Annual Report 2019

The remarkable thing about basic science — which includes mathematics — is that one never knows where it may lead. Sometimes basic science seems to go nowhere, but more often it goes down a path leading to more discoveries, and more discoveries, and more discoveries. These often result in practical applications of which no one had dreamt, adding to the foundations of our civilization.

In my youth I myself did some mathematics that several years later began to be applied to physics: all kinds of physics! It was a total surprise, but it also gave me the direct experience of seeing how research done purely in the spirit of inquiry may someday be fruitfully applied in an entirely new and unexpected way.

As Marilyn’s letter states, we have just celebrated the foundation’s 25th anniversary, having formed the Simons Foundation in 1994. It’s come a long way: nine years later, in 2003, the foundation determined that its principal focus would be science, primarily basic science. In succeeding years, as the foundation has grown, our work in that area has expanded and flourished, and 2019 was no exception.

The grant-making side of our organization started with our effort to understand the roots of autism. This was followed by the launch of our program in math and physical science, and then a program in life science generally. These grants were primarily given to individuals or their labs, but occasionally to small science-focused institutes such as the Institute for Advanced Study. In 2012 we initiated a program of goal-driven collaborations, each comprising groups of scientists from different institutions, lasting as long as 10 years. At the moment we have 12 ongoing collaborations in math and physical science and five in life science. Examples of these are the Simons collaborations on the origins of life, the global brain, and hidden symmetries and fusion energy. The last is a mathematically-driven effort to design an apparatus to generate nuclear fusion in a manner that gives off more energy than it takes in. If we succeed, it will be game changing.

In 2013 we embarked on the creation of an in-house computational science program. First came a center in biology, followed by astrophysics, quantum physics and computational mathematics. These are housed in a building across the street and known collectively as the Flatiron Institute. The institute’s growth has been spectacular; it now comprises more than 200 scientists, which is slated to rise to 300 in the next few years. In addition to seminars and workshops attracting people from all over the world, it was the source of almost 1,000 scientific papers in 2019 — all in basic science.

In our annual report we describe some of our grantees’ and scientists’ discoveries. It is our hope that some of them will one day change the world.

Jim Simons, Ph.D. | Chair