In the Twilight between General Relativity and Quantum Theory
Antonio Ferreiro on his research on quantum effects in curved spacetimes and the additional challenges faced by the LGBT+ community in fundamental theoretical physics.
Antonio Ferreiro is a fourth year PhD student at the University of Valencia and the Instituto de Física Corpuscular, a joint centre between the Spanish Research Council and the University of Valencia devoted to research in Nuclear, Particle and Astroparticle Physics. Ferreiro is a member of the Working Group 1 of the COST action on quantum gravity phenomenology in the multi-messenger approach. He is interested in the big questions about our universe: What is dark matter? What came before the Big Bang? Can we understand Quantum Theory in curved spacetime?
In particular he is interested in understanding Quantum Field Theories in curved spacetimes. One of the biggest challenges is the fact that Quantum Field Theories and General Relativity do not fit together smoothly. He studies what the correct coupling between matter and spacetime is in the semi classical setting, where matter is modeled by Quantum Field Theory and spacetime is treated as a classical solution of General Relativity. These questions are of particular interest in the early universe where the matter density becomes large and our classical theories become inadequate as quantum fluctuations from the earliest moments of our universe form the seeds for all the structures that will develop in the future evolution of the universe.
Besides the BSc and MSc degrees in Physics which Ferreiro did in Valencia he also completed a master in Philosophy of Science at UNED (Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia, the National Distance Education University of Spain). Ferreiro is also active in science communication activities. Further, he is an active member of the LGBT+ community focusing on the fight against discrimination. For many years he was part of the LGBT+ association of Valencia and recently, together with students from the faculty of physics, he founded the first LGBT+ association of the science campus of the University.
In the context of the LGBT+ pride day, the COST QG-MM action outreach team conducted a written interview with Ferreiro about his research and his experience with discimination in academia.
COST QG-MM action outreach team: What do you hope to contribute with your research to our understanding of fundamental physics?
My work focuses mainly on the problems that arise when we try to merge general relativity and quantum field theory. This is especially important since without the correct construction of the theory we are not able to predict properties of the cosmos which are testable by observations. In addition, my research could give rise to a better understanding of the physics of the early Universe physics such as inflation, a short period of rapid expansion in the very early universe. I also want to contribute to our understanding of the vacuum energy density and its imprint in the accelerated expansion of the Universe that we observe today.
COST QG-MM action outreach team: During your PhD you already (Co-) autored 10 research papers. Which is your favourite one and why?
I would say the most recent one on “Running gravitational couplings, decoupling, and curved spacetime renormalization”. It was by far the most entertaining one because I was really intrigued about the vacuum energy density and the relation with the cosmological constant problem. I spent a lot of time studying the literature and not only got to understand the general problem but also to contribute to a better understanding of it. It was also satisfactory to have made use of not only my knowledge about quantum field theory in curved spacetime but also my background (Master degree mostly) in particle physics where my institute is really strong at.
COST QG-MM action outreach team: Besides your degrees in Physics you also completed a Master in Philosophy of Science. What motivated you to do this extra degree?
I think that historically there is a strong relationship between physics and philosophy but, due to the current specialization, it is really difficult to go out of the box on your research topic. I wanted to understand science from another perspective and this master gave me the opportunity as I was able to study the problems of the scientific method, the philosophical problems in physics and also, one of my favourite topics, the social understanding of science. My master thesis was about the relation between science and democracy and how can we learn from both sides to improve the conditions in the science community and also in society.
COST QG-MM action outreach team: What was your motivation to pursue a research career in fundamental theoretical physics?
For me, the most attractive feature of fundamental physics is that you can completely understand (or at least try to!) some very exotic phenomena from the most basic theories. It is very fascinating to me to get to know the world you live in through mathematical equations and from rigorous physical theories.
COST QG-MM action outreach team: When did you decide that you would want to do research in fundamental theoretical physics?
In my erasmus year at the University of Bonn I did some courses in cosmology and astrophysics and when I came back to Spain I really enjoyed the quantum field theory course that I had in the degree. In my last year of physics, when I found out that the group of my supervisor, Jose (Pepe) Navarro-Salas, was focused in the relation between this two field, I did not hesitate to lead my research in this direction and did my degrees and master thesis with Pepe and now I am also doing my Phd with him.
COST QG-MM action outreach team: What obstacles did you face on the way to your PhD?
I think that the biggest obstacle is to be mentally prepared to confront some problems that you usually will not face in other jobs. For example, to be prepared to fail and have some epochs where you are not going to produce anything fruitful. Also the uncertainty of the research career is also a big problem that you have to be aware of. I had luck to have an outstanding supervisor and very good colleagues that helped me overcome most of these problems.
COST QG-MM action outreach team: You told us that you are an active advocate for the LGTBQI community. Can you tell us about your experience with discrimination in academia?
I will only talk about my experience, since as a cis white men I do not face the same amount of discrimination as other groups (trans people, non-binary, women, etc.) do. I do not feel that there is a explicit discrimination as there is maybe present in other careers. However, in my case the importance of internationalization of the scientific career is a big obstacle. I remember being with some colleagues at a table and some professor asked if we would do postdocs in any country of the world or if we had any requirements. Most colleagues answered affirmative but I couldn’t. We cannot forget that there are still plenty of countries where my sexual orientation is illegal or not socially accepted. It is even worse at the initial stages of your career because maybe you can find a department that is a real safe space for you but then next year you are forced to go to another one where this condition is no longer ensured.
This is also relevant when we have to go to conferences or summer schools. In many of these occasions members of the LGBT+ community have to “get into the closet” again. In particular, I believe it is even more difficult for trans and non-binary people. Most of the application forms assume the usual women/men distinction, not assuming other identities and the possibility that trans people do not often have their official documents updated with their gender and names. This seems maybe a trivial issue but adding the usual discrimination that these groups suffer it can decrease the possibilities for members of the LGBT+ community to perform at their maximum level of capacities and have equal opportunities.
COST QG-MM action outreach team: What do you think are the most urgent measures that need to be implemented by the fundamental theoretical physics community to address the problem with discrimination of LGBT+ people in the field?
For me, it is especially important to make the departments a safe space for the LGBT+ community. For example, my institute has an office that focuses on possible discriminations that can happen there. I think there should be special protocols for homophobic and transphobic discrimination at each University and research institute. For example, let’s assume that you begin your phd with a supervisor that do have homophobic or transphobic atitudes. It is currently very difficult to overcome this problem since you are attached to him/her for at least three years and taking actions could maybe cost you your research career.
There are also bureaucratic problems that I have already mentioned. First, the traditional application forms that assume your assigned gender identity. Also summer schools and other scientific gatherings where the youngest researchers maybe need to share accommodations with other Phd students from other countries lacks from protocols that include the possibilities of being trans or non-binary.
In any case, since this is only my opinion, I highly encourage all scientists, but specifically organizers and Principal Investigators to inform themselves about the common problems that the LGBT+ community faces. In Spain for example, there exists a Science LGBT+ association ( https://prismaciencia.org/ ) where one can find a lot of information about these issues.
COST QG-MM action outreach team: You are close to the end of your PhD, what are your further plans? Where do you want to make your next step, what are your career ambitions in the long run?
I would really enjoy continuing my research career as a postdoc. However, I am conscious of the difficulties of having a stable career in this field. So I actually can not give a definitive answer to this question. My options range from doing a postdoc, over doing a Phd in philosophy of science to go into teaching. Maybe I can give you an answer next year.
Interview by Claudio Paganini