meantime let’s keep on churning them out of the grad schools anyway, because we can’t just stop the enterprise now can we? Of course not. Let’s throw some more money at them. Maybe we can get them to stop calculating and to start thinking, if we pay them. Just tell them, “shut up [take this money] and think!”

    What a joke this is, huh Elliot? Pass the cheese and turn on the jazz. Let’s Jam!

  • Elliot

    Doug,

    When I review your position on this issue I find the fundamental flaw is that you assume some negative correlation between being “in the system” and “being able to think in an unencumbered fashion”. I don’t think that’s a fair statement for a couple of reasons. 1) I think you will have to admit (howeve grudgingly) that knowing the physics and mathematics itself can not be considered a negative attribute since I think many of us believe that the the “foundational” description of reality will be done in the language of physics and math. 2) Sabbatacals compared to the non-academic world, tenured professors are given extended periods to “think” about things which the rest of us working stiffs don’t have. Certainly these periods provide an opportunity to think. and 3) Some of the most radical and non-intuitive ideas are already being generated by those very insiders. Look at Lee Smolin (CNS) Jakob Bekenstien (Bekenstein Bound) Lenny Susskind and others (Holographic Principle) Roger Penrose (Twistors and concepts of gravitational entropy) These are all insiders who are see things in a very different way.

    I further disagree with your pessimistic attitude about progress. I think that the recent WMAP results are a good example of solid progress and that given the enormous experimental issues of trying to reconcile low energy standard model physics with planck scale theory we need to realize we are aiming high.

  • Doug

    Elliot,

    I didn’t say physicists and mathematicians can’t think, I said Smolin laments that the schoolmen discourage them from thinking about foundational issues, something, which he himself experienced. However, I can understand why they do this, since thinking about these issues is so impractical, and can be so distracting to students, that it can put their education in jeopardy.

    I recall the story Weinberg tells of a promising grad student that he realized he hadn’t seen around campus for a while. One day he asked a colleague in an elevator if he knew what had happened to this bright fellow. The answer was that he had dropped out of school, because he couldn’t stop thinking about the meaning of quantum mechanics, so I’m sure this is why “shut up and calculate” has become the mantra of the schoolmen that it has.

    However, the issue of the value of science education, the training of physicists and mathematicians to think in terms of “the language of physics and math,” is not so straightforward. Certainly, it is absolutely indispensable to the practice of normal science within the current paradigm of thought. Nevertheless, the very process is predicated upon the assumption that one can take the validity of the paradigm for granted, but, while this works for a while, eventually it is self-defeating, because the half-life of any paradigm is relatively short. When the paradigm has decayed sufficiently, we get the undesirable results we are seeing today — a revolutionary spirit is growing. We are more and more prepared to accept anything that promises a way out of the fundamental crisis, even to the point that schoolmen are prepared to suggest that the traditional understanding of science itself should be sacrificed — that we need not assume that there exists a paradigm that will work any better than the one we have.

    I find it so ironic that Weinberg is at the forefront of this movement to abandon the almost sacred definition of science in order to save the current paradigm, because he was so insistent that Kuhn’s conclusion, that normal science does not necessarily take us closer and closer to the truth, was, as he put it, “wormwood to scientists like myself.” Now that the predicted revolution is upon us, however, Weinberg wants to change the definition of science; apparently, this is a new position, a compromise with his adamant defense of the ultimate nobility of mankind’s scientific quest to understand nature: our struggle has meaning not because there is one truth out there to be discovered, but because we have discovered that there is no meaning to the idea that truth can be circumscribed into one great, comprehensible, whole that mankind can master. Truth is whatever works for us, but it can be anything else as well, something that we can never know.

    Personally, I reject both Kuhn’s position and Weinberg’s new position. I believe that truth IS something that can be circumscribed into one large whole and understood by man, and that the progress of science toward it is real and worth the effort, precisely because of that fact, as Weinberg apparently once believed.

    Hence, while we must view the progress of science as substantial in one respect, given the magnificent feats of modern science and technology, in another important respect, we’ve lost something rather significant that the Greeks possessed centuries ago, the simple and elegant view of a harmonious universe. The reason that the string theorists like Gross are expecting that the coming revolutionary idea predicted by them will redefine the nature of space and time, and that the non-string theorists like Smolin believe that the new definition of space and time needs to eliminate the background structure of space and time in physical theory, and that the mathematicians like Atiyah think that the new paradigm will exhibit mathematical simplicity and elegance and reveal the origins of mathematics in the fundamental structure of nature, is that these conclusions are those that they have reached in the context of seeking that view of nature, which the ancients possessed: a unified and harmonious understanding of the structure of the physical universe.

    Achieving such an understanding IS possible — we must believe that, but it’s clear that what has to change is fundamental, that the paradigm under which we now labor has to change, and consequently, while such a change will be wrenching, it will also be immensely impowering and liberating. In the meantime, it’s important to recognize that the numerous ad hoc inventions, crafted in terms of the dying paradigm, such as those you mention and describe as “radical and non-intuitive,” can never have such power to change things, because they do not provide the basis for a new round of inductive science — a new paradigm that provides for a new, more powerful, view of the structure of the physical universe.

