One of Jim’s stories that I enjoy most in the retelling is about a conversation he had with a relative at his family graduation party when he received his Ph.D. Jim’s uncle asked him what he would do now that he’d finally finished school. When Jim told his uncle that he would probably do math research, his uncle paused thoughtfully for a moment and then asked, “Wait … isn’t it all done?”
Happily, thanks to innate human curiosity, research is never done. Jim did go on to be a research mathematician and had a distinguished career as well. Given his high regard for research — and mine too — we determined that the mission of the Simons Foundation would be to advance the frontiers of research in mathematics and the basic sciences. This past year we celebrated the foundation’s 25th anniversary, and, to mark the occasion, we created a book focusing on research questions and hypotheses past and present that have intrigued us over the years. We also highlighted some questions we hope will be answered in the next 25 years.
Research is not for the faint of heart, though. This 2019 annual report hopes to convey that uncertain feeling of truly being at the “frontiers of research” — at the very border of human knowledge — and trying to extend the range of our understanding. “Frontiers” is a key word in our mission statement: it conjures up images of standing at the threshold of the unknown and looking out at the dark mysterious expanse of the unfamiliar. That search for knowledge is, as Abel Prize-winning mathematician Andrew Wiles described it in a 1997 Nova special, like groping one’s way through a dark room until one finally finds the light switch and — eureka! — all is illuminated. We hope to share such exploration and inspiration with you in the pages that follow.
In this issue you will read about the science being done by internal researchers at the Flatiron Institute: astrophysicists who are studying black holes and their event horizons, biologists amassing and analyzing large datasets to better understand amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), mathematicians developing a faster library for computing Fourier transforms, and quantum physicists investigating nonequilibrium quantum phenomena in partnership with scientists at the Max Planck Institute and Columbia University.
You will also read about cutting-edge research supported by the grant-making side of the foundation. From carrying out experiments in fusion energy to investigating the past and present environment of Mars, to pushing the envelope of our understanding of the workings of our own brains, our grantees are working in incredibly diverse areas to develop new knowledge. And, finally, you will hear about our efforts to disseminate this information to varied audiences with very different levels of expertise.
In sum, 2019 was a year of creativity, growth and celebration for us at the foundation. A lot has happened since September of 1994 when Jim and I started a fledgling family foundation with a $1 million contribution. I am grateful to the many outstanding and insightful people who have helped build the organization through their leadership and commitment, and I feel fortunate to work with such an inspiring and collegial group of people every day.
I hope you enjoy reading about the Simons Foundation’s work.
Marilyn Hawrys Simons, Ph.D. | President