Scientific Strategy

Establishing Professor Stephen Hawking’s Vision for Cambridge

Professor Stephen Hawking was a singular inspiration to millions around the world. He combined towering contributions to cosmology and gravitation, with science communication skills that reached an unprecedented audience, while being an unparalleled exemplar of courage and triumph over adversity. In terms of scientific achievement, no one has done more to advance our understanding of Einstein’s theory of gravity and spacetime, especially black holes. Among the Big Questions to which we now have answers because of his foundational contributions are: Did the Universe have a beginning in time? Are black holes unique? What happens when they collide? Do black holes live forever? Where do all the galaxies in the Universe come from? Cambridge was Professor Hawking’s proud intellectual home and he spent over 50 years at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, where he led the Relativity and Gravitation group and founded the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology (CTC).  

The CTC plans to establish Professor Hawking’s vision and legacy for Cambridge, creating a world-leading centre of excellence in gravitation and cosmology into the longer-term future.

COSMOS, the UK's national cosmology supercomputer, housed in DAMTP.

COSMOS, the UK's national cosmology supercomputer, housed in DAMTP

Overview

The next few years will see the release of new groundbreaking data in cosmology and general relativity, advancing the confrontation with our understanding of black holes, inflation and fundamental theory. Researchers in the CTC have played an integral part in studying the Planck satellite results and are heavily involved in the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). At the same time, mathematical relativity has witnessed significant growth in recent years with further advances required to provide a theoretical understanding of gravitational waves and black holes. The CTC will continue to develop programmes and topical workshops on forthcoming projects, including the foundations of gravitational theory, the detection of gravitational waves from black hole and neutron star collisions, and large-scale surveys to map the positions of billions of galaxies out to great distances, testing cosmological theory. CTC workshops and conferences will allow world-leading researchers in cosmology and GR to come together to advance these fields, with a particular emphasis on inspiring young researchers and ensuring high impact public outreach.

Research aims of the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology/GR group include:

  • The CTC will lead the development of frameworks for understanding the origin of the universe, especially the nature of inflation in the first fractions of a second of its existence. A key goal will be to identify testable signatures to distinguish between the different inflationary scenarios inspired by fundamental theory.
  • We will advance the analysis and interpretation of the cosmic microwave background (CMB), the legacy radiation from the Big Bang, and also the distribution of large-scale structure found through new billion galaxy surveys. Precision analysis of the statistics of these data sets and their gravitational lensing will offer clues about the early universe – even the discovery of primordial gravitational waves – and we will learn more about dark matter and dark energy.
  • In light of the recent LIGO discovery of gravitational waves, we will push forward the development of the new field of gravitational wave astronomy. We will investigate the dynamics of astrophysical systems with black holes and neutron stars, predicting gravitational wave emission in Einstein’s theory of general relativity and its generalizations.
  • We will advance the mathematical understanding of black holes, their stability and key properties, while also exploring their behaviour in extra dimensions and at high energies. We will seek to unravel the consequences of the quantum structure of space-time for the concepts of causality and locality. In particular, we will seek to determine whether Hawking’s information paradox for black holes can be resolved.

The following goals will enable the work of CTC to be expanded over the next five years, ensuring excellence in leading-edge research and amplifying international impact. The ultimate vision is to expand the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology into a larger, permanent institute for advanced theoretical research in gravitation and cosmology, the Stephen Hawking Institute.

1. Stephen Hawking Professorship (achieved)

The Stephen W. Hawking Professorship of Cosmology, generously endowed by the Avery-Tsui Foundation in 2014, marked an important step towards ensuring the continuation of the University's long and distinguished history in the field of gravitation and cosmology. Dennis Avery had a particular vision for a unique professorship that would attract world-leading candidates to Cambridge and ensure the continuation of Professor Hawking's legacy. With the endowment initially supporting the work of Professor Hawking himself, the search has now begun to find a theorist of the highest international standing to lead research in this field.

2. Interdisciplinary University Lectureship in Gravitational Waves

Gravitational Wave Astronomy has emerged as a new branch of observational astronomy which is already advancing our understanding of the fundamental structure of the universe, as confirmed by the award of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics to the pioneers of the LIGO experiment. The mergers of black holes and neutron stars are extreme events that shake the fabric of spacetime itself, allowing us to test the nature of gravity, as well as the nonlinear interactions and structure of these compact objects.

