Founded in 2006 by Professor Max Tegmark and Professor Anthony Aguirre, the Foundational Questions Institute, FQxI, is an independent grant-making agency and think-tank which provides support for blue skies research in the physical sciences. FQxI has awarded over US$29 million in grants to researchers around the globe to work on issues ranging from the origin of the arrow of time in quantum gravity to the nature of consciousness.
The Institute’s six goals
We support researchers and outreach specialists who strive to revolutionize our understanding of our place in the universe and convey the excitement and importance of modern science in the public consciousness.
FQxI’s goals are:
- To expand the purview of scientific inquiry to include scientific questions and research avenues fundamental to a deep understanding of reality but which are currently largely unsupported by conventional grant sources and academic institutions;
- To redress incrementalism in research programming by establishing or expanding new “islands” of understanding through flexible funding of high-risk, high-reward research in these areas;
- To create opportunities for meaningful convenings and useful collaborations between researchers working on the foundations of science;
- To make the pursuit of science more equitable by addressing the marginalization of students, researchers, and outreach specialists due to racism, sexism, ableism, and other oppressive biases that result in certain groups of people being underrepresented in the foundations of science;
- To improve science via research, reimagining, and prototyping of scientific practices and institutions.
- To increase public understanding of known and future discoveries in these areas and the potential implications for our worldview.
FQxI, therefore, aims to support research and outreach that is:
- Foundational—with potentially significant and broad implications for our understanding of the deep or “ultimate” nature of reality
- Unconventional—enabling research that, because of its speculative, non-mainstream, or high-risk nature, would otherwise go unperformed due to lack of funding.
The Institute’s scope and impetus:
The history of scientific advancement records a series of revolutions where predominant conceptions are overthrown by vastly different and more accurate descriptions of reality. Our current understanding of the universe is based on advances that were profoundly radical in their time:
- Heuristic, ad-hoc reasoning for physical phenomena was replaced by analytic modeling in which the behavior of a physical system could be understood through a mathematical description. The uni$cation of algebra and geometry yielded powerful tools for representing entities within the world and describing their motion.
- The theory of gravity explained both why objects fall to the Earth and the motion of nearby celestial objects as a consequence of a simple set of force laws. This provided a concise and accurate model for describing seemingly disparate phenomena.
- Quantum mechanics recognized a potentially inherent indeterminism in reality. This, in turn, challenges prior notions of causality, repeatability, and objectivity in ways we still may not fully appreciate.
- General relativity overturned the notion that space and time serve as a static stage on which the dynamics of the universe play out. Spacetime, by contrast, is itself a dynamical actor in its own right, which changes with the presence of matter. The universe is now understood to be an entity that evolves in time, raising questions about its beginnings and end.
The deep philosophical implications of scientific work have motivated a huge number of scientists. At FQxI, we know further paradigm-shifting discoveries remain to be made in physics, cosmology, and related fields. Many unanswered questions at the foundations of science remain—some arising from the scientific progress we have achieved and some even predating science. For example:
- 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?
- What distinguishes the future from the past, given that the universe is governed by physical laws that make no such distinction? How does our subjective experience of the ‘ow of time relate to the fundamental description of time from physics?”
- What, if anything, happened before the Big Bang? What determined the characteristics of the universe? Is our universe all that exists, or is it just one universe in a multiverse of many cosmoses? What will be the ultimate fate of the universe?
- What do the fantastically effective but bafflingly counterintuitive laws of quantum mechanics tell us about reality? How does a single de$nite observed reality emerge from an underlying realm of quantum possibilities? Can we find a self-consistent theory of nature that uni$es gravity and quantum mechanics?
Questions such as these lie at the frontier of science and at the foundation of our understanding of the universe. Answers to these questions will not only have profound intellectual and philosophical implications for anyone deeply curious about the world’s true nature but will also spark future technological revolutions. Advances in quantum mechanics, for instance, have challenged our conceptions of reality while also forming the basis of computing power, profoundly changing our lives.
At FQxI, we encourage this thinking and these lines of discovery. We stand in contrast to most research organizations whose primary focus is on short-term returns on narrow $elds of work. FQxI encourages the unconventional and often interdisciplinary methods required to develop and comprehend prospective revolutions in physics and cosmology.
Video: Uncertain Works | Can quantum measurements fuel tiny engines?
Quantum physicists Benjamin Huard and Alexia Auffèves are building operational quantum engines using superconducting metals, in this film by Lina Kabbadj and Toby Fitzpatrick. The physicists are using the power of quantum measurement to provide energy to small-scale engines. Will this work revolutionise the way we view and use the concept of information?
- Read Miriam Frankel’s Q&A with Alexia Auffèves, The Quantum Engineer.
- Listen to The Hiding Place and the Universe, a semi-fictionalised audio journey into the Huard lab in Lyon, France, with physicists Alexis Jouan and Antoine Marquet.
- Watch Austria’s Quantum Machines.
- Watch Information as Fuel.