Newswise — What are the laws of nature, and why do they seem so peculiarly suited for the emergence of life? Why is nature mathematical? What is the relationship between mathematics and physics? These will be among research themes that internationally acclaimed theoretical physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies will address in establishing a "cosmic think tank" at Arizona State University.
Davies, whose research is steeped in the branches of physics that deal with quantum gravity " an attempt to reconcile theories of the very large and the very small " will also take a scientific approach to confront the big questions at the interface of science and philosophy: Why is the universe so suited for life? Why are we here? How did the universe begin? Are we alone in the universe? What is the destiny of humankind?
"Paul Davies is one of the world's most exciting thinkers," says ASU President Michael M. Crow. "He pushes the known boundaries of the universe with his inquiries, exploring profound questions about science. His ability to integrate all of the sciences, to find surprising links between different branches of science, is what will facilitate this new research institute at ASU.
"Under Paul Davies' leadership, our new institute will meet head-on some of the most fundamental questions of our times."
In addition to his role as director of the new institute, Davies also was appointed College Professor this fall in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. This newest ASU research institute, yet unnamed, will be anchored in the college's School of Earth and Space Exploration and aligns with a series of initiatives by Crow that are designed to transcend traditional subject boundaries, cultivate interdisciplinary research and have global implications.
Davies is known for circumnavigating the globe as an author (27 books, both popular and specialty works) and as a provocative speaker (delivered the 1995 Templeton Prize address after receiving the prestigious award for initiating "a new dialogue between science and religion that is having worldwide repercussions" ).
Previously, the native Londoner was a professor of natural philosophy (the old name for physics) in the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at Macquarie University in Sydney, where he applied his expertise in physics and cosmology to the search for life in the universe.
"Paul is a master at exploring ideas, and especially likes to ponder the big questions," notes David A. Young, ASU vice president and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "The nature of this new institute, by design, will be transdisciplinary, reaching across science and humanities in the investigation of the fundamental questions of the universe."
The scope and design of the institute follow a model being expanded at ASU and in the college " the creation of research centers and schools, like the School of Earth and Space Exploration, which break through traditional subject barriers by developing interdisciplinary environments for research and teaching.
"ASU is pushing the boundaries of what a university can achieve," says Davies. "Most institutions are fixated with the old subject categories that belong to the 20th, or even the 19th, century. ASU has a new way of organizing research themes, better suited to the new century. This new research institute conforms with this radical vision. It has an agenda that goes beyond the traditional subject boundaries. That's where we want to take this venture " beyond."
Davies is particularly suited to head up such an institute. His interests are broad, extending from the highly mathematical to the deeply philosophical, as evidenced by the titles of some of his books: How to Build a Time Machine, The Origin of Life, The Big Questions, The Last Three Minutes, The Mind of God, and The Cosmic Blueprint. His most recent book is The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the universe just right for life? newly published by Penguin in the UK. It will be released in the United States in April under the title Cosmic Jackpot.
Davies began his career at University College in London, working in theoretical astrophysics, before joining the maverick cosmologist Fred Hoyle at the University of Cambridge. Here Davies worked alongside the young Stephen Hawking and Martin Rees (now Lord Rees, President of The Royal Society), and became bitten by the cosmology bug. When, in 1975, Hawking turned physics upside down by predicting that black holes glow with heat and slowly evaporate away, Davies was determined to figure out precisely how the heat energy originated. By then he had moved back to London University, to the mathematics department at King's College. In collaboration with visiting postdocs Stephen Fulling and Bill Unruh, the answer soon emerged from a welter of mathematics: black holes shrink, not because energy is coming out, but because negative energy is flowing in. A byproduct from this research was the conclusion, drawn independently by Davies and Unruh, that totally dark empty space should appear to a rapidly accelerating observer to be aglow with heat radiation, a phenomenon now known as the Davies-Unruh effect.
