press release
Published: 17 July 2021

US$3m grant to the University of Surrey for research into the nature of time and life itself

The University of Surrey has received its largest ever philanthropic grant, funded by the John Templeton Foundation and worth US$3m (£2.1m), to lead a major new research project. The project will focus on the fundamental nature of time and its potential to reveal both scientific and philosophical insights into the quantum world - whose implications for life itself are explored in the new field of quantum biology. 

The project, “Life on the Edge: quantum thermodynamics, quantum biology and the arrow of time” will be led by Professor Jim Al-Khalili and Dr Andrea Rocco from the University of Surrey.  Professor Al-Khalili was recently awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for his outstanding services to science and public engagement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He is a Professor of Theoretical Physics and Distinguished Chair in Physics at the University of Surrey, as well as a University Chair in Public Engagement in Science and a prominent author and broadcaster. Dr Andrea Rocco, a theoretical physicist with broad experience in nonlinear dynamics and statistical mechanics, is a Senior Lecturer in Physics and Mathematical Biology at the University of Surrey. 

The work will be completed in collaboration with colleagues from Arizona State University, University of Bristol, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), University of California San Diego (UC San Diego) and University of Oxford.  

Researchers across the UK and US will explore the complex interrelationship between the nature of time and the distinct ways in which the passage of time and quantum physics manifest in inanimate objects compared to living organisms – with potential implications for the understanding of life itself. The project brings together the disciplines of quantum physics, applied mathematics, computational chemistry, experimental molecular biology and the philosophy of science.  

The project aims to not only revolutionise ideas in fundamental science, but also to influence a wider audience and inspire the next generation of scientists through a series of events. There will be a series of meetings attracting international scientists to ‘Blue-Sky Thinking’ Workshops, a programme for schools and lay audiences, and online content.  

The John Templeton Foundation serves as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the deepest and most perplexing questions facing humankind. The Foundation focuses its support on grantees who push the boundaries of understanding across a range of subjects in the sciences, philosophy and theology.  

Three of the ‘Big Questions’ that have informed Sir John Templeton’s vision, and which continue to baffle scientists and philosophers today, are: What is the nature of Reality? What is the nature of Time? What is the nature of Life? The key insight that will drive the ‘Life on the Edge’ project is how these profound questions are not independent but are instead different aspects of the same question: How does the arrow of time manifest in different systems and at different scales? 

Professor Jim Al-Khalili of the University of Surrey said, “One of the most profound aspects of existence is the distinction between past and future, the so-called arrow of time. This self-evident time ‘asymmetry’ is a defining characteristic of life: we’re born, we grow older and we die. Time never runs backwards for us, even if we sometimes wish we could turn the clock back. With this generous gift, our researchers will be able to study the way quantum processes underpin the machinery of life. We hope to move closer to an answer for how and why life is so special: is it the way living matter is able to utilise the time symmetry of the quantum domain that distinguishes it from inanimate matter?” 

Professor Max Lu, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Surrey, said, “We are truly honoured to have received a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Their vision of infinite scientific and spiritual progress is unique and inspiring, and helps us to consider great questions and challenges in new and unlimited ways. Congratulations to Jim and Andrea on their success, and I look forward to hearing about the advances on our understanding of the universe and humanity from this exciting research programme.” 

Aamir Ali, Program Officer for Math and Physical Sciences at the John Templeton Foundation, said, “The hypothesis that biological systems may have evolved to harness quantum processes -- and could serve as a new laboratory for fundamental physics -- is the sort of ‘big question’ thinking that aligns perfectly with the Foundation’s vision for our Math and Physical Sciences program. Jim and Andrea have assembled an excellent team and proposed not only an impressive research program, but also extensive public outreach activities. Communicating about scientific discoveries and the scientific process to the broader public is essential. We couldn’t be more excited to see how the results of this grant will come to full fruition.” 

View a selection of videos by Professor Jim Al-Khalili on the project: Life on the Edge: quantum thermodynamics, quantum biology and the arrow of time.

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