Understanding the universe is a daunting task, yet our curiosity and wonder over centuries and civilizations has led physical scientists to seek answers to some of the most compelling questions of all. How did the universe come to be? What is it made of? What forces rule its behavior? Is there life elsewhere? In seeking answers to these questions, scientists search for the simplest laws that not only explain the universe but also predict behavior within it. Within the fundamental physical sciences activity at NASA, the panel identified two overarching quests that characterize the goals and motivations behind this compelling research: (1) to discover and explore the laws governing matter, space, and time and (2) to discover and understand the organizing principles of complex systems from which structure and dynamics emerge. A robust physical sciences program pursuing these quests is essential to NASA’s effort to explore and develop space and promises societal benefits and technologies for improving life on Earth.
Discovery of fundamentally new knowledge and the subsequent development of engineered systems have advanced the human condition and supported the world’s economy. Fundamental research across a wide range of disciplines and settings is both enabled by this rapid technological progress and helps to enable that progress. As part of this broad enterprise, fundamental physical sciences are both a customer of and a supplier in NASA’s commitment to space exploration. For example, some of the most important questions in physics today can be answered only in the unique environment of space, and addressing them is enabled by NASA’s commitment to exploration. But the results of investigations in the fundamental physical sciences also enable NASA’s exploration mission by empowering the development of new materials and energy sources, time and frequency standards for navigation, and technologies that help humans adapt to the hostile conditions in space.
NASA-sponsored research in fundamental physical sciences must be far reaching. For example, discovery and exploration of physical laws can be pursued through efforts to detect and understand dark matter and dark energy, the search for gravitational waves (enabled by the long baselines available only in space for measuring small metric variations in space itself), and studies of the origins of the universe, mass, and time. In addition, NASA-sponsored research should address the complexity that is observed all around us, which emerges from simple physical laws of many particles acting cooperatively, and new organizing principles emerging as systems increase in size. We are just beginning to understand such complex systems, ranging from bacteria to galactic clusters, and to seize the great opportunity for profound discoveries and wide-ranging applications. The unique conditions of space, such as weightlessness and access to high vacuum, will also enable the development of powerful new technologies and scientific experiments—for example, space-based optical clocks for enhanced navigation on Earth and in space and