FQxI’s Competitions started in 2009 with the question, What is the nature of time?

The rules of the competition have changed over the years, including the addition of anonymous submissions this year, but the goals have stayed close to the original:

  1. Encourage and support rigorous, innovative, and influential thinking.
  2. Identify and reward top thinkers in foundational questions.
  3. Provide an arena for discussion and exchange of ideas regarding foundational questions.

Coming soon! FQxI’s next Essay Competition will be announced on February 14.

A listing of FQxI’s previous competitions and 1st Place Prize Winners:

Essay Competitions

Undecidability, Uncomputability, and Unpredictability (2019-2020)

For a brief time in history, it was possible to imagine that a sufficiently advanced intellect could, given sufficient time and resources, in principle, understand how to mathematically prove everything that was true. They could discern what math corresponds to physical laws and use those laws to predict anything that happens before it happens. That time has passed. Gödel’s undecidability results (the incompleteness theorems), Turing’s proof of non-computable values, the formulation of quantum theory, chaos, and other developments over the past century have shown that there are rigorous arguments limiting what we can prove, compute, and predict. While some connections between these results have come to light, many remain obscure, and the implications are unclear. Are there, for example, real consequences for physics — including quantum mechanics — of undecidability and non-computability? Are there implications for our understanding of the relations between agency, intelligence, mind, and the physical world?

1st Prize Winner: Klaas Landsman, “Undecidability and indeterminism”

Landsman is a professor of mathematical physics at Radboud University. He mainly works in mathematical physics, mathematics (notably non-commutative geometry), and foundations of physics.

Read the prize-winning essays.

Read all the essays.

This contest was possible due to support from Fetzer Franklin Fund and The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation.

What Is “Fundamental”? (2017-2018)

We have many different ways to talk about the things in the physical universe. Some of those ways we think of as more fundamental, and some as “emergent” or “effective”. But what does it mean to be more or less “fundamental”? Are fundamental things smaller, simpler, more elegant, more economical? Are less-fundamental things always made from more-fundamental? How do less-fundamental descriptions relate to more-fundamental ones?

1st Prize Winner: Emily Adlam, “Fundamental?”

Adlam is a postdoctoral associate at The Rotman Institute of Philosophy, Western University. Adlam’s research interests are in the foundations of quantum mechanics and the philosophy of physics.

Read the prize-winning essays.

Read all the essays.

This contest was possible due to support from Fetzer Franklin Fund and The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation.

Wandering Towards a Goal (2016-2017)

How can mindless mathematical laws give rise to aims and intentions?

One way to think of physics is as a set of mathematical laws of dynamics. These laws provide predictions by carrying conditions at one moment of time inexorably into the future. But many phenomena admit another description – sometimes a vastly more useful one – in terms of long-term, large-scale goals, aims, and intentions.

The motion of the most basic particle can be described by the action of forces moment by moment or as the attempt to extremize an action integral, calculated over the particle’s entire path throughout time. Many-body systems can seem hopelessly complex when looked at in terms of their constituents’ detailed dynamic motions, but neatly elegant when viewed as attempting to minimize energy or maximize entropy. Living systems efficiently organize their simplest components with the intricate aims of survival, reproduction, and other biological ends; and intelligent systems can employ a panoply of physical effects to accomplish many flexibly chosen goals.

How does this work? How do goal-oriented systems arise, and how do they exist and function in a world that we can describe in terms of goal-free mathematical evolution?

1st Prize Winner (three-way tie): Larissa Albantakis, “A Tale of Two Animats: What does it take to have goals?”

Larissa Albantakis is a scientist at the Wisconsin Institute for Sleep and Consciousness, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She has been there since 2012, working together with Giulio Tononi on Integrated Information Theory.

1st Prize Winner (three-way tie): Carlo Rovelli, “Meaning and Intentionality = Information + Evolution”

Carlo Rovelli is a theoretical physicist working at the University of Aix-Marseille in France. His main interest is in quantum gravity.

1st Prize Winner (three-way tie): Jochen Szangolies, “Von Neumann Minds: A Toy Model of Meaning in a Natural World”

Szangolies studied physics in Siegen and Düsseldorf. He has worked on the phenomena of quantum contextuality, the detection of quantum correlations, and their application in quantum information tasks.

