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The School of Physical Sciences: Strategic Research Themes

The mission of the School is to contribute to our understanding of the physical world through excellence in observational, theoretical and experimental science and to extend quantitative and other appropriate methodologies to address problems in the fields of biology, technology, medicine, social science and the humanities. In pursuit of these goals the School co-ordinates objectives in research, teaching and infrastructure.

The long standing strength of physical sciences and mathematics in Cambridge results to a large extent from the long-standing approach of appointing the very best people available and then allowing them as much freedom (and resources) to develop their ideas with the minimum of interference. Alongside that, we seek to maintain levels of international excellence across a broad range of topics in each of our disciplines. That approach, while it has delivered success for over 100 years, does not always naturally sit well with an approach that seeks to designate particular areas of research as critical, and to steer resources towards them.

These six strategic themes have therefore emerged from an assessment of the highlights of the many strengths in the School, across the physical sciences, mathematics and geography and the selection of some which reflect some of the most important questions in fundamental science, Cambridge’s outstanding strengths in these areas, and key elements of Cambridge’s contribution at the forefront of the major scientific and societal challenges of our generation. It is not an attempt to list all our areas of strength, or all those which we consider important for the work of the Departments in the School. The themes also all reflect, to a greater or lesser another of Cambridge’s great strengths, the strong culture of informal collaboration, often across discipline boundaries, which exists at all levels from Professor to graduate student.

Another important element of Cambridge’s contribution to the progress of our subjects is the enormous number of people who spend time in Cambridge, particularly at the beginning of their career, before going on to achieve even greater things elsewhere. Around 1/3 of Nobel Laureates have spent some time in Cambridge – way ahead of any other institution. The contribution this University, and particularly this School, makes in the training and development of graduate students, post-doctoral workers and other young scientists is immense, easily as important as any of the themes listed below. 

  1. Extreme Universe
    jun 15  Strategic Theme Extreme Universe Display of a proton proton collision event recorded by ATLAS on 3 June 2015
    Display of a proton-proton collision event recorded by ATLAS on 3 June 2015, with the first LHC stable beams at a collision energy of 13 TeV
  2. The Physics of Chemistry and Mathematics of Life
  3. New Materials and Quantum Technologies
  4. Energy, Sustainability and New Materials
  5. Global Change and Natural Hazards
  6. Managing the Commons

Extreme Universe

We live in a remarkable period of discovery in our understanding of nature on its very largest and smallest scales. The dimensions, structure, age, and history of the expanding Universe are now accurately determined. This structure appears to have been imprinted by quantum fluctuations in the first instants after the Big Bang; hence the structure of the Universe on the largest scales is intimately intertwined with the nature of the elementary particles and the fundamental forces on the smallest scales. The discovery of the Higgs boson has revealed that scalar fields play a key part in the structure of the vacuum, making inflationary models more viable. Likewise it is now recognised that the formation and evolution of galaxies and stars within galaxies is intimately connected to structure growth in the Universe. This new cosmology raises profound questions: What are the physical natures of dark matter and dark energy that dominate our Universe? How did the Universe begin? What is the role of black holes in the evolution of the early Universe and galaxies? What were the particles and forces acting at the time of Big Bang and are there hidden dimensions at small scales?

Answering these questions will require extensions to the Standard Model and a deeper understanding of how quantum theory applies to space-time and gravity. These issues are connected to the problem that the Higgs boson mass is unstable against quantum fluctuations. These challenges are among the most important for physics and astronomy in the coming century, and they have drawn together scientists from astronomy, relativity, particle physics, quantum field theory, and string theory.

