Robert Spekkens wins first prize in FQXi essay contest

Perimeter Faculty member Robert Spekkens has taken the $10,000 first prize in the Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi) essay contest. Perimeter Institute would like to congratulate Faculty member Robert Spekkens for his first place entry in FQXi’s fourth annual essay contest, with the theme “Questioning the Foundations: Which of Our Basic Physical Assumptions Are Wrong?” The$10,000 first prize was awarded to Spekkens for his essay, “The paradigm of kinematics and dynamics must yield to causal structure.” In the essay, Spekkens suggests that we question the usual distinction between a physical theory’s kinematics and dynamics. The content of a theory is usually specified by describing separately the physical states that are possible in the theory, known as its kinematics, and the rules that govern how one state evolves into another, or its dynamics. Spekkens notes that any change in a theory’s dynamics can be compensated by an appropriate change in its kinematics, so that the modified theory and the original will have all the same observable consequences. Thus, he argues, the distinction is artificial, and only a kind of union of kinematics and dynamics has a bearing on the predictions of the model. In their stead, he proposes that physical theories be described through their causal structure, a promising new approach that is still being developed. There is a venerable history of major open questions in theoretical physics being tackled by essay contests, and they have helped to advance the field in ways that complement the traditional peer-review system and journal publication. The Gravity Research Foundation essay competition, for example, has offered prizes for essays on gravitational physics since 1949, and many of the winning essays, several of which were authored by Perimeter faculty or Distinguished Visiting Research Chairs, are now considered classics. Though Spekkens took home the top prize, he was not the only Perimeter researcher honoured by FXQi. Postdoctoral Researcher Flavio Mercati and former graduate student Sean Gryb were among the fourth prize recipients for their essay, “Right about time?” In addition, four separate papers by Affiliate member Steve Weinstein and former postdoctoral researchers Sabine Hossenfelder, Michele Arzano, and Olaf Dreyer were also among the 20 papers recognized. The FQXi essay competition entries are available for public viewing and feedback, resulting in lively online discussions between essay contributors and other members of the community. To read all of the winning entries, visit http://www.fqxi.org/community/essay/winners/2012.1.

Further Exploration

FQXi is a non-profit organization that supports the investigation of fundamental questions in physics and cosmology, through grants and the burgeoning essay contest. This year’s contest was the largest yet, with 271 entries. For more information, see: http://www.fqxi.org/home.