Read the prize-winning essays.

Read all the essays.

This contest was possible due to support from The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation.

Trick or Truth (2014-2015)

The Mysterious Connection Between Physics and Mathematics

Why does math seem so “unreasonably” effective in fundamental physics, especially compared to math’s impact on other scientific disciplines? Or does it? How deeply does mathematics inform physics and physics mathematics? What are the tensions between them — the subtleties, ambiguities, hidden assumptions, or even contradictions and paradoxes at the intersection of formal mathematics and the physics of the real world?

1st Prize Winner: Sylvia Wenmackers, “Children of the Cosmos”

Wenmackers is a professor in the philosophy of science at KU Leuven (Belgium). She studied theoretical physics and obtained a Ph.D. in Physics (2008) as well as in Philosophy (2011). In her current project, she explores the foundations of physics, with a special interest in infinitesimals and probabilities.

Read the prize-winning essays.

Read all the essays.

This contest was possible due to support from The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, Nanotronics Imaging, and John Templeton Foundation, with media partner Scientific American.

How Should Humanity Steer the Future? (2014)

Dystopic visions of the future are common in literature and film, while optimistic ones are rare. This contest encourages us to avoid potentially self-fulfilling prophecies of gloom and doom and to think hard about how to make the world better while avoiding potential catastrophes. 

Our ever-deepening understanding of physics has enabled technologies and ways of thinking about our place in the world that have dramatically transformed humanity over the past several hundred years. Many of these changes have been difficult to predict or control—but not all. 

In this contest, we ask how humanity should attempt to steer its own course in light of the radically different modes of thought and fundamentally new technologies that are becoming relevant in the coming decades. 

1st Prize Winner: Sabine Hossenfelder, “How to save the world”

Hossenfelder is an assistant professor for high energy physics at Nordita in Stockholm, Sweden. She works on quantum gravity and physics beyond the standard model and blogs at

Read the prize-winning essays.

Read all the essays.

This contest was possible due to support from The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, Future of Life and Jaan Tallinn, and John Templeton Foundation, with media partner Scientific American.

It From Bit or Bit From It (2013)

The past century in fundamental physics has shown a steady progression away from thinking about physics, at its deepest level, as a description of material objects and their interactions and towards physics as a description of the evolution of information about and in the physical world. Moreover, recent years have shown an explosion of interest at the nexus of physics and information, driven by the “information age” in which we live and, more importantly, by developments in quantum information theory and computer science.

We must ask the question, though, is information truly fundamental or not? Can we realize John Wheeler’s dream, or is it unattainable? 

1st Prize Winner: Matthew Leifer, “‘It From Bit’ and the Quantum Probability Rule”

Leifer is currently an independent scientist living in London, UK. He has held postdoctoral positions at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, the University of Cambridge, the University of Waterloo, and University College London. His research interests encompass the foundations of quantum theory, quantum information, and the intersection of the two.

Read the prize-winning essays.

Read all the essays.

This contest was possible due to support from The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation and John Templeton Foundation, with media partner Scientific American.

Questioning the Foundations (2012)

What assumptions are ripe for rethinking? Looking back over the history of physics we can identify a number of places where thinkers were “stuck” and had to let go of some cherished assumptions to make progress. Often this was forced by experiment, an internal inconsistency in accepted physics, or simply a particular philosophical intuition. What are the tacit or explicit assumptions we are making now that are ripe for re-thinking?

1st Prize Winner: Robert Spekkens, “The paradigm of kinematics and dynamics must yield to causal structure”

Robert Spekkens is a faculty member at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada. His area of research is the foundations of quantum theory.

Read the prize-winning essays.

Read all the essays.

This contest was possible due to support from The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation and Submeta, with media partner Scientific American.

Is Reality Digital or Analog? (2011-2012)

While classical physics – as well as the mathematics of calculus at its foundation – is based on real numbers with a continuous set of values, quantum mechanics indicates that certain physical quantities can take only a countable set of discrete values. Consequently, many current approaches to foundational questions in physics and cosmology advocate novel discrete or “digital” pictures of nature. This essay contest asks, then: is Nature fundamentally continuous or discrete, and how can these two different but very useful conceptions be fully reconciled?