  • Aaron Bergman

    I find it so ironic that Weinberg is at the forefront of this movement to abandon the almost sacred definition of science in order to save the current paradigm

    This is ahistorical. Weinberg was writing about an anthropic explanation for the cosmological constant long before the landscape was even a glimmer in Lenny’s eye.

    (Shamit’s eye? Joe’s eye? Steve’s eye? Nah. Lenny scans better.)

  • Doug

    True, historically he entertained the anthropic principle early-on, but this didn’t lead him to suggest a change in the meaning of science, until after the advent of the landscape. Remember the recent discussion on Peter’s blog? Very interesting.

  • Aaron Bergman

    “Interesting” isn’t the word I’d use for that discussion. More along the lines of “distasteful” and “tacky” with a few forays into “beyond the pale”.

  • Tara (Miller) Bachofen

    You know, there are really some times when it seems like the universe is playing a joke on you.

    For instance, this happened to me yesterday.

    Let me give a little bit of context.

    For various reasons, I wasn’t real fond of classroom education, finished high school in 3 years motivated solely by the desire to be out of it (i.e., not out of intellectual ambition), never took math past Algebra II, never took physics. I got a vague-ish, English composition-centric Liberal Arts BA right after that because I knew if I ever found something that I really wanted to pursue I might as well have it out of the way so I could start Graduate studies.
    Now I work as a financial/business analyst for Agilent Technologies. I wanted to work for the company because the innovative history of the company and what we produce intrigued me. The way I explained it to my mom, “There’s just something neat about working for the company that invented the atomic clock.” Even though my educational background doesn’t support it, I fell into a job that allowed me to realize that I what I really love thinking about is statistical modeling, computational finance, relational databases, and theoretical concepts. Especially theoretical concepts that have to do with absolute, subjective, and relativistic thinking.

    So, yesterday. I spent probably too much time “contemplating the foundational questions”.
    I exhausted my husband’s knowledge on the fun bits of physics I had gleaned from reading some of Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, which was given to me by my father-in-law. I had also exhausted his curiosity in talking about theoretical subjects (whether Zen Buddhism sees time as linear, and what the are parallels in thinking about absolute vs. subjective morality in theology and the cosmological constant, and has someone figured out if light is actually stationary and matter and dimensions are intersecting it in such a way that we only perceive that it’s moving?).

    I get to the point where I’m saying things like, “I mean, I can’t tell if I’m sounding like Art Bell and should go make myself a tin foil hat and go searching for crop circles, or if I should just go do some research to find out if there’s some just-for-the-fun-of-it forum where actual well-respected scientists post so I can read up on it, because these are really absorbing ideas to me,”

    My husband says that I should talk to his dad, who is an Engineer who also worked for HP/Agilent for 30 years, and is also intensely into multiverses and thinking about the nature of the cosmos. And, he understands all the math to back it up. However, it’s late. I make a mental note to call him the next day, but, being curious, I do a Google search to see if the sort of forum/venue I have in mind exists, and I stumble across this thread, and the Foundational Questions Institute.

    Just what I was looking for.

    Great.

    But that’s not the joke part.

    The joke part is that Anthony A. and I already know each other. I asked him to the school dance in 6th grade, in fact.
    Synchronicity, coincidence, alien/illuminati conspiracy, some one playing dice with the universe? Ah, who knows. Boggles the mind, though, at least mine.

    I hope this is as amusing to those of you who stuck with me this far as it is to me.

    I believe the answer to the question of whether you can find people who aren’t crackpots and are also capable of out-of-the-box-thinking on topics such as these, and who have the time & motivation to do so and the aplomb to present it in such a manner that it is taken seriously, is an unequivocal YES. My father-in-law, for one. Recently retired, math/science savant, disciplined, and already does ponder these subjects many hours a day, unfunded.

    I’ll give him the link, so you just might hear from him. I am sure you will hear from like-minded individuals around the globe.

    In any event, I’m very glad you’re all out there. I think this is a fantastic and exciting way of getting the creative juices going and moving science forward. At the very least, you’ve motivated me to go get more education about cosmology and physics so I can find out what fun puzzles I’ve been missing all these years….

    I’m very much looking forward to seeing what comes out of this project. I do so love limitless possibilities.

    Take care,
    Tara

  • Doug

    Tara,

    That is so cool! I wish I knew you.

  • Thomas Larsson

    Would the FQXi support hidden variable theories?

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Thomas, thanks for posting the link to ‘t Hooft’s paper! Somehow I missed that one.

    The only reason why they might not support this is because it has become too conventional by now :)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    So, Tara, did Anthony say “yes” or “no” back in the 6th grade?

  • http://scipp.ucsc.edu/~aguirre Anthony A.

    Tara:

    Hi! That is extremely amusing and it is nice to hear from/about you! Please drop me an email anytime, if you like.

    Sean:

    My precise recollection of these events is foggy, but I’m pretty sure that there was another girl involved and that, characteristically, I badly mishandled the whole situation… :-)

    All:

    FYI, the first round of proposals was a great success and we are very excited about the proposals we got. While these are being processed, a goal over the next couple of months will be to develop the FQXi forum, which many here will hopefully find of interest.

    Also, thanks to Doug, Belizean, Elliot, et al., for lots of interesting food-for-thought in connection with the support of ‘outsiders’ that have a real potential contribution to make to FQXy research.

  • Tara Bachofen

    :)

    Anthony,

    Oh, it wasn’t even close to badly mishandled–he was very diplomatic and logical about the whole thing.

    I think wrote him a note:

    Do you want to go to the dance with me?

    And then I had check boxes (SNORT. yes, check boxes…if we had had email then I imagine I would have had embedded radio buttons…) for “yes”, “no”, and “maybe”.
    I believe he checked “maybe”, and added a disclaimer, “I have already asked Michelle, so if she says yes, I will go with her, but I will still dance with you there.”

    Hey, even in 6th grade we knew to keep our options open…

    It has been fun to reconnect. I’ll be in touch.
    Hope you & yours are well.

    Tara

  • Pingback: Not Even Wrong » Blog Archive » The Templeton Foundation: A Skeptic’s Take()

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/04/hyperbolic-geometry-and-its-rise.html Plato

    Templeton Supported

    I knew the importance that Anthony would play, and Sean for the introduction of this article above. Why? Because of the “connection” Peter has made in the past.

    That Sean might have held about taking a stance, on the templeton issue. So Peter and Sean would have been in agreement as far as I could tell, until, the answers about the role this funding might play, and who was backing it?

    Had Anthony maintain some distance from such an association? I bet him and others were sleeping quite comfortably, while the work was yet to come:)

    No money, and I continue to endeavor from a personal motivation of interest about science. If I had a proposal such as Sean’s about atheistic valuation, would it now seem important(?) with the dynamics being changed by one of their own( Peter)?

  • Elliot

    Not surprisingly my ‘independent” proposal did not qualify for the second round of review. However I was very impressed with the professionalism, and courtesy with which I was treated throughout the process. I would like to add that although there was significant discussion in this thread on the requirement of institutional affiliation, I do not belief my proposal was rejected on that criteria alone. It would have been very easy for the FQXi to simply issue a rejection based on this but that was not the outcome. I suspect that my proposal (as strong as it was ;) ) did not meet the criteria or other proposals were just better.

    In any case, I’m glad I did it, and look forward to seeing what emerges from this process both in terms of what projects are funded and what the results of those projects are. I would not be reluctant to give this another shot in the future with the same groundrules.

    Elliot

  • Doug

    Elliot,

    That makes two of us in the rejected column so far, but the only process I was included in was as a recipient of the standard rejection notice sent to all the rejectees. Did they actually ask you questions about your proposal or something?

    I hope others here who submitted proposals will share results. It would be interesting to see who else did, or did not, receive the dreaded message:

    Thank you for your application to the Inaugural FQXi Request for Proposals. We received 172 excellent applications requesting a total of US$23M in grants, a figure some ten times larger than we are able to fund this time.

    To limit the time spent by the research community writing ultimately unsuccessful full proposals, the review panel has now completed a careful assessment of these initial applications. It clearly had some difficult decisions to make, and I regret to inform you that the panel has declined to request a Full Proposal from you at this time.

    While we are unable to provide detailed feedback on all uninvited proposals, common reasons for non-selection include lack of direct or focused relevance to the FQXi mission (e.g., too mainstream) and low potential impact per dollar (e.g., it was unclear that the FQXi grants would fund research that would otherwise not occur; or potential gains from the research were incommensurate with the funding requested.)

    The good news is that there will be many future FQXi programs to which you can apply, including another RFP in 2008, as well as essay contests coming soon. We have therefore added your name to the FQXi mailing list to be notified of these opportunities as they arise. (Please notify Kirsten A. Hubbard, our Scientific Program Manager, at hubbard@fqxi.org, if you would prefer not to be on this list.)

    Thank you again for your interest in FQXi, and the time spent on your Initial Proposal. Your efforts helped to establish that research into Foundational Questions is a fascinating and important goal for a wide variety of people and institutions.

    Sincerely,

    Kirsten A. Hubbard
    Scientific Program Manager
    Foundational Questions Institute

  • Elliot

    Doug,

    My letter is very similar. However as I stated in my note if the criteria was lack of institutional affiliation, and the intent was to strictly limit participation based on that, I can only assume they would have communicated that to us.

    In any case hey…..only two more years before we get another whack at it :)

    Of course by then we will both be famous for solving the fundamental mysteries of the universe without academic or foundational support :)

    (let me see where is that Baez crackpot index again. It was right here a minute ago.)

    Cheers,

    Elliot

  • Pingback: Foundational Questioners Announced | Cosmic Variance()

  • Pingback: Guide to Foundational Questions about Templeton at Milinda’s Questions()

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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