After delivering an eloquent and passionate speech on the thrill of scientific research and discovery, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Saul Perlmutter took questions from the audience. The participants — administrators and researchers from multiple universities — were there to discuss the importance of increasing private philanthropic support for basic science research. There was a discussion of the challenges of communicating the importance of scientific research to the public, when the frontiers of science have moved so far beyond what most of us learned in school. Perlmutter’s responses were uplifting and inspiring: He talked about the value of building relationships with everyone and having a sense of partnership in discovery. He spoke about the remarkable discoveries that are possible when scientists and funders work together toward a common goal, forming strong long-term relationships. With stirring words and dynamic gestures, he conveyed the message that we could be part of something bigger and greater than ourselves when we work as a group to push the boundaries of scientific knowledge and understanding.
What better example of what we can accomplish collectively than the detection of gravitational waves, which was announced in February 2016? This remarkable success was made possible through the hard work of more than a thousand researchers and the steadfast support of the National Science Foundation. Predicted by Albert Einstein in 1915, ripples in the fabric of space-time were observed for the first time as two black holes in a distant part of the universe merged, sending gravitational waves to Earth, where they were detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). While the LIGO experiment is paradigmatic of the tremendous possibilities to be realized through large-scale scientific collaboration, there are many other examples, large and small, of fruitful partnerships of scientists, mathematicians, and public and private donors.
At the Simons Foundation, we also support science through a host of cooperative, collaborative projects. In this year’s annual report, you will read about our own new research center, the Flatiron Institute, which brings together in one building computational scientists from different fields, in the hope of developing mathematical research tools that can be applied to their own field as well as others. You will also read about the Simons Observatory in the Atacama Desert in Chile, where research teams representing four institutions are working together to detect information from our very early universe by studying the cosmic microwave background. In our SFARI program report, you will learn about our efforts to build a dataset for autism research, thanks to the help of thousands of families and individuals — and facilitated by the internet and social media.
Throughout this annual report, you will learn about group efforts in a myriad of forms: research institutes, multi-institutional efforts, interdisciplinary collaborations, teams, partnerships, conferences, workshops, lectures and even social media. We explore the different ways collaborations may be fruitfully organized in our article on Simons Collaborations. Even the illustrations we’ve chosen for this report reflect our theme of confluence and convergence. Like Saul Perlmutter, we share the view that, together, we can do amazing things.
As we ponder in awe our new understanding of the world around us, from fundamental particles to the cosmos, we can delight in all that we have learned and eagerly anticipate many more new discoveries.
We hope you enjoy reading about our work.
Marilyn Hawrys Simons, Ph.D.
Over the course of 2016, we have been focused on building — both literally and figuratively — our new Flatiron Institute. This in-house unit is a generalization of the biology-focused Simons Center for Data Analysis (SCDA), which we started three years ago, to a series of centers focused on different areas of computational science. SCDA is now called the Center for Computational Biology. To house this effort, we acquired an 11-story building directly across the street from our present quarters on 21st Street. It is now undergoing extensive renovation and, when completed in June 2018, will house 250 scientific workers. It will also include a new 100-seat auditorium and a dining hall with capacity to serve all Simons Foundation personnel. Three of the floors are now occupied, with others gradually coming on stream.
The seed of this idea was planted in 2012. In June of that year, we hosted a roundtable of distinguished scientists at the Buttermilk Falls Inn in Milton, New York, to discuss the desirability of the foundation funding long-term, goal-driven collaborative research projects. As part of the discussion, attendees were invited to “propose interesting programs poised for progress that we might consider funding over a 10-year period.” Suggestions came from various fields, and we have gone on to establish a number of them through our collaborations. But one participant, the mathematician Ingrid Daubechies, had a slightly different proposal — to establish a permanent center for computational science. Given that I had made the money to start the foundation through sophisticated statistical analyses of financial data, I loved the idea, and wanted to start such a center within the walls of the foundation itself so I could contribute to its development.
Our initial effort was focused on biology, and we were fortunate to recruit Leslie Greengard to head the effort. Greengard, an outstanding applied mathematician with deep knowledge of biology, came to us from New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. He recruited a marvelous team of computationally inclined biologists, and after two years, things were going so well we decided to generalize the program.
The next area we determined to establish was computational astrophysics, and again we were fortunate to recruit an outstanding leader, David Spergel from Princeton University. He came in September 2016 with nine people, and many more will be arriving in September 2017. In the seven months that Spergel has been with us, he has created a whirlwind of activity, turning what is now called the Center for Computational Astrophysics, or CCA, into the hub of computational astrophysics in the Northeast.
The third area of focus is quantum physics, condensed matter physics with a bent toward materials science, and depending heavily on extensive computation. Once again we found a great leader, this time in Antoine Georges of the Collège de France, and he will arrive this coming September with seven or eight recruits. Our own Andrew Millis, who has headed physics on the grant-making side, will move over to the Center for Computational Quantum Physics as Georges’ co-director.
Each of these centers will grow to roughly 55 people, and there is room in the building for one more, the area of which has not yet been determined. Knitting the centers together is the Scientific Computing Core, servicing all of the discipline-oriented units and headed by two remarkable people, Nick Carriero and Ian Fisk, formerly of Yale University and CERN, respectively. This team is expected to grow to 15 people.
Somewhere along the line, we realized that this enterprise needed a name, and given that the foundation is located in the heart of Manhattan’s Flatiron District, ‘Flatiron Institute’ seemed perfect.
Having learned of its origins, you may read of its activities and accomplishments in the pages that follow.
James H. Simons, Ph.D.