1st Prize Winner: Jarmo Makela “Is Reality Digital or Analog?”

Makela did a post-doc in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics of the University of Cambridge. Since the year 2000, Makela has worked as a Senior Lecturer of mathematics and physics at the Vaasa University of Applied Sciences located in Vaasa, Finland.

Read the prize-winning essays.

Read all the essays.

This contest was possible due to support from The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, with media partner Scientific American.

What’s Ultimately Possible in Physics? (2009)

More specifically, to quote, “Essays in this competition will explore the limits of physics and the physics of limits. Appropriate topics are those such as, but not limited to: What are the limits of physics’ explanatory and predictive power? What does this tell us about the world? What technologies are fundamentally forbidden, or may ultimately be allowed, by physics? What role do ‘impossibility’ principles or other limits (e.g., sub-lightspeed signaling, Heisenberg uncertainty, cosmic censorship, the second law of thermodynamics, the holographic principle, computational limits, etc.) play in foundational physics and cosmology?” 

1st Prize Winner: Louis Crane, “Stardrives and Spinoza”

Crane did a postdoc at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and was an Assistant Professor at Yale University. He then joined the Mathematics department at Kansas State University, where he has remained to this day, except for visits to Nottingham University, Universite de Paris VII (Diderot), The University of Western Ontario, and Instituto Superior Tecnico in Lisboa, Portugal. His research is on quantum gravity.

Read the prize-winning essays.

Read all the essays.

This contest was possible due to support from Astrid and Bruce McWilliams.

The Nature of Time (2008-2009)

Time is central to human experience, but when closely examined raises a set of subtle and baffling questions that have perplexed philosophers, scientists, theologians, and other thinkers throughout history.  What is the “present” moment, and why does it “move”?  Is the future free or already determined as the past appears to be?  Why is the future different from the past? Does time even exist, or is it merely a construct of our world description?

As a central feature of the natural world, time also lies at the nexus of many foundational questions in physics and cosmology.  Did the universe have a beginning (of time) and an end? And what precisely do those questions mean?  In what ways is the world deterministic, and in what ways is it not?  How does the ‘arrow of time’ arise from time-symmetric fundamental physical laws?  Is understanding time the primary obstacle to understanding how to reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics?  

1st Prize Winner: Julian Barbour, “The Nature of Time”

After completing a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, Barbour became an independent researcher. He wished to study fundamental issues and avoid the publish-or-perish syndrome. For forty years, he has worked on the nature of time and motion and has published numerous papers. He is a Visiting Professor in Physics at the University of Oxford.

Read the prize-winning essays.

Read all the essays.

Video Competition

Show me the physics! (2014)

One of our goals at FQxI is to get people talking and wondering about the fascinating and confusing foundational physics research we support. We also want to be a point of connection between the researchers and teachers and everyone else who has an interest in physics. This competition aims to get people around the world excited about studying physics, with the hope that some of them go on to make their own physics discoveries.

1st Prize Winner (three-way tie): Dagomir Kaszlikowski, “Seeing without Looking”

Kaszlikowski is a quantum physicist who spends his spare time making short movies.

1st Prize Winner (three-way tie): Marc Séguin, “One Physics To Rule Them All (This Is Physics, part 1)”

Séguin has a master’s degree in Astronomy and another in History of Science from Harvard University. He teaches Astrophysics and Physics at Collège de Maisonneuve in Montréal and is the author of several textbooks.

1st Prize Winner (three-way tie): Xiangjun Shi, “Why Do I Study Physics?”

Shixie is an independent motion graphics designer based in New York City. Being an immigrant since a tender age, and having lived in China, the UK, Singapore, and now the US, Shixie is determined to break down the communication barriers between people through her works, across cultures or academic fields. Shixie is versatile with a variety of animation techniques, ranging from classical hand drawn to 3D, and has done work for clients including Google, Daptone Record, Adult Swim, PBS, CNBC, and Sundance.

Watch the prize-winning videos.

Watch all the videos.

This contest was possible due to support from The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation and John Templeton Foundation.

Please note all prize winner bios shared here and on the winners’ pages are taken from the year they won the contest.

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