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The Physics of Emergence

Since the 1972 publication of Philip Anderson’s seminal paper, “More is Different,” physicists have been interested in whether and to what extent there are phenomena best described as “emergent.” This interest has spread throughout a range of areas within physics, due in no small part to the fact that on some conceptions of emergence entirely new properties, entities, and behaviors appear at many different levels of complexity—novelties that “require research which is just as fundamental in its nature as any other.”* 

However, at present we lack a thorough understanding of whether and to what extent the conceptions of emergence employed by physicists and philosophers of physics are satisfied by physical phenomena. We believe that this is an opportune time to investigate such questions through rigorous scientific investigation, and it is our hope that this Funding Competition will promote such investigation.

One challenge for such research is that the term “emergence” is not used univocally. This term generally refers to the appearance of higher-level properties, behaviors, or entities that arise from the collective dynamics of a system’s components, where the higher-level phenomena are, in some sense, “more than the sum of” the components or the behavior or properties of the components. But even this usage admits of ambiguity.

Thus, for the sake of clarity, we distinguish between two types of emergence: weak emergence and strong emergence. This Funding Competition will only fund projects where the research to be conducted concerns strong emergence. Here is a more detailed description of the two kinds of emergence as we are characterizing them:

Weak Emergence: Weak versions of emergence refer to phenomena that are in principle derivable from the laws or organizing principles for, or from an exhaustive knowledge about, their constituents. Examples of this type of emergence include, but are not limited to:

(A) complex phenomena that are subject to nonlinear dynamics, deterministic chaos, etc., such that they are difficult (or even impossible) to track or predict because of epistemologically intractable complexity (and not because they have some fundamentally novel nature);

(B) the processes responsible for the formation of snow-flakes, planets, stars, or galaxies; and

(C) classical phase transitions.

Strong Emergence: Strong versions of emergence refer to phenomena that are, in principle, not derivable from the laws or organizing principles for, or even from an exhaustive knowledge about, their constituents. Theoreticians have argued that emergence might be found in the following types of cases:

(A) Emergence of new physical laws, principles, or rules: examples in this category might include the emergence of classicality from quantum mechanics, the emergence of quantum mechanics from information principles, the emergence of the asymmetry of time from the symmetrical laws of physics, the emergence of Fermi statistics and gauge interaction (Coulomb’s law) from quantum entanglement, etc. (Please note that proposals for projects where the chief focus would be to address interpretations of quantum mechanics or the arrow of time would not be eligible for funding within this competition, since such projects were very recently supported by other competitions sponsored by the Templeton Foundation.)

(B) Emergence of qualitatively novel global phenomena and/or novel organizing principles: examples in this category might include the Bose Einstein condensate, string-net condensation, the fractional quantum Hall effect, superconductivity/superfluidity, quantum critical phenomena, etc.

(C) Emergence of new entities, units and fundamental concepts: examples in this category might include non-Abelian systems, states involving fractionalized quantum numbers, time, space, dimensions, chiral fermions, gravity, etc.

The “Physics of Emergence” Funding Competition is intended to support scientific investigations that stand to advance our understanding of reality through rigorous research on phenomena that are, or appear to be, strongly emergent as explained above. Proposals in all areas of the physical sciences are welcome, as are projects that will be carried out by interdisciplinary teams, in response to one of the following sets of “Big Questions”:

  1. Are there new or underexplored cases of apparent strong emergence that are within the domain of physics? If so, what are these cases, and what do they tell us about the nature of the world?
  2. Are there general characteristics of, or organizing principles for, strongly emergent phenomena? If so, what are these characteristics or principles, and what do they tell us about the nature of reality?

Budget range and term

Grant amounts may be a maximum of $600,000 with a term length of up to 30 months. We expect to award approximately $5 million in grants for 12-18 projects, 2-4 of which will be experimental projects.

Researchers in all areas of the physical sciences, philosophy of physics, and related fields are encouraged to apply.

*Philip Anderson, «More is Different» in Science, Vol. 177, No. 4047. (Aug. 4, 1972), p. 393.