Scientists, students receive awards for exploring big questions about universe

The winners of a contest that encourages scientists and students across the globe to explore fundamental, big questions in astronomy and cosmology will present their proposals and essays in a joint conference Oct. 12-13 at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

The New Frontiers in Astronomy & Cosmology International Grant and Essay 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 engage groundbreaking ideas on the nature of the universe.


“Through these awards, the 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?

College students were invited to submit essays addressing “What is the origin of the complexity in the universe?” High school students wrote on the topic of “Are we alone in the universe? Or, are there other life and intelligence beyond the solar system?

The college essay winner was Yong Wei Chong Gabrielle of Wellesley College, for “A Letter to My Dearest Newborn Baby Brother.” In concluding her letter, she wrote:

“I will not attempt to describe or explain the chaos and structure of love, because I do not know what it is. And yet, I know that, for small, finite creatures such as ourselves, the staggering complexity and unbearable vastness of our world are bearable only through love.

“Welcome to infinitely complex life in an infinitely complex universe.

“Welcome to beauty.”

The high school essay winner was Zequn Li, of the Charter School of Wilmington (Del.) for “Speaking of Stars.” In his concluding paragraph, Li wrote:

“The human fixation with the idea of UFOs and extraterrestrials is a quest to find meaning, and a hope, that through discourse, thought and cooperation among our own race, we might eventually have the pleasure to converse with a different one. Perhaps the apparent silence of the skies represents not absence, but a quiet urging to think, work and unite, and find the answers to the hard questions for ourselves.”

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.

Participating in the presentation of awards for the essays will be Prof. Charles Townes, 1964 Nobel laureate in physics and the 2005 Templeton Prize recipient; and Prof. Paul Davies, the 1995 Templeton Prize recipient, theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author of such books as The Erie Silence, which is about the search for intelligent life in the universe; and George Musser, contributing editor to Scientific American.

Prof. Brian Greene, author of The Hidden Reality and Icarus at the Edge of Time, will present a public lecture, “Beyond the Big Bang: In Search of Cosmic Origins,” at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 12 at the Franklin Institute’s Franklin Theater. Prof. George Ellis, winner of the 2004 Templeton Prize, mathematician and cosmologist, will moderate a panel discussion following the talk by Greene. Admission is free, but reservations are recommended. Reservation requests may be submitted via this link.

For more information, see, or contact Donald York at or 773-702-8930; or Vikram Dwarkadas at or 773-834-4668.