Adam Koberinski has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow on the New Directions in Philosophy of Cosmology research project, under Chris Smeenk, for the past year. His research focuses on the intersection of particle physics and cosmology. Laura Cardozo conducted this virtual interview with Adam to learn more about his research and what sparked his interest in cosmology.
Tell us a bit about your research and what first sparked your interest in cosmology.
From my teenage years I have always been interested in the big questions posed by fundamental physics: what are the fundamental building blocks of the universe? What is the nature of space and time? How did the universe begin? and so on. I mostly fueled this interest by reading popular science books written by physicists, and had little understanding of the actual physics behind such popular accounts. I had some vague dreams of getting into research in physics, but decided to take a more practical undergraduate degree in nanotechnology engineering. Luckily for me, the University of Waterloo had a co-op program for engineering, and I quickly learned after a few job placements that I didn’t want to be an engineer. By my second year I switched into physics.
I finally thought I was ready to understand all of the secrets of the universe. Alas, an undergraduate physics degree is not the place where one learns about the finer details of quantum field theory or general relativity. But it was a start. With my newfound free time for electives (engineering is a heavy course load with few electives) I also discovered the philosophy of science. After taking a course with Rotman member Professor Doreen Fraser, I was hooked and decided to go into graduate school to study the philosophy of physics. I ended up coming to Western, as it is regularly ranked as one of the top schools in the world for philosophy of physics.
I got into cosmology while at Western. After taking a class with Professor Chris Smeenk, I realized how interesting and complicated some of the problems in the early universe really are. I also learned that I could apply my knowledge of quantum field theory to this domain, and maybe make progress on some understudied philosophical issues. Since then I have been working with the New Directions project — first as a graduate student, and now as a postdoc — and have become more and more interested in cosmology.
My current research continues to be focused on early universe cosmology, specifically at the boundaries where quantum field theory and gravity are both essential for understanding what has gone on. In particular, I am interested in domains where the effective field theory approach to physics starts to break down. One central assumption of standard quantum field theories is that physics at one energy scale does not sensitively depend on the physics at much higher energy scales. However, there are at least three places in current physics where that assumption seems to break down: in the mass of the Higgs boson, in the energy density of empty space (the vacuum) leading to the cosmological constant problem, and in characterizing rapid expansion in the early universe (inflation). These latter two are in the domain of cosmology, so my research in the field has mostly been focused there.
What are your main research goals?
My main research project is an investigation into the limits of effective field theories, and an analysis of the concepts that would need to be revised to move beyond the effective field theory framework. The goal of this research is to get conceptually clear the possible ways to proceed toward a theory of quantum gravity. In the immediate future, I am working on a close analysis of the cosmological constant problem and issues with inflation. Some of this work is joint work with Professor Chris Smeenk. More broadly, I am interested in a deeper understanding of the ontology of quantum field theories, as well as the ways we can gain knowledge about domains remote from experience, such as the early universe.
Less related to the New Directions project, I am beginning a study on precision measurement in fundamental physics, focusing on the standard model of particle physics.
How did you learn about the Rotman institute and how did you decide to become a member?
As I mentioned previously, I came to Western to do my graduate work in the philosophy of physics. I was immediately made aware of the Rotman Institute, and became a member to join in on the interesting reading groups and weekly coffee break sessions. By my second year I was a resident member, and became the student representative on the steering committee in my fourth year. I was pretty heavily involved in Rotman activities throughout my graduate degree, though now that I am no longer living in London my involvement has diminished.
I decided to join the Rotman Institute because it is a great place for those interested in all issues relating to the philosophy of science to meet like-minded individuals. The atmosphere is often one of friendly collaboration, and there are always Institute activities going on. You can attend regular talks, reading groups, meet and greets, as well as the famous coffee breaks. These activities give you a chance to learn from world-leading researchers and to make personal and professional connections. If you are interested in the philosophy of science, I highly recommend looking into joining!
Are there any books or readings you’d recommend to someone looking to get into the cosmology field?
The recommendations would change depending on your level of background knowledge. For those starting out graduate studies with some knowledge of other areas of philosophy of physics (or just physics), Craig Fox, Marie Gueguen, Chris Smeenk and I put together an annotated bibliography on the philosophy of cosmology (Oxford Annotated Bibliography, Open Access). For those with less background knowledge, there are many great popular science books that present the main ideas of early universe cosmology in an easy to understand way. Two of my favourites are “The First Three Minutes” by Steven Weinberg, and “The Inflationary Universe” by Alan Guth. These are two major figures in cosmology and high-energy physics, presenting some of their own work. They are a bit dated, but serve as a great entry point into modern cosmology.
What has been your favourite part of working in the New Directions project?
I am very grateful to have been able to work on the New Directions project. Over the duration of the grant, I have been given the opportunity to attend many conferences –in London, Irvine, and even Abu Dhabi — and to meet world-leading cosmologists and philosophers of cosmology. I have had the chance to make many new friends that I would not have otherwise met. In that spirit, I think my favourite part of the New Directions project was the 2018 summer school hosted in Grand Bend. It gave me a chance to spend an extended period of time with a great group of graduate students, and we all had a chance to learn from a great group of physicists and philosophers. The beach and warm weather were just icing on the cake!
Tell us an interesting fact about yourself.
In my spare time I participate in the sport of Olympic Weightlifting. Though I am currently not competing, I have qualified in the past for the Canadian national championships. My best snatch is 125kg, while my best clean and jerk is 156kg.
This interview first appeared on the New Directions in Philosophy of Cosmology blog.