Looking to the Frontiers of Fundamental Science

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How did the Universe begin? This is just one of the great unknowns at the frontiers of Fundamental Science, along with questions on the possible kinds of quantum matter, and if there is a unified theory of fundamental forces.

During a public lecture co-organised by The HEAD Foundation and the Institute of Advanced Studies of Nanyang Technological University on 25 August 2017, Nobel Laureate in Physics 2004, Professor David Gross, outlined these unknowns and discussed how we are trying to find answers to these questions in the Maxwell Auditorium of Science Centre Singapore.

Prof Gross began by commenting on how much we have discovered in the past 50 years, particularly on particle physics and our understanding of the structure within an atom. Such discoveries have given us the ability to control matter.

…we are now smart enough to be ignorant in new ways. New questions arise that we didn’t know enough to even ask 50 years ago, and that’s what drives science forward — informed ignorance.

It is the seemingly never-ending, unanswered open questions, what we do not yet know, that attract people to get into science. Prof Gross emphasised that, rather ironically, the most important product of knowledge is ignorance. It is when we are smart enough, through knowing more than we did before, that we open up to new questions that we would not have thought of asking before.

To illustrate this, he discussed the origin of the universe and how it evolved from a hot ball of gas to something that has structure, has expanded, and is still expanding in an accelerated manner. Such a topic, originally discussed in the realm of religion and philosophy, can now be discussed scientifically given the knowledge we have acquired. However, there is still plenty about the universe to be learnt, such as dark matter and dark energy, which is assumed to be the cause for the accelerated expansion of the universe.

…the most fundamental research that leads to the most fundamental advances in technology is never, or rarely, discovered as an answer to some given project by some government or corporation. And the best example by far in recent time is quantum mechanics.

Prof Gross went on to discuss other aspects of the universe and what we have learnt about them in the past few decades, such as vacuum, gravity, space and time, and black holes. And although studying the universe may not have obvious and immediate pay-offs, the discoveries of the past decades have given us a glimpse of the possibilities the universe has to offer – and the knowledge to be gained from our current ignorance.

The talk ended with Prof Gross addressing the audience’s questions, including how much we have progressed in controlling and manipulating fundamental particles, and the role consciousness plays in the theories of the universe.

This event is jointly presented by The HEAD Foundation and Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) of Nanyang Technological University.