We are now recruiting a senior researcher for a five-year fellowship, to start in 2019, in the field of gravitational wave theory and astronomy. The post will be based in the Kavli Institute for Cosmology, Cambridge, and will foster collaboration between DAMTP, the Institute of Astronomy and the Cavendish Laboratory.

3. Endowed University Lectureship at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology

With growing research activity in black holes, gravitational waves and cosmology, as well as a large influx of postdoctoral fellows and visiting scientists, this lectureship will give the CTC a more substantial faculty presence to lead its ambitious research programmes.

4. Hawking Scholars

We plan to offer twelve PhD studentships to be hosted within DAMTP. Three will be recruited per annum for four years. The first students to be selected as ‘Hawking Scholars’ would begin their graduate studies at the University of Cambridge in academic year 2019/20, and would engage with those donors who founded their awards through occasional research presentations and an annual dinner. In line with Stephen’s own priorities, the Scholars would be encouraged to engage in outreach and act as scientific ambassadors to the public.

5. Postdoctoral Fellowships

We will encourage excellence in a future generation of cosmologists and relativists through Advanced Research and Post-Doctoral Fellowships. Appointing the brightest young researchers will ensure a dynamic research core at CTC and we especially value longer-term five-year appointments. We have an outstanding record of attracting high-calibre candidates who can fulfil important roles not fully covered by faculty members and who go on to take influential faculty positions around the world.

We will begin by recruiting two Hawking Fellows, five-year postdoctoral positions, to be hosted by the Kavli Institute for Cosmology, Cambridge.

6. Public Outreach Programmes and the Stephen Hawking Archive

Cosmology is an area of huge fascination to the wider public and in Professor Hawking we had an exemplar, combining scientific excellence with the ability to reach a huge audience, demonstrated at events such as the London Paralympics Opening Ceremony in 2012.

An important part of Professor Hawking’s legacy is his archive, which he accumulated through decades of living and working in Cambridge. We have the opportunity to use this as the basis for a permanent exhibition, which can be located in the Betty and Gordon Moore Library at the Centre for Mathematical Sciences.

In 2017, CTC organised the Public Symposium for the Hawking 75th Birthday Conference, which was watched by over 5 million people on Discovery social media websites. Professor John Barrow, Director of the Millennium Mathematics Project (MMP), also stands high above his peers in being able to communicate to the wider public about science and mathematics through his many popular books and lectures. Building on this legacy and in collaboration with the MMP, CTC will develop outreach programmes, inspiring scientific curiosity in people all around the world and maybe even helping to find the next Stephen Hawking. Projects include a pilot programme with Discovery to create science content for launch of a new “Science Surrounds Us” app aimed at the youth market.

There is no doubt about the public’s interest in Professor Hawking and, through him, cosmology. Since being made publicly available by the University Library, his thesis has been viewed over a million times. His book, A Brief History of Time, has sold over 10 million copies worldwide, and 8 million people followed his social media pages. The programmes outlined here will take forward his vision and legacy with frontline research communicated to the general public.

FURTHER GOALS

  • We will attract outstanding visiting professors to help lead our programmes in gravitation and cosmology, especially in timely areas where we may not have the necessary expertise amongst the permanent faculty. These scientists will be chosen because of their international reputation in new and emerging fields in cosmology and gravitation. Their input will ensure that our work remains informed by the most recent research from around the world.
  • A unifying theme across cosmology and gravitation has been innovation and excellence in crucial numerical simulations and high performance data analytics; this work builds on the UK COSMOS Supercomputer Consortium founded by Professor Hawking in 1997. Since then CTC has continuously hosted leading-edge supercomputer systems, collaborating in a high impact industrial partnership with Intel and Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (SGI). This culminated in the 2014 award of Intel Parallel Computing Centre status, in recognition of leadership in high performance computing and many-core programming. Notable outcomes include an SC’15 award, innovative advances in “on the fly” visualization, and public release of the versatile GRChombo numerical relativity code. We will continue to recruit postdoctoral researchers and expert programmers in computational cosmology and relativity, in order to foster exploitation of supercomputer resources and the support of students at our new Centre for Doctoral Training in Data Intensive Science.
  • Our ultimate goal is to create a new Stephen Hawking Institute providing a secure framework in which to support research in cosmology and gravitation in the longer term. Buildings and institutes named after Stephen Hawking have been created at other academic institutions (Texas A & M and the Perimeter Institute, Canada), so comparable ambitions are certainly achievable in Cambridge.