On September 6, 2017, in a small morning ceremony, the Simons Foundation inaugurated its new in-house research division, the Flatiron Institute. The guest of honor, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, stirred the audience of scientists and mathematicians gathered in the institute’s lobby with the words, “I’m worried about the world that we’re leaving our kids. It’s much more complex, the problems are much more difficult, and it’s only getting worse, and many of the solutions, I believe, are going to lie in the work that you do.” They were inspiring — and motivating — words indeed for a challenging world full of uncertainty.
For tens of thousands of years human civilization has endeavored to reduce uncertainty and unpredictability. The development of agriculture addressed the question of where our next meal would come from, and the taming of fire assured us we would not freeze to death during an unexpectedly cold night. As time went on, the rain god and the witch doctor gave way to the meteorologist and the M.D. In recent centuries, science has played an increasingly large role in reducing uncertainty, and, in fact, to a great extent it is uncertainty itself that has driven science forward.
For the scientist, the concept of uncertainty includes the degree to which something is known. By systematically studying our natural and physical world, scientists chip away at uncertainty, replacing outmoded theories with more accurate ones. As Edwin Powell Hubble depicted this process and its concomitant mindset back in 1939, “The scientist explores the world of phenomena by successive approximations. He knows that his data are not precise and that his theories must always be tested. It is quite natural that he tends to develop healthy skepticism, suspended judgment, and disciplined imagination.”
Through our funding of basic science research, the Simons Foundation supports this rigorous process of investigation, this management of uncertainty. We are interested in fundamental questions about our universe, about life on our planet and about the mysteries of our own bodies and brains. And we are always intent on deepening our knowledge of mathematics, the lingua franca of science. By funding our own in-house computational research division, the Flatiron Institute, and by awarding grants to external scientists through their institutions, we strive to advance the frontiers of research in mathematics and the basic sciences.
In this 2017 annual report, you will read about the launch of the Flatiron Institute, and about the research being conducted there to better analyze neuronal activity, to predict the dynamical behavior of materials and molecules, and to analyze important astronomical events. From our grant-making division, you will read about how geoscientists are helping us to piece together the mystery of the origins of life. You will also see stories about the geolocation system of the brain, the basic science of autism, and how three Simons Investigators are grappling with the uncertainties inherent in physics and quantum computing.
The vision and guidance for all of these programs comes from an outstanding leadership team of scientific directors. In a special section, they each reflect on their work and the uncertainties they manage in helping this enterprise to do all that it does. Their deep scientific knowledge and managerial experience is invaluable to the foundation.
Every day, we feel eager to come to work at the foundation because it teems with intellectual activity — and we say that with certainty! We hope that as you read through this report you will enjoy the excitement of learning about the fruits of uncertainty.
Marilyn Hawrys Simons, Ph.D.
Jim Simons, Ph.D.