Annual Report [2018]

As one year ends and a new one begins, it is always a great pleasure to look back over the preceding 12 months and reflect on all the fascinating and innovative ideas conceived, supported, researched and deliberated at the Simons Foundation. Around here, 12 months of seemingly routine work — answering emails, administering programs and attending lectures, workshops and meetings — somehow ends up yielding an amazing amount of intellectual ferment and, ultimately, progress in basic science. From workaday activities and interactions, stunning new concepts and theories emerge — from our grantees and also from staff, taking us in exciting new directions. 

In this 2018 annual report, we offer just a few of those thought-provoking ideas being discussed in the hubbub of daily activity at the Simons Foundation. In writing this overview of our work, we use ‘emergence’ as a central narrative thread and graphic theme. In addition to its popular meanings, the term is used by scientists to refer to individual parts coming together to form a whole, at a new level of complexity. In other words, emergence occurs when the individual’s properties differ from the group’s properties; e.g., freezing water molecules jumping to alignment to form an ice crystal, ants in a colony together accomplishing work they could never do alone, and interdependent organisms in an ecosystem enabling the whole group’s survival. Even electrons in a superconductor join up, forming ‘Cooper pairs,’ which, in this conjoined state, flow with zero resistance.

At our in-house research division, the Flatiron Institute, astrophysicists are trying to model the emergence of the earliest galaxies in our universe, the biophysical modeling group is trying to understand “how we go from motors and microtubules to collective self-organization,” and the neuroscience group is formulating the collective organization of individual neurons into a neural system capable of learning like the human brain. And, satisfyingly, when the smoke clears, mathematics again emerges as the baseline tool for all this groundbreaking science. 

In the pages that follow, you will also read about the foundation’s grant-making in Mathematics and Physical Sciences, Life Sciences, autism science (SFARI), Outreach and Education, and our Simons Collaborations. Grant recipients work to understand the origins of our universe, explain properties of glass as a system with disorder, model a theory of thought, and comprehend the role of microbes in our Earth’s climate and nutrient structure. You can also read about our emerging documentary film efforts, sharing the wonders of science through “The Most Unknown.” 

Finally, if you’re interested in learning more about emergence, Quanta Magazine, our editorially independent online science magazine, has explored this phenomenon in articles about quantum gravity, condensed matter physics, consciousness and more. 

With more than 330 employees now, the Simons Foundation is a lively center of bright, curious and passionate people working to advance the frontiers of research in mathematics and the basic sciences. It’s a pleasure to come to work every day, wondering what new things will be endeavored and learned. If you’re in the neighborhood on a Wednesday, please come by for one of our Simons Foundation Lectures. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy reading about our work and that of our grantees in this report, or at simonsfoundation.org.

Marilyn Hawrys Simons, Ph.D. | President