March 8, 2012
“Every so often in astronomy and cosmology, someone says, ‘There has to be another way of looking at this’ or ‘This doesn’t make sense anymore,’ and a then breakthrough occurs,” says Donald York, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago and a member of the Enrico Fermi Institute.
That’s what happened with dark matter in the 1980s and dark energy in the 1990s. Today the new concept of multiple universes, once considered a crackpot notion, is being discussed in serious scientific circles.
“You never know where new answers will come from or who will come up with them, so you have to keep asking the big questions,” York says.
To that end, the University of Chicago recently launched the “New Frontiers in Astronomy and Cosmology” project funded by a three-year, $5.6 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, an organization known for exploring big questions in science and investigating significant social issues. York is running the international project, which includes a grant program and an essay competition.
The questions being posed are:
- What was the earliest state of the universe?
- Is our universe unique or is it part of a much larger multiverse?
- What is the origin of the complexity in the universe?
- Are we alone in the universe? Or, are there other life and intelligence beyond the solar system?
“It is hoped that this project will push the boundaries of current research in astronomy and cosmology to help make important progress in our fundamental understanding of the universe,” says Ayako Fukui, program officer of mathematical and physical sciences at Templeton. “In addition, it will bring young people’s attention to the issues at the frontiers of science.”
Probing big questions
The Templeton Foundation is funding the project to honor the vision of Sir John Templeton, its founder who regarded cosmology and astronomy as exemplary scientific pursuits that have continually expanded humanity’s vision of the world. 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of Templeton’s birth, 40th anniversary of the Templeton Prize and 25th anniversary of the John Templeton Foundation.
The Foundation selected York and the University of Chicago to run the project because of the “University’s cohort of world-class researchers and highly experienced staff in administering grant programs,” Fukui says.
“Don York thinks broadly, casts a wide net and pushes the boundaries,” says Ken Olliff, co-director of Arete, which assisted York with the project. “He knows how to help a field grow and how to move a discipline in a direction that it would not go otherwise.
“The University of Chicago is a place that fosters creative, rigorous inquiry at the highest level,” Olliff adds. “Our intellectual style is well suited for exploring big questions.”
Arete, a research development program led by the Office of the Vice President for Research and National Laboratories, is a resource for faculty interested in pursuing cutting-edge research initiatives. “Arete has helped create a culture of interdisciplinary research on campus,” York says. “It fosters inquiry and promotes a willingness to tackle big questions.”
The New Frontiers research grant program is designed to support innovative, non-mainstream research with the potential to expand the boundaries and deepen the foundation of scientific inquiry. About 15 grants will be awarded up to $300,000 each for theoretical questions and up to $500,000 each for experimental questions.
The New Frontiers essay competition is designed to inspire high school and college students to consider careers in science and become big question thinkers. Prizes of $5,000 to $50,000 will be awarded to about 16 students.
The grant program and essay competition are open to all types of scientists, including those not affiliated with an institution. A distinguished group of international scientists will review the grant proposals and select the winners. An international panel of scientists and writers with knowledge of the essay topics will judge the essays. The awards will be announced at a conference October 12-13, 2012, in Philadelphia. For more information visit www.newfrontiersinastronomy.org.
“Professor York and I hope that a number of groundbreaking ideas will arise from the research grants and advance our understanding of the universe and our place within it,” Fukui says. “Meanwhile, we hope that the essay competition will cultivate a motivated cadre of the next generation of scientists to pursue the big questions of the future.”
By Greg Borzo