Cambridge has played a pivotal role in the development of this new cosmological paradigm, with centres of excellence in three departments (IoA, Cavendish, and DAMTP) and two new research institutes in the area, the Kavli Institute of Cosmology, Cambridge (KICC) , and the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology (CTC) . Experimentalists at the Cavendish and theorists at DAMTP have played major parts in the LHC programme, notably in areas beyond the Standard Model. Cambridge is well poised to continue its central role in the coming decades  which will shed further light on the Higgs mechanism and the origin of mass and offer clues to the nature of the dark matter. Cambridge staff are also participating in and planning for a number of current and future space and ground-based experiments (e.g. NGTS, HERA, Euclid, HARPS-N, E-ELT,SKA, Athena, Gaia, 4MOST, MOONS, LSST) which will constrain the nature of dark energy, the formation of the first stars and galaxies, the hot and energetic baryon components of the Universe, the influence of accreting supermassive black holes on their host galaxies. Future particle physics projects such as the future circular collider at CERN, the linear electron-positron collider and long-baseline neutrino beam experiments will continue the work at small scales with unprecedented sensitivity over the next decades.

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The Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics of Life
jun 15 Strategic Research Theme Energy, Sustainability and New Materials Bihan Guan (BP funded final year student) transferring a reagent from a round bottomed flask
Bihan Guan (BP funded final year student) transferring a reagent from a round-bottomed flask

Life obeys the laws of physics. Hence, in principle, the properties of living systems should follow from our understanding of physical and chemical processes at the atomistic level. Until recently, predictive models of life processes have been beyond our reach. That situation is now changing. This is due to several interrelated `revolutions’:

  1. The `genomics revolution’ that enables us to read and modify genetic and epigenetic information, coupled with the emergence of increasingly sophisticated tools in molecular biology, that enable, among other things, the study the expression and dynamics of single molecules in single cells and the behaviour of single cells in a population.
  2. The `digital’ revolution, driven by the unprecedented increase in both the speed of computing and the ability to manipulate massive data sets. This revolution is enabling new branches of science, both in simulation and in data-analytics, yielding tools that, over the past few years have reached the point where quantitative analysis and multi-scale simulation of complex biological systems is becoming possible.
  3. The `imaging’ revolution, reflected in a string of Nobel prices for scanning-probe microscopy, computer-assisted tomography, super-resolution microscopy, fluorescent protein labelling, not to mention the development of techniques to determine the structure of increasingly complex biomolecules. Other developments, such as confocal microscopy and AFM have been hardly less important.

These three revolutions are enabling a truly quantitative approach to the study of living systems and are thereby driving a fourth revolution: the increasingly widespread application of the tools of theoretical physics, most prominently statistical mechanics and hydronamics, to biology. This development is changing the physical sciences and the life sciences in equal measure.

Cambridge groups in the physical sciences are playing a key role in all these developments, with unique strengths in soft-matter science, micro-/nanofluidics, optical manipulation techniques, AFM and mechano-sensing technologies, molecular imaging, biosensor technology, nanoscience, computer simulations and theory.

The holy grail of research at the bio/physical-sciences interface is to arrive at a quantitative, multi-scale description of life processes in healthy and diseased organisms, enabling novel interventions and treatments for some of the most devastating health conditions (including cancer and neuro-degenerative diseases).  To address the outstanding problems at the interface, many interdisciplinary consortia have been formed, in particular the Cambridge Neuroscience Initiative, the Cambridge Molecular Therapeutics Programme, Cambridge Infectious Diseases Consortium, Physics of Living Matter, the Cambridge Cancer Centre, the MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute, the Cambridge Advanced Imaging Centre, the Cambridge Computational Biology Institute (CCBI) and, most recently, the Centre for Protein Misfolding Diseases. The latter Centre will be housed in the recently funded Chemistry of Health Building that will be completed in 2017. Alzheimer Research UK has recently funded a Drug Discovery Alliance in Cambridge and plans are underway to create a Nuclear Acid Dynamics Institute at the Addenbrookes site. The names of these consortia and centres can be read as a list of current top research priorities at the interface between the physical and life sciences.

