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 â€” for all peoples and cultures â€” 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.