Press Release

Starring role: Davies to lead ASU’s ‘cosmic think tank’

By SpaceRef Editor
November 30, 2006
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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 ASU.

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 – also will 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.”

This newest ASU research institute, yet unnamed, will be anchored in the college’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, and it aligns with a series of initiatives by Crow that are designed to transcend traditional subject boundaries, cultivate interdisciplinary research and have global implications. New thinking

Known for circumnavigating the globe as an author (27 books, both popular and specialty works) and as a provocative speaker (he 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”), Davies also was appointed College Professor this fall in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

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. “When Michael Crow invited me to create a special research institute at Arizona State University dedicated to probing the conceptual foundations of science – a sort of cosmic think tank – it gave me the opportunity to integrate the many strands of my research,” Davies says. “ASU is pushing the boundaries of what a university can achieve.”

Multi-disciplined brainstorming

The institute will bring people together from different disciplines to engage in brainstorming sessions on the deep conceptual issues that frame the scientific world view.

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 London, working in theoretical astrophysics before joining the maverick cosmologist Fred Hoyle at the University of Cambridge. There, Davies worked alongside the young Stephen Hawking and Martin Rees (now Lord Rees, President of the Royal Society), and was 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 postdoctoral researchers 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 doctoral students Tim Bunch and Nicholas Birrell, Davies helped develop the theory of quantum fields propagating in curved background space-time, a project that culminated in the widely used book “Quantum Fields in Curved Space.” By 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 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.

In 1990, Davies left the UK to work in Australia, first as a 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 might 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 says. “But now it is widely accepted that Mars and Earth may have traded microbes when they traded rocks.” Dark energy

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.

Davies has received international recognition through many prizes and awards. He received the prestigious Templeton Prize in 1995, the Kelvin Medal from the UK Institute of Physics in 2001, the Michael Faraday Prize from 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 renamed “Pauldavies” in his honor. Davies earned his doctorate in physics from University College London. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in science by Macquarie University earlier this year.

Carol Hughes, (602) 543-5220

SpaceRef staff editor.