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McGill researchers explore big questions about universe

Team led by Prof. Alexander Maloney among winners of New Frontiers in Astronomy & Cosmology international competition

A research team led by McGill University Physics Prof. Alexander Maloney is among the winners of the New Frontiers in Astronomy & Cosmology International Grant and Essay Competition who will present their winning proposals and essays in a joint conference Oct. 12 and 13 at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

Published: 4 October 2012

The competition, led by Donald G. York, the Horace B. Horton Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, will award more than $4 million in research grants to 20 scientists and more than $200,000 to 21 student essayists worldwide. The funds were provided through a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to encourage scientists and students across the globe to explore fundamental, big questions in astronomy and cosmology that engage groundbreaking ideas on the nature of the universe.

The amount of the award for the McGill team led by Maloney is $180,000 (U.S.), which will be used to fund postdoctoral researchers and graduate students. Along with his co-investigators at McGill -- professors Robert Brandenberger (Physics), Johannes Walcher (Mathematics and Statistics & Physics) and Patrick Hayden (Computer Science) – Maloney will address basic conceptual problems at the interface of quantum physics and cosmology.

“Through these awards, the New Frontiers program aims to support bold, innovative research with the potential to expand boundaries and catalyze breakthrough discoveries, as well as inspire students to pursue scientific knowledge and become original, forward-looking big question thinkers of tomorrow,” York said.

The program invited research proposals addressing four big questions that have potential to expand the boundaries and deepen the foundation of scientific inquiry:

  • What was the earliest state of the universe?
  • Is our universe unique or is it part of a much larger universe?
  • What is the origin of the complexity in the universe?
  • Are we alone in the universe? Or, are there other life and intelligence beyond the solar system?

Prof. Maloney’s team at McGill aims to answer two sub-questions related to the earliest state of the universe:

  • What are the scientific ways to test various theories of the earliest state of the universe?
  • If space and time are not fundamental in the deepest scientific description of the universe, how did they emerge?

“Current models of cosmology based on Einstein’s theory of general relativity successfully describe many features of our universe at its largest scales.  Yet they fail to describe the dynamics of the universe at very early times where a quantum theory of gravity becomes necessary,” Maloney notes. “Finding answers to these questions will advance scientists’ understanding of the quantum structure of space-time in cosmological settings, of the emergence of structure from the Big-Bang singularity and of the measurable and observable implications of quantum cosmology.”

For a complete list of grant winners, see

For a complete list of essay winners, see

The New Frontiers in Astronomy & Cosmology program marks the centenary of the birth of Sir John Templeton, who regarded cosmology and astronomy as exemplary scientific pursuits that have continually expanded humanity’s vision of the world. The timing of the conference coincides with the centenary celebrations, the 40th anniversary of the Templeton Prize, and the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the John Templeton Foundation.

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