John Templeton Foundation: 25 years of

Research Grant Program

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The New Frontiers in Astronomy and Cosmology program particularly focuses on supporting rigorous scientific research into the following Big Questions and exemplary sub-questions that naturally arise from science, but have potential to expand the boundaries and deepen the foundation of scientific inquiry, thus paving the way for a more comprehensive understanding of the world.

Big Question I
What was the earliest state of the universe?

Exemplary sub-questions:

  1. What are the scientific ways to test various theories of the earliest state of the universe (cosmic genesis)?
  2. What kinds of state or “laws” might have “preceded” the existence of spacetime?
  3. If space and time are not fundamental in the deepest scientific description of the universe, how did they emerge?

Astronomers have a good grasp on how the currently observable universe has evolved since shortly after the Big Bang. But what came before it? Several scientific ideas/theories of cosmic genesis have been put forward in the last few decades.

All of the cosmic genesis models presuppose the existence of some “laws” of physics. Are these laws a priori with respect to the universe? Are space and time emergent from more primitive elements (such as pregeometry)? Could they be different in different theories of cosmic genesis? Are there some meta-regularities which all these systems of laws would have to satisfy?

While most of these theories might be considered strictly theoretical exercises, cosmologists are contemplating ways to test some of them in the low energy regime. Are there observational consequences that can be in principle tested? The question of cosmic genesis is as old as the history of human thoughts and has been reflected upon by many philosophers and scientists. It is truly an exciting time to ask the question in light of recent significant scientific advances.

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Big Question II
Is our observable universe unique or is it part of a much larger multiverse?

Exemplary sub-questions:

  1. Can the ideas of multiverse be empirically tested? If so, how? If not, what is the scientific and epistemological status of those domains that cannot be observed?
  2. What are the distinguishing characteristics of multiverses that are based on different quantum cosmologies?
  3. Many multiverse models invoke the idea of infinity as part of their explanatory apparatus. Can the physical world be infinite?

The idea of a multiverse is based on the concept of cosmic inflation which may be considered independently of the issue of cosmic genesis. Inflation has now become part of the Standard Big Bang Cosmological Model due to its exceptional explanatory power and very precise recent experimental confirmations of some of its predictions. Among the potential consequences of the inflationary theory is that, if certain conditions are met, new "bubble universes" can be generated. The consequences would be the multiverse(s) in which mostly non-interacting universes exist with potentially different physical conditions. A fuller understanding of the very earliest phases of the Big Bang may reveal whether the physical conditions for an eternal inflation were actually met.

An important question has been raised whether or not the multiverse theory can ever be empirically tested, as we are dealing with the existence of universes to which we do not seem to have any access. Is the idea of the multiverse merely metaphysical? Or, are there any creative ways to empirically test the physical consequences of some versions of such theories? What is the scientific and epistemological status of the theories about these seemingly unobservable objects? Will any of these issues be forever beyond the science?

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Big Question III
What is the origin of the complexity in the universe?

Exemplary sub-questions:

  1. What are the conditions for the universe to evolve to a high degree of complexity?
  2. What are the key stages of increasing complexity in the universe? How do they come about?
  3. Will the complexity of the universe continue to increase? If so, how long? Are there any theoretical limits to the complexity of the universe?

We are living in a wonderfully complex world. According to the known astronomical and cosmological theories, our universe has become more and more “complex” and produced more and more interesting phenomena in it. How did this happen? What were the key stages? What are the prerequisites for such emergent complexity?

Through the process of becoming more and more complex, the universe generated conscious observers who contemplate the very meaning of existence of the universe as well as their own and ask the question: “Why are we here?” What are the origins of this amazing complexity in the universe? What are the origins and conditions of continuing complexity in the universe?

Will this trend continue forever? Or, are there any theoretical limits to the complexity of the universe?

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Big Question IV
Are we alone in the universe? Or, are there other life and intelligence beyond the solar system?

Exemplary sub-questions:

  1. What are the signatures of the existence of life and intelligence in the universe?
  2. Would the fine-tunings required for life in the universe also necessarily require that life be rare?
  3. To what degree are such other beings likely to be similar to humans? Are there features in nature which could limit the level of intelligence or the differences we may expect?

The recent, rapid advances in technologies that allow the detection of exo-planets in the “life zone” and potential signatures of life and intelligence in the universe raise hope that we are getting very close to the stage to be able to answer the age old question: “Are we alone in the universe?” Discovering life and intelligent beings outside our solar system will be among the greatest scientific discoveries of all time.

While there are a number of other programs available with the focus of detecting the signatures of life in general, this program will focus more on detecting the potential existence of intelligence or advanced forms of life in the universe.

Some focal questions include, but not limited to: What are the potential signatures of the existence of intelligence (or advanced forms of life) in the universe? How may we detect them? Does our universe have features that limit the level of intelligence and/or the differences we may expect from them? What kinds of behaviour might we expect from them, if we ever meet them? Should we expect that they have learned how best to live with other beings as they must have survived their own conflicts long enough? What are the possibilities?

Conference of  Award Winners October 12–13, 2012

FRANKLIN INSTITUTE
Fifth Floor Conference Center
222 North 20th Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

[ PROGRAM PDF ]

UChicago News

Scientists, students receive awards for exploring big questions about universe

By Steve Koppes
October 4, 2012

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