Annual Report [2018]

To a large extent, the important developments in 2018 stemmed from the 2012 retreat at the Buttermilk Falls Inn in Milton, New York. In this two-day session, comprising outstanding scientists in a diversity of fields, we decided to add the concept of ‘collaborations’ to our grant-making activities for individuals and institutions. These would be long-term, goal-driven research projects comprising a substantial number of scientists and postdoctoral researchers from around the country and, indeed, the world. Mathematician Ingrid Daubechies also suggested we establish an institute for computational science. We liked that idea too and decided to build such an institute in-house.

In the subsequent six years, the Simons Foundation has changed dramatically as a result of that meeting. A total of 14 collaborations have been established, and in-house computational science research has grown into the Flatiron Institute, now with more than 150 people and slated to grow to almost twice that. These two areas will constitute at least 40 percent of the foundation’s budget and have created a remarkably dynamic atmosphere throughout the organization.

Of the 14 collaborations, let me discuss two. 

Origins of Life, established soon after the Buttermilk Falls meeting, is now in its sixth year and going strong. Researchers include chemists, biologists, geologists and astronomers, the last group studying exoplanets to see if any might be conducive to life. A team led by John Sutherland of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, has traced a plausible path from hydrogen cyanide, a chemical common in the early Earth, to the precursor of RNA. Of course, there may be other such paths, and they are being sought, but John’s work is very encouraging. Others are studying early geology to discover substrates that may have harbored early life or at least been conducive to it. The problem is being attacked from many angles, and our hopes are high that great progress will be made in the out years of the collaboration.

Hidden Symmetries and Fusion Energy, established in 2018, is an effort to design a functioning stellarator, a device to produce fusion energy, in a manner that the energy output is greater than the energy input. The stellarator was created many years ago but could not be made to work. It was discarded in favor of the tokamak, a device on which much work has been done over many years and which also doesn’t work! The Hidden Symmetries group, consisting of a number of outstanding physicists and mathematicians, now believes that an intensive mathematical effort will result in a design that will make an efficient and net energy-producing stellarator. If they succeed, the outcome will be transformative. 

The Flatiron Institute underwent a great deal of change during 2018.

First of all, the building was finally completed. The second-floor auditorium, the 11th-floor dining hall and the rooftop board room and garden have all worked wonderfully. The dining hall especially has been a great addition, where not only do all foundation personnel have lunch, but Flatiron folks also find a nice place to chat (and even work!) during the rest of the day.

Flatiron was designed for four units, but at the beginning of the year only three were in place: Computational Biology (CCB), Computational Astrophysics (CCA) and Computational Quantum Physics (CCQ). After considerable discussion, we decided that the fourth unit would be Computational Mathematics (CCM). This will consist of such areas as statistics, machine learning, computer science, algorithm development and numerical analysis. Because all these areas can be useful to the other three units, we felt the new unit would act a bit like glue, tying the organization together, with its scientists doing their own work and also interacting with those in the other three units. Leslie Greengard, who headed the CCB, will head the new unit, bringing the CCB algorithm group with him. This required a search for a new director of the CCB, which was finally completed in early 2019 with the choice of Mike Shelley, group leader of biophysics in the CCB. The staff of the CCB was very pleased with this choice, as was Mike himself!

We are proud to report that research emanating from Flatiron has been both copious and excellent, and the institute has acquired a great reputation in the United States and around the world. As time goes on and the units are fully populated, we are confident that its output and reputation will continue to blossom.

Jim Simons, Ph.D. | Chair