Peering into the cosmos

Opinion: The crucial role of fundamental research in nurturing curiosity, cultivating innovationá

Faculty of Science

Dr. Will Percival is the distinguished research chair in Astrophysics and director of the Waterloo Centre for Astrophysics. His research delves into the properties of the universe on a vast scale, offering insights into the physics following the big bang and the forces driving today’s cosmic evolution.

His work is at the forefront of observational cosmology, where he assumes key roles in space missions such as the Euclid satellite. We asked Percival why fundamental science is important for humanity’s future.

Opinion by Dr. Percival

Fundamental research is the backbone of long-term progress. Delving into the mysteries of science with no immediate applications in sight can sometimes be the best path to revolutionary discoveries.

There are classical examples of this in history. When electromagnetism was first studied, the uses of electricity were not obvious. Fundamental research is not just a curiosity-driven pursuit but has proven an indispensable driver of progress for society in health, sustainability, technology, the economy and more.

In the realm of physics, particularly within my field of observational cosmology, we confront a vast sea of unknowns within our universe. Why is the universe expanding at an increasing rate? All our standard models tell us it should be slowing down. We have no idea what the physical mechanism for this is. We call it dark energy. We’ve named it. But naming something does not imply understanding it.

It’s work that is pushing the boundaries of our standard models while recognizing the historical precedent of fundamental physics giving us unexpected real-world applications, from GPS using general relativity to quantum theory’s role in modern electronic devices - like the cell phones in our pockets.

Physics isn’t done; it keeps going as we wrestle with new, big, unanswered questions. This can change how we understand the universe and, in ways we can’t even imagine yet, change our world.

Physics is at the core of understanding the world around us. It delves into the fundamental principles that explain how things work. It is inherently interdisciplinary, combining statistical data analysis to test theories at the cutting edge of mathematical understanding. It’s sometimes so deeply integrated into our research that we don’t always label it as such - but it brings various research communities together.

As an astrophysicist, my research is primarily focused on galaxy surveys within observational cosmology, and I am one of the primary science coordinators for the Euclid mission. Euclid is a satellite mission, launched in July 2023, designed to study and understand the way the universe responds to dark energy. The investment in this fundamental research mission has already led to developments in cutting-edge instrumentation with potential applications beyond the mission itself. People and companies involved in these missions show remarkable enthusiasm and dedication because they are excited about contributing to ground-breaking science.

Fundamentally, the justification for such research hinges on two key factors. First, it’s a long-term investment in advancing scientific knowledge for the betterment of humanity. Second, these endeavours possess significant outreach potential.

Astronomy ignites excitement in people and makes people ask questions and ponder fundamental concepts. This is vital for building a scientifically literate society. For instance, the launch of Euclid garnered global media attention, signaling a collective human curiosity and desire to explore the big questions about the universe. We will continue peering into the cosmos, even amidst the complexities of history and the challenges of modern society, in an enduring pursuit of understanding the universe and its fundamental workings.