January 11, 2012
When quantum mechanics was developed, scientists had no idea that this esoteric branch of physics would ever have any practical application. Today society depends upon it.
“Take away quantum mechanics and you wouldn’t have computers, the Internet or modern communication systems that make the information age possible,” says Michael Turner, director of the Physics Frontier Center at the University of Chicago’s Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics and professor of astronomy and astrophysics, and physics at the University.
This is just one example of the need for pure “discovery” science, which will continue to power the economy and influence all of society, he adds.
There will be a lot more discovery science going on at the University over the coming years thanks to a recent National Science Foundation grant to KICP’s Physics Frontier Center of $3.4 million per year for five years, hopefully longer. About half the money will support fellows and graduate students; about half will fund ongoing research projects, conferences, workshops and visitors; and $300,000 a year will seed new initiatives.
The Center will use the money to continue studying three of the most fundamental questions that cosmologists are asking: What comprises dark matter, the mysterious stuff that holds together our solar system and all other structures in the universe? Was there a period of cosmic “inflation,” or exponential expansion, in the first moments of the universe? And what is the nature of dark energy, the puzzling energy that permeates space and is causing the expansion of the universe to speed up?
“We’re in the ‘dark matter decade’ and by 2020 should be able to determine whether dark matter is made of WIMPs,” Turner says. “Progress on inflation is less certain, and dark energy may be a ‘problem for the ages’.”
“The main topics that the Center researches are on the frontier of physics, and the team is well balanced between theorists and experimentalists,” says Matthew Christian, co-director of Arete and assistant vice president for research program development in the Office of the Vice President for Research and National Laboratories. “We’re going to see some very exciting science coming out of the Center in the next several years.”
Center reinvents itself
Created in 2001 with an earlier NSF grant, the Center spent the last decade training scientists and building and operating big projects, including the South Pole Telescope in Antarctica, Chicagoland Observatory for Underground Particle Physics, and the Dark Energy Survey.
“The first ten years were devoted to building these projects, and the next five will be all about getting the science out,” Turner says. “To do so, we need to engage scientists all around the world, especially those at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory.”
Since the Center has existed for ten years, Turner realized that winning a new NSF grant was going to be extremely challenging. “NSF could have said, ‘the University of Chicago has had our support for ten years; let’s give someone else a chance,’ especially considering that there were 60 pre-proposals in the running and 11 finalists invited to make oral presentations.”
Ultimately, the KICP Center was one of only four or five PFC proposals that NSF funded, and Arete was a big part of securing the grant, Turner says. It read the proposals and gave invaluable feedback, helped interpret NSF reviews, and prepared the team for its oral presentation.
“Now that we have the grant, we’ll certainly find other ways to take advantage of what Arete has to offer,” he adds.
The Center funds a director of education and outreach, Randall Landsberg, because a big requirement of its grants is education and outreach. Turner finds this work the easiest and the most fun since the Center wrestles with questions that the public is extremely interested in: Where do we come from? Where are we going? Are we alone?
“We like to discuss such issues with students because it gets them interested in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” he says. “We’re the Pied Pipers for STEM careers.”
By Greg Borzo