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(also see: About FQXi)

What is the scope of and impetus for FQXi?



In the centuries since Galileo revolutionized human thought by insisting that physical phenomena be observed systematically and described mathematically, physics and cosmology have formed the bedrock of our understanding of the physical world, as well as the preeminent source of new insight into our deepest questions of reality. A few examples, now familiar but profoundly radical in their time, will suffice:
  • Newton showed that most motions of earthly and nearby heavenly objects were well described by simple equations and a clockwork conception of space and time.
  • Einstein realized that our conceptions of space and time must be fundamentally reworked, and that by doing so we may describe the structure of the entire observable universe within physical theory.
  • The creators of quantum mechanics produced equations explicating reality on the smallest scales, but were forced to dispense with or generalize prior notions of causality, repeatability, and objectivity, in ways we still may not fully appreciate.

At FQXi, we believe that similar paradigm-shifting discoveries may now be occurring in physics and cosmology. For, as far as we have come, many questions at the foundations of physics and cosmology remain—some arising from the scientific progress we have achieved, and some even predating science. For example:
  • What, if anything, happened before the Big Bang? What determined the characteristics of the universe? Is our observed universe all that exists, or is it just one "universe" among many, a mere part of a much bigger picture, in which we misinterpret local conditions as fundamental laws? What will happen in the distant future? Will dark energy collapse or rip apart our universe? Will all particles and black holes ultimately decay away?
  • What do the fantastically effective but bafflingly counterintuitive laws of quantum mechanics tell us about reality? How do quantum measurements occur: are there really "many worlds," and if not, how do quantum possibilities collapse into a single observed reality? Can we find a self-consistent theory of nature that unifies gravity and quantum mechanics?
  • What distinguishes the future from the past, if the universe is governed by physical laws that make no such distinction? How does duration, which we experience, relate to the time described by physics and mathematics?
  • What is the relationship between physics, mathematics and information? What determines what exists? How "real" is the world of mathematics—and how "real" is the world of matter?
  • Why does the universe seem so complex, given its simple initial conditions, and the elegant mathematics that describes it? Is life ubiquitous in the universe (or beyond)? How does matter give rise to consciousness—or does it?

Questions like these lie at the frontier of science and at the foundation of our understanding of the universe, and 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.

Indeed, many giants of modern science—and their colleagues—were passionately concerned with and inspired by the deep philosophical implications of the novel notions of reality they were engaging. Moreover, their bold discoveries expanded rigorous science to encompass many previously 'speculative' or 'philosophical' matters.

Nonetheless, some—now as then—dismiss such matters as meaningless philosophy or empty metaphysics, encouraging colleagues to eschew such thinking and focus on concrete calculations. Most grant-awarding and research organizations institutionalize this pragmatic approach, primarily funding incremental investigations using known methods and familiar conceptual frameworks, rather than the uncertain and often interdisciplinary methods required to develop and comprehend prospective revolutions in physics and cosmology.

In addition to curtailing the potential for discovery, this mode of thinking greatly diminishes the excitement and meaning of modern science in the public consciousness; partly as a result of this, many otherwise well-educated people maintain either a pre-scientific worldview, or one informed by outdated concepts.

The Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi) encourages rigorous researchers not to avoid such foundational questions, but rather to tackle them head-on.

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Say that again, in plain English, please.

The history—and essential meaning—of modern physics is understood through three major discoveries:
  • By Isaac Newton in the 1600's: The motions of most objects on the Earth, and in our universe, are well described by the same small set of simple equations
  • By Albert Einstein in the 1900's: Newton's equations are a bit wrong, especially for objects moving very, very fast; to fix these errors, we must abandon common-sensical notions of space and time for a more difficult, integrative concept of "space-time"
  • By the inventors of quantum mechanics in the 1900's: Neither Newton's nor Einstein's equations are correct for very, very small objects such as atoms; to fix these errors, we must abandon traditionally scientific concepts of causality, repeatability, and objectivity, at least for very, very small things.
Taken together, these three revolutions—collectively known as "physics," although astronomy and mathematics also play roles—characterize the science of the universe today.

At their time, each of these discoveries was profoundly radical, shattering the previous body of knowledge and completely reconstructing it. Notably, each was influenced as much by contemporary "philosophy" as "science." (For example, today Einstein is remembered as much for his philosophical musings as for his scientific results.) And each of these breakthroughs was concerned with fundamental uncertainties about reality, including how we perceive it, observe it, and measure it.

At FQXi, we believe that certain areas of physics, cosmology and related fields are ripe for revolution—again. Although these discoveries are still, well, undiscovered, some see a connection between Einstein's work, quantum mechanics, and strange objects in the universe, such as black holes. If such a connection were found, it would alter our understanding of reality as profoundly as the three iconic discoveries above.

In part because previous intellectual breakthroughs were influenced by philosophy as well as science, and in part because the questions we ask are inherently philosophical ("What is the universe?"), we at FQXi realize that philosophy may influence answers to today's foundational questions. Nevertheless, because the scientific method is the most effective means for understanding the universe, FQXi is committed to rigorous, peer-reviewed research—at the "cutting edge" of science. To that end, we offer scientific grants large and small, conduct scientific conferences, award prizes to scientists and philosophers, and interpret findings for the public.

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