What You Don’t Know, You Can Parametrize

In physics, what you don’t know can absolutely hurt you. If you ignore that planets have their own gravity, or that metals conduct electricity, you’re going to calculate a lot of nonsense. At the same time, as physicists we can’t possibly know everything. Our experiments are never perfect, our math never includes all the details, and even our famous Standard Model is almost certainly not the whole story. Luckily, we have another option: instead of ignoring what we don’t know, we can parametrize it, and estimate its effect.

Estimating the unknown is something we physicists have done since Newton. You might think Newton’s big discovery was the inverse-square law for gravity, but others at the time, like Robert Hooke, had also been thinking along those lines. Newton’s big discovery was that gravity was universal: that you need to know the effect of gravity, not just from the sun, but from all the other planets as well. The trouble was, Newton didn’t know how to calculate the motion of all of the planets at once (in hindsight, we know he couldn’t have). Instead, he estimated, using what he knew to guess how big the effect of what he didn’t would be. It was the accuracy of those guesses, not just the inverse square law by itself, that convinced the world that Newton was right.

If you’ve studied electricity and magnetism, you get to the point where you can do simple calculations with a few charges in your sleep. The world doesn’t have just a few charges, though: it has many charges, protons and electrons in every atom of every object. If you had to keep all of them in your calculations you’d never pass freshman physics, but luckily you can once again parametrize what you don’t know. Often you can hide those charges away, summarizing their effects with just a few numbers. Other times, you can treat materials as boundaries, and summarize everything beyond in terms of what happens on the edge. The equations of the theory let you do this, but this isn’t true for every theory: for the Navier-Stokes equation, which we use to describe fluids, it still isn’t known whether you can do this kind of trick.

Parametrizing what we don’t know isn’t just a trick for college physics, it’s key to the cutting edge as well. Right now we have a picture for how all of particle physics works, called the Standard Model, but we know that picture is incomplete. There are a million different theories you could write to go beyond the Standard Model, with a million different implications. Instead of having to use all those theories, physicists can summarize them all with what we call an effective theory: one that keeps track of the effect of all that new physics on the particles we already know. By summarizing those effects with a few parameters, we can see what they would have to be to be compatible with experimental results, ruling out some possibilities and suggesting others.

In a world where we never know everything, there’s always something that can hurt us. But if we’re careful and estimate what we don’t know, if we write down numbers and parameters and keep our options open, we can keep from getting burned. By focusing on what we do know, we can still manage to understand the world.

Congratulations to Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel, and Andrea Ghez!

The 2020 Physics Nobel Prize was announced last