ERC Starting Grant for relatively new academic field

Niels Martens
Niels Martens
Everything we know is either matter space. Something else does not exist, and being both at the same time is impossible. At least, this assumption underlies much of physics, philosophy of physics and metaphysics. Philosopher of Cosmology  Niels Martens , however, disputes whether this is correct. According to him, this conceptual duality between matter and space is not strict at all, and even hinders the development of the fields. He received an ERC Starting Grant of nearly 1.5 million euros to systematically analyze when the dichotomy no longer applies. The project, called COSMO-MASTER, will start on April 1, 2023.

The idea that there is a strict distinction between matter and space traces back to the Greek philosopher Democritus, and prevalent since the work of Isaac Newton. Niels Martens acknowledges that the idea worked well within pre-twentieth century scientific knowledge. However, during the past century, the current standard model of cosmology emerged, which does not seem to leave room for the dichotomy. Martens: "Important ingredients of this model, such as dark matter, cosmic inflation, dark energy, black holes and general relativity put pressure on this Newtonian idea. And sticking to this orthodoxy could impede further progress."

Dark matter?

However, this dualism is characteristic of physics debates today, says Martens. He gives an example based on dark matter. Although the name suggests otherwise, there is no consensus on whether dark matter is in fact matter. "A large group of physicists think it is," Martens argues. "But a smaller group thinks the phenomenon is better explained by a modification of Newton and Einstein’s space or, in modern physics, spacetime. The strict dichotomy prevents these groups from coming closer together. They are even on bad terms with each other. And that, in turn, stands in the way of progress being made. For instance, because no new theories will be developed."

Matter space

Letting go of the strict dichotomy could offer a way out, according to Martens. As far as he is concerned, new ingredients of our universe could very well be a bit matter and a bit spacetime simultaneously. A physical phenomenon then takes on a more hybrid character, in which the visions of the rival groups are united. Martens, again, takes a form of dark matter as an example, the superfluid dark matter theory: "It generally behaves like matter, but when the temperature is low enough, it actually behaves more like spacetime. So, you could argue that dark matter is both matter and spacetime."

I hope that rival parties find each other again, develop new theories together, and move physics forward

Niels Martens, Philosopher of Cosmology


In the ERC project, Martens will systematically analyze four ingredients of the standard model of cosmology, and show that the dualism is not strict. He wants to demonstrate that the categorical dichotomy between matter and spacetime in these four instances is untenable and blurred, as in the example of dark matter. The research will take a total of five years, and Martens has just published three advertisements for a postdoc, a PhD candidate, and a research assistant.

Young academic field

It was only about fifteen years ago that the field in which Martens’ expertise lies emerged: the philosophy of modern cosmology. Since then, it has been a growing branch in which a large cohort of students recently graduated for the first time. This project emphasizes the field’s importance all the more, Martens believes: "Our expectation is that the findings will give new direction to traditional, physics and philosophy debates. That the framework we will provide will break down stalemates and reduce tunnel vision. Ultimately, I hope it will create a breath of fresh air that will make rival parties find each other again, develop new theories together and move physics forward."

In addition to this ERC project, Martens is closely involved in the large Next Generation Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration (ngEHT) on behalf of Utrecht University. In 2019, it’s predecessor, the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration (EHT) published the first image of a black hole. The ngEHT will go one step further, and create high-quality of black holes. To do this, roughly a dozen new telescopes will be built, scattered around the globe, to collectively create a virtual telescope the size of the entire planet. Martens emphasizes that this is not the only way this group is groundbreaking. "Unique about this collaboration is that more than fifty philosophers, historians and sociologists are fully involved in the project from the beginning. It is a dynamic dialogue between scientists from all corners of academia."