Questions about everything

Stephen Hawking has helped launch the UNSW Big Questions Institute, a centre taking on the mysteries of life, the universe and everything.

Hawking

Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking appeared as a hologram, offered solace to One Direction fans everywhere, and spoke about his family, science, and our place in the universe.

It was a special event at the Sydney Opera House that also saw Hawking and his daughter Lucy, a successful author, awarded the 2015 UNSW Medal for Science Communication.

Although not typical for the Opera House stage, which has hosted many big names in the flesh, Hawking’s talks were hugely popular.

Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking as a hologram on stage at the Opera House with Paul davies and his daughter Lucy Hawking.

UNSW astrophysicist John Webb, who helped organise the events, hopes they’ll inspire Australians to dream big when it comes to science’s most fundamental mysteries.

Webb is the co-founder of the UNSW Big Questions Institute (BQI), which counts Hawking as a key adviser. He says the idea for BQI stemmed from seeing “no real increase” in the number of students in Australia going into fundamental research.

John Webb

John Webb

The new venture wants to make science accessible, but more importantly, says Webb, the goal is to educate Australian research students and attract brilliant minds to help answer some of nature’s biggest, most puzzling questions: How did life begin? Are we alone? Could alternate universes and dimensions exist? And, are the laws of nature constant?

They’re speculative questions that funding agencies tend to shy away from because there’s no guarantee of an answer, let alone a short-term gain.

Merlin Crossley, Dean of UNSW Science, knows they can be hard questions to ask.

“When I began in research I discovered something alarming – if you ask a little question, you only ever get a little answer,” he said, while introducing Hawking at the Opera House event.

“Even worse, I next discovered when you ask big questions – big high-risk, high-reward questions – you sometimes get no answer at all.”

But Crossley says progress and discovery have almost always hinged on people taking risks  and testing new ideas.

Webb agrees: “It’s these big questions that drive the human imagination, and we have to address them in order to make the big discoveries that  will push the intellectual boundaries of society.”

Webb and his team may be on the cusp of one such discovery that could turn physics as we know it on its head. Essentially it suggests the so-called “constants” that govern our universe – laws pertaining to gravity, quantum mechanics, the mass of atoms and their particles, and the speed  of light – may actually change across space  and over time.

Using data from the Very Large Telescope in Chile, and the Keck telescopes in Hawaii, Webb’s team uncovered a hiccup in the strength of the electromagnetic force – a very gradual variation between two very distant points in the universe.

darren dougan

Darren Dougan

Webb’s early research on the subject attracted Hawking’s attention due to its implications for his own research into a “theory of everything”.

“It’s controversial, and it’s by no means proven,” says Webb. “But we have a hint of it … and if it turns out to be true it will change all of physics.”

One of the PhD students working with Webb is Australian businessman, the former CEO of property development firm Hindmarsh. “When I heard about John’s research, I thought it was amazing and controversial, so I wanted to get involved,” says Dougan.

Webb mentioned his idea for BQI to Dougan about 18 months ago, and they’ve been working to promote the institute ever since. “My contacts allowed us to raise some seed funding, and get in front of some influential people in the business world,” Dougan says.

The pair travelled to Cambridge in March 2014 to recruit Hawking, who was happy to be involved.

Webb and Dougan are now aiming to raise a significant philanthropic gift, and hope BQI will one day rival the world’s leading scientific centres.