These discoveries paved the way for a more extensive analysis of how gravitation and quantum physics do business with each other " a problem that continues to exercise the minds of the world's greatest physicists. With his Ph.D. students Tim Bunch and Nicholas Birrell, Davies helped develop the theory of quantum fields propagating in curved background spacetime, a project that culminated in the widely used book Quantum Fields in Curved Space. Applying these ideas to the big-bang theory, Bunch and Davies helped lay the foundations for the widely accepted inflation theory for the origin of the universe. When in the early 1990s NASA's satellite observatory COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) discovered the famous "ripples" in the thermal afterglow of the big bang " which led to this year's Nobel Physics Prizes for its investigators " cosmologists cited "the Bunch-Davies quantum vacuum state" as a ready explanation. Davies explains: "The ripples found by COBE are primordial density variations " the seeds that grew into the large-scale cosmic structures we see today. Without these variations, there would be no galaxies, stars, planets or cosmologists. I believe the ripples are in fact the quantum fluctuations Tim and I found mathematically in 1980, writ large and imprinted in the sky."
In 1990 Davies left the UK to work in Australia, first as Professor of Mathematical Physics at The University of Adelaide, then at Macquarie University in Sydney, where he helped found a new astrobiology center affiliated with NASA. He was among the first scientists to suggest that life may have started on Mars and come to Earth inside rocks splattered off the red planet by comet impacts. "People pooh-poohed my idea at first," Davies concedes. "But now it is widely accepted that Mars and Earth may have traded microbes when they traded rocks." At about the same time, Davies was one of a handful of cosmologists to propose the existence of so-called dark energy, a type of antigravity that speeds up the expansion of the universe. It was at that time a deeply unpopular theory, but several years later astronomers discovered, to their astonishment, that dark energy really exists.
Throughout his career, Davies has maintained a strong interest in the nature of time and its relationship to cosmology. "It's probably my longest-running research project," says Davies. "I've been tangling with it ever since I heard Fred Hoyle lecture at The Royal Society in 1968 on why the past is different from the future." It formed the basis of his first research book The Physics of Time Asymmetry (1974), and also sparked his popular book How to Build a Time Machine, published in 2001.
Davies's current research interests include novel strategies to locate life on Mars, exploring the link between the structure of the universe and the foundations of information theory, the possibility of detecting subtle gravitational effects in the behavior of quantum particles, and " the toughest of all " to come up with a satisfying explanation for the origin of life.
While the institute will be constituted in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, "it will project a much broader agenda, having significant overlaps with physics, biochemistry, molecular biology, philosophy, human origins and even religious studies," Davies says. "And, though the research themes taken up at the institute are likely to be highly specialized, the outcomes of the deliberations should be of great interest to non-scientists as well. We are planning a significant program of public outreach, involving lectures by leading thinkers and high-profile media activities."
"Being located in one of the fastest growing areas in the United States, ASU is ideally suited to pioneer the principle of informed public debate on the wider implications of scientific discovery," Davies says.
Besides his research, Davies also is known as a television and radio broadcaster. Among his better-known productions were a series of 45-minute BBC Radio 3 programs on fundamental science. Two of these became successful books and one, Desperately Seeking Superstrings, won the Glaxo Science Writers Fellowship. His television projects include two six-part Australian series The Big Questions and More Big Questions, and a 2003 documentary on the BBC about his work in astrobiology titled The Cradle of Life.
Davies has received international recognition through many prizes and awards. He received the prestigious Templeton Prize in 1995, the Kelvin Medal by the UK Institute of Physics in 2001, the Michael Faraday Prize by The Royal Society in 2002, as well as two Australian Eureka Prizes and an Advance Australia Award. In the United States he is the recipient of an American Institute of Physics Science Writing Award (2003) and the Trotter Prize from Texas A&M University. In April 1999, the asteroid 1992 OG was officially re-named Pauldavies in his honor.
Davies earned his Ph.D. in physics from University College London. He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science by Macquarie University in 2006.
Note to editors/producers: A high-resolution image of Paul Davies is available online at http://clas.asu.edu/newsevents/newsreleases/photos.