Many of the most important recent appointments reflect the importance that the School of Physical Sciences attaches to research at the interface of the physical sciences and the life sciences. In fact, in Chemistry, 60% of all PIs are now involved in bio-related research. 

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New Materials & Quantum Technologies

Advanced materials lie at the heart of technological development for the 21st century. New or improved materials are no longer just a means to competitive advantage through reductions in manufacturing cost or improvements in performance, but are game-changers in terms of what can be created – such as in recent highly visible transformations of lighting technologies. Although new materials discovery will continue to play an important role, understanding the interaction of different constituents within a material and designing microstructures to optimise performance is becoming increasingly vital given the increasing pressures for sustainable manufacture, use and recycling. Work at the life-sciences interface is blurring the distinction between artificial and biological materials and is leading to rapid changes in treatments of skeletal injuries and diseases. In the last 50 years, the driver of much fundamental materials work has been classical information technologies, and while that will continue to evolve, the emergence of quantum technologies as the eventual replacement for much of what we know as information technology will create a requirement for radically different types of materials and the precision to which they can be manufactured. The School is already active in promoting links with companies relevant to this sector, developing research programmes and planning new teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. 

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Energy, Sustainability and New Materials 
jun 15 Strategic Research Theme Energy, Sustainability The ultrafast laser system within the OE group on which the experiments are performed
The ultrafast laser system within the OE group on which experiments are performed

In 2100 the preferred sources of energy on this planet will be either direct solar or fusion, and the preferred means to transport and use energy is already electric. A set of transformational technologies to deliver the energy supplies for this new age are efficient photovoltaics, electrical storage, refrigeration and superconductivity. In addition, very significant reductions in consumption can be achieved, for example by LED lighting. More speculatively, a move away from silicon-based electronic devices for memory and computation towards technologies with much lower energy demands could enable such devices to function off-grid on ambient energy alone.

While there are no physical principles preventing these technologies from being developed, new materials discoveries and development will be needed to bring them to fruition. Fundamental physics places limits which are orders of magnitude away from being reached.  Therefore, this is not simply a matter of cost reduction or development of existing technologies (though that plays a role), but fundamental new materials design and discovery. In the last 50 years, the driver of much fundamental materials work has been information technologies, and this is likely to continue. Energy/sustainability is already driving much new research in materials and this will grow in the future. The School has great strengths in many relevant areas, including photo-voltaics, battery and energy storage technology, nanotechnology, biologically inspired systems, superconductivity and optoelectronics (including LED technologies). The Winton Programme for the Physics of Sustainability has provided a welcome freedom to invest in these areas across several Departments. The School also has wide engagement with the Energy@Cambridge Strategic Initiative, with leads in several of the technology focus areas and cross-cutting themes.

At the same time, there is a need to meet energy demands over a shorter timescale and a particular focus is on Nuclear Power. In partnership with the School of Technology, within the University’s Nuclear Working Group, the School is promoting links with companies relevant for Nuclear energy, developing research programmes (particularly on future systems) and planning new teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. In parallel, work on nuclear waste containment is necessary, and there are opportunities for strengthening existing links between our Earth Sciences, Materials and Engineering Departments.

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Global change and Natural Hazards
jun 15 Strategic Research Theme Global change  pitdigging coatsland
Pit digging coatsland

Human interaction with the Earth will be a dominant theme in the lives of the next few generations of our planet’s inhabitants.   The threats and challenges from climate change and natural hazards such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, floods and drought are repeatedly emphasized by dramatic events that reveal the vulnerability of our increasing global population.  Improving our resilience to environmental threats must include, as a first step, an understanding of the science behind their nature and causes, from which strategies to mitigate their risks can be developed.   In trying to obtain that understanding we are often observing experiments carried out by the Earth over which we have little or no influence, but which contain vital clues to the controls on its underlying behaviour.  This requires a flexible, nimble and intellectually diverse approach, driven by a strong questioning curiosity, and an understanding of how science contributes to public policy. Such an approach has characterised the investigations behind the biggest conceptual breakthroughs in this scientific area.

These characteristics of the problem, and requirements for its mitigation, play to the strengths of the scientific expertise, experience, way of working and culture in Cambridge.  We have world class strengths in multiple methods of imaging, measurement and analysis, from space- and airborne-based remote sensing to field-based missions on land, sea, ice and in the atmosphere.   This carefully targeted data collecting is supplemented by laboratory measurements, analogue experiments, computational modelling and theory, and ranges over timescales from geological to present day.  The dynamics of natural systems are understood in the context of issues of social vulnerability, risk and the uptake of science in public policy.  In all these activities we push the boundaries of what is possible, developing new methods and insights with the aim of achieving new understandings of the fundamental scientific processes.  Our research on mitigation strategies, such as work on carbon sequestration and coastal defence, are also researched with energy and creativity, and emphasize how science is needed to inform efforts to develop responsible policies for the future.  

Underlying all this is the natural tendency of researchers in Cambridge to interact across conventional disciplinary boundaries, encouraged by the collegiate collaborative atmosphere at department, school and university levels, and carried out quite informally and naturally at all grades of participant from senior academic to graduate student.   A high level of effective communication driven by a shared intellectual curiosity, together with a creative flexibility and the lack of a constraining structure that might inhibit it, are without doubt among our greatest strengths.  Thus, although this research happens across several departments, including Earth Sciences, Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP), Chemistry, Geography and the neighbouring British Antarctic Survey, as well as institutes they host such as BPI and SPRI, none of these organizations has an exclusive involvement in any of the major scientific areas, nor is any single important research topic concentrated in one of them alone.   This scientific culture allows Cambridge to be uniquely responsive to new opportunities and visions, allowing it to drive the scientific agenda we will need to help face our future.

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Managing the Commons jun 15 Strategic Research Theme Managing the Commons 4

The management of resources held in common has long been central to political debates about the feasibility of collective action as a basis for human and ecological wellbeing.  Commons come in many forms, from land to ideas, resources to technologies.  Everywhere shared governance in a world of market liberalism is a challenge, from information to the global atmosphere. There is widespread anxiety about the implications for justice and poverty of encroachment on natural, social and political commons by markets and elites. Critics worry about the implications for erosion or contestation of things once held in common. Institutional Economics sets out the requirements for effective cooperation in resource management, yet models that project 'tragedies of the commons' as the inevitable outcome of open access resource management systems, have led to calls for privatization and market-based management. Such paradoxes reveal that the success of attempts to secure a sustainable future depend on a clear politics of managing the cultural, economic and environmental commons. Key challenges include the nature of citizenship, state building and governance; the making and remaking of markets and the geopolitics of development; the allocation of risk and the social construction of resilience and vulnerability.

The challenges of managing commons at the interface of economics and politics suggest diverse and urgent research questions.  First, there is a need to understand the relationships between economies and markets, institutions of the state and practices of government.  They are highly uneven in space and time, and relate to issues of justice and injustice and the political economy of commons management. Second, we need to address the ways in which governance and market regulatory regimes and the cultures within which they are embedded enable or prevent civic participation, and influence the informal’ governance of commons, whether economic enterprises, shared information or nature. Third, there are important challenges in the politics of environmental sustainability, for example the management of spaces such as cities, fields, wastelands and parks.  Fourth, there needs to be attention to common management of the ecosystem services and infrastructures essential to the social metabolism of modern life (e.g. water, biodiversity, sewage, power, transportation).

The School of Physical Sciences provides a strong inter-disciplinary hub for work on the management of the commons.  There is broad expertise in Geography the fields of political economy, political ecology, population health and history, and relevant work in Applied Maths and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP), Pure Maths and Mathematical Statistics (DPMMS) and Earth Sciences. The theme builds on four of the University’s Strategic Research Initiatives (Conservation, Food Security, Public Policy, and Public Health).

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