Foundational Questioners Announced

By Sean Carroll | July 31, 2006 2:07 pm

Back in March we had a guest post by Anthony Aguirre about the Foundational Questions Institute, a new effort to support “research 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.” Today the FQXi (that’s the official acronym, sorry) announced their first round of grant awardees.

It’s a very good list, and Anthony and Max Tegmark are to be congratulated for funding some very interesting science. If anything, I could see almost all of these proposals receiving money from the NSF or DOE or NASA, although perhaps it might have been more difficult. We see well-known string theorists (for example Steve Giddings, Brian Greene, Eva Silverstein), early-universe cosmologists (Richard Easther, Alex Vilenkin), late-universe astrophysicists (Fred Adams, Avi Loeb), general relativists (Justin Khoury, Ken Olum), loop-quantizers (Olaf Dreyer, Fotini Markopoulou), respectable physicists taking the opportunity to be a little more speculative than usual (Louis Crane, Janna Levin), and even some experimentalists working on the foundations of quantum mechanics (Markus Aspelmeyer, former guest-poster Paul Kwiat), as well as a bunch of others.

Nothing in there about finding God by doing theoretical physics. Which might have been a non-trivial worry, since currently the sole source of funding for FQXi is the John Templeton Foundation. The Templeton Foundation was set up “to encourage a fresh appreciation of the critical importance — for all peoples and cultures — of the moral and spiritual dimensions of life,” and in particular has worked to promote a reconciliation between science and religion. I am not a big fan of such reconciliation, in the sense that I think it is completely and woefully misguided. This has led me in the past to decline to participate in Templeton-sponsored activities, and the close connection between Templeton and FQXi was enough to dissuade me from applying for money from them myself.

Gareth Cook has written a nice article in the Boston Globe about FQXi and the grant program, in which I am quoted as saying that bringing science and religion together is a bad thing. Absolutely accurate, but the space constraints of a newspaper article make it hard to convey much subtlety. The FQXi folks have stated definitively that their own mission is certainly not to reconcile science and religion; in case of doubt, they’ve put it succinctly in their FAQ:

I’ve read that a goal of JTF [John Templeton Foundation] is to “reconcile science and religion.” Is this part of the FQXi mission?


Indeed, they’ve been quite clear that the Templeton Foundation has just given them a pot of money and been otherwise hands-off, which is good news. And that they would like to get additional sources of funding. My own current worry — which is extremely mild, to be clear — is that the publicity generated by FQXi’s activities will be good for Templeton’s larger purpose, to which I am opposed.

But at the moment the focus should be on recognizing Max and Anthony and their friends for steering a substantial amount of money to some very interesting research. If they succeed at getting additional sources of funding, I may even apply myself one day!

Update: More quotes in this piece from Inside Higher Ed.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion, Science, Science and Society
  • Eugene


    Time for a new computer!

  • Best wishes

    Excellent! $85,519 is a cheap price for discovering life in alternate universes.

  • Andreas

    Nice though orthodox selection of research grants; so I wonder if the fqxi money will make any impact at all on the carrer/research paths of those happy winners.

  • Anthony A.

    Thanks, Sean, for your encouraging words. We congratulate the grantees, and are very excited to see what they do!

    We were frankly suprised at how *much* high quality foundational and unconventional (i.e. FQXi-appropriate) research is waiting to be done by top-notch people, but is in need of funding. We could probably have spent 5x as much on good projects. So we are all in agreement that more funding would be good to build on our current, generous seed money.

    In terms of that money, I think you have accurately conveyed the relation between JTF and FQXi. I can, in fact, honestly say that I have *no idea* how much the relevant people at JTF like or dislike the projects we have funded (Though I think they will be pleased, since there are a lot of really interesting projects). Also in this connection it is interesting to note that we recently found out that JTF has a new mission statement . Not sure what this signifies.


  • Elliot

    My impression is that these decisions were pretty conservative. It seemed to me that the original request was seeking more “out of the box” projects. Of course the fact that my layman’s wildly speculative proposal was rejected, could be providing some emotional subtext here.

    In any case congratulations to the winners although I was under the impression that Sean already had the “arrow of time” thing all figured out :)


  • Quasar9

    So the Eternal question continues.
    Do we discover or invent things or do we simply reveal what is there.
    Can you discover gold if it is not there
    Can you discover oil if it is not there
    Can you drive at 600mph if it is not ‘physically’ possible
    Can you fly at Mach seven if it is not ‘physically’ possible.
    All man does is ‘discover’ the possible
    If it is not possible it cannot be done

    And there is the spacetime universe
    therefore there is Space where there is NO Time
    No cycles, no seasons, no decay, no ageing, no pain, no suffering, no death.
    Just like physics is trying to discover the dimensions or gap between ‘gravitational forces ‘ and ‘magnetic forces’ evidently there is a gap between matter and spirit, just like there are sinews & tendons.
    Just because you cannot measure something today or yesterday does not mean it does not exist as some six billion euros CERN and LHC are evidently trying to prove.
    Everyday we prove things exist or can exist which previous generations denied or disputed.

  • Mark

    It seems like they’ve done a nice job. I am interested in Anthony’s pointer to the new mission statement for JTF and would like to know more about it. In any case, I would probably feel fine about submitting if there were multiple funding sources.

    Certainly Max, Anthony and the grantees deserve congratulations.

  • Robert McNees

    Well… there are a lot of projects that sounds like what I would have expected, given the goals that the FQXi spelled out in their announcement. But don’t quite a few of the projects sound right at home on tonight’s arXiv listings? Maybe I’m remembering their original announcement wrong, but a lot of these projects appear to carry zero professional risk.

  • Robert McNees

    P.S. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I don’t find those proposals interesting, or unworthy of funding. On the contrary, I’m happy to see this money going towards such interesting ideas. Just not what I expected.

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  • Jack

    I’m with Robert McNees. Does Eva Silverstein really need $50000 to do research that she is doing anyway? Does Brian Greene need $70000 so that he can do research on the arrow of time — surely perfectly mainstream stuff? On the other hand, I would certainly rather see money going to serious things than to “Evolutionary Universe hypothesis, which explains the fine-tuning of the laws of Physics for life by means of an evolution of baby universes”. That kind of thing just gives speculative research a bad name. I guess it’s good to see the money go towards serious things like the arrow of time — but maybe it would have been better to give it to people who really need the money. $50000 is not going to buy much time for a full prof at Stanford; it might have bought a year off teaching for some young hotshot working on the same thing…..

  • Garrett

    Andreas says:
    “Nice though orthodox selection of research grants; so I wonder if the fqxi money will make any impact at all on the career/research paths of those happy winners.”

    I can answer that:

    Also, for more info on the projects, the institutional links below the researcher names link to their home pages.

  • slinkybender

    I understand your reluctance to be drawn into work that might seem to promote religious values you don’t share, or perhaps indirectly lend support to a foundation that is trying to find some echo or footprint of God in the world around us, but you run a danger, I think, of winding up a bit like Phillip Pullman — who at times seems to care more about God than a faithful believer.

    Anyway, if foundational research doesn’t get at questions like, Why is there something instead of nothing? or Why is the universe the way it is and not some other way entirely? or Just how anomolous were the conditions in this solar system that gave rise to life? don’t we run the risk of cutting ourselves off from the most interesting research that remains to be done?

    BTW, regarding that Vietnam joke, the Emperor Vespasian objected to his son’s notion of charging the people of Rome a small fee to use a new system of public toilets. His son consoled him, and then carried the day, by remarking that “money doesn’t smell.”

  • Eugene

    The Boston Globe article does seem to misrepresent the intentions of the FQXi……but any publicity is good publicity I suppose.

  • Thomas Dent

    I have to agree that there are a few projects here undertaken by tenured faculty which sound very much like what they would already be doing without extra support.

    This is not to say that this remark applies to a majority of the grants.

    Curious that there are two experimental grants going to look for possible variation in alpha – but none for any other potentially varying fundamental ‘constant’. I guess alpha is more fashionable…

    Still, the experimental projects each individually look well worth supporting.

    I highly doubt whether some of the more ‘philosophical’ projects will yield any progress. Particularly ones of the form ‘this problem has been thought about for fifty years already by the world’s finest minds without getting anywhere, but I’m going to make a breakthrough if you give me a bit of free time’. So: Khoury is going to think about Mach’s principle. Levin is going to think about Goedel’s theorem. Good luck there on finding anything that Penrose missed. Greene is going to think about entropy.

    And in my opinion giving Oxford $60,000 to hold a conference about the ‘many-worlds interpretation’ is an absolute waste of money. Looks like a pure PR exercise. Not that I have anything against Everett, but his ideas, so far as they lead to anything physically meaningful, are already well known and discussed, for example by Zurek.

    The problem about ‘philosophical’ questions is not that they are philosophical, but they tend to lead to large volumes of hot air on the part of physicists.

    Anyway, I don’t want to be so negative about the theory projects, some of them look intriguing, though it is hard to tell from the nontechnical abstracts.

    But what is Bohmian mechanics doing in a black hole?? Did it suddenly become relativistic?

  • Robert McNees

    I’m with Robert McNees. Does Eva Silverstein really need $50000 to do research that she is doing anyway? Does Brian Greene need $70000 so that he can do research on the arrow of time — surely perfectly mainstream stuff? On the other hand, I would certainly rather see money going to serious things than to “Evolutionary Universe hypothesis, which explains the fine-tuning of the laws of Physics for life by means of an evolution of baby universes”.

    To be clear, I’m all for giving Eva and Brian money to work on these things. Eva is, in my opinion, one of the most creative people working in the field. And Brian has a history of taking on new subjects and doing very interesting things with them. These are cool ideas by sharp people. I was just saying that some of the proposals didn’t sound like what the FQXi announcement was asking for.

  • Elliot

    So I guess I’m not completely out of line in thinking there is at least a percieved disconnect between what was asked for in the original announcement and the selected winners.

    I wonder how the process might have/might be different if there was lay participation in the judging process. Just a thought.

    I really did expect to see at least one project specifically addressing the nature of dark energy in a radically different way.

  • Jack

    R. McNees said: “To be clear, I’m all for giving Eva and Brian money to work on these things.”

    So am I. In fact I’m delighted that someone at BG’s level is going to be working on the arrow of time. Thing is, these people are *already* getting lots of money to do these things.

    On the other hand, one could argue as follows: publicizing the fact that someone as well-respected as BG is willing to work on “old” problems like the AOT may serve to render such work “more respectable” — it seems that not everyone agrees with me that work on the AOT is “mainstream”. If giving money to BG serves this purpose, then I am all for it.

  • Thomas Dent

    The hitch is not that that ‘arrow of time’ is an old problem – but that any answer to it is equally, or even more likely, to come from other fields of inquiry, for example philosophy or neurobiology.

    In other words theoretical physics might be only a small ingredient – or even mostly irrelevant.

    Is a theoretical physicist, even Brian Greene, likely to be able to deal with the relevant philosophical and biological issues well enough?

    Again, I’m not opposed to philosophical problems, but why would one think that the person best equipped to solve them is a theoretical physicist?

  • Elliot


    What set of skills do you think would be best served to address the AOT problem.
    Obviously we are well beyond the days of renaissance men who are at the absolute cutting edge of knowledge in many fields. Certainly there are very smart people who understand multiple areas.

    Just curious.



  • Richard E[asther].

    I have a vested interest in this, since I am one of the successful applicants, and have been following the discussion and thought I would throw in a few comments, even though I have come late to the party.

    Firstly, some comments here (e.g. “I was just saying that some of the proposals didn’t sound like what the FQXi announcement was asking for”) seem to imply that the funded proposals weren’t sufficiently radical, or that the money was going to established people who would work on these questions anyway.

    When I was writing my proposal I realized that there was a fine line between out of the box and off the wall — and it was clear that the FQXi people were expecting proposals that described well thought out projects, which could be turned into well-posed calculations. By (rightly, IMHO) insisting on this distinction, the FQXi process is pretty much guaranteed to produce proposals with some overlap with existing work. Sean pointed this out when he said that he thought many of the proposals would be fundable by the NSF or DOE.

    Where the FQXi will have an impact is on the *amount* of work done in these “foundational” areas — I will use my money for PhD and post-doc support, and it will lead to ideas that would not otherwise have been have (at least by me and my collaborators) and papers that would not otherwise have been written. And I suspect the same is true of Brian and Eva and the rest.

    What this gets to in the end is that people in theoretical cosmology of us could get more work done if we had more post-docs and grad students, and the limitation is primarily financial — not the availability of talented people, or “bandwidth” on the part of most researchers. Certainly there is an upper limit on the number of students and post-docs an individual can directly work with, but I doubt that I or most of my colleagues are at it.

    This brings us to wider question of whether the FQXi money is tainted in some way, via its connection to the Templeton Institute. Obviously, I have nailed my colors to the mast on this one by applying for the grant and then taking the money. However, so far as I can see the Templeton people are simply funding the research (via the FQXi), and have not attempted to “bias” the outcome in any way, and this is good enough for me. The most pernicious conflicts of interest I see in science arise in areas like pharmaceutical research, where a drug company may fund a study and then try to suppress its conclusions if it was going to make it harder for them to get new products to market. If our colleagues in the life sciences can negotiate this sort of dilemma, we should have little trouble here.

    I would be very excited to see the Templeton Foundation support for fundamental physics and cosmology (provided they continue along the direction they have set with their work with the FQXi). For all that this is the “golden age” of cosmology, the field could do with more money — there are good ideas and good people that are currently underfunded, and any influx of money into the field is going to make life easier for everyone.

    Finally, it is interesting to note that many now solid organizations institutions had somewhat “questionable” origins. For instance, Babson, who founded the institute behind the Gravity Research Foundation ( was, by all accounts, barking mad but lots of prominent people enter this competition every year :-)

  • Simon Judes

    I think the point Thomas makes is worth addressing. I worked on the ‘Arrow of Time’ proposal with Brian, and we agree that progress on the issue is likely to require expertise in more than a single area. That’s why one of the co-PIs is David Albert – a philosopher (with a Ph.D. in physics who has worked extensively on rigorous treatments of foundational questions in physics). We don’t know why this information isn’t available on the FQXi website.

    The multidisciplinary nature of the project is one of the reasons I’m enthusiastic about it. Often work on foundational issues in physics is wide of the mark, because the investigator isn’t up to date with the literature in physics or the philosophy of physics – whichever is not their main field. We hope to avoid some (though realistically not all) of those pitfalls.

    I hadn’t thought too much about how neurobiology might be involved, but maybe we should – and I’m certainly interested in the perspective a neurobiologist might have on the subject.

  • Elliot


    Thank you for your thoughtful and illuminating response. It does appear, reviewing the abstract of your project that you are working in an arena that is outside of mainstream research, and may not have been funded through traditional channels. I do agree completely that the issue with pharmacutical reasearch funded by the manufacturers is a much larger issue than the funding sources for FXQI.

    Best of luck with you project. I look forward to seeing the results in the future.




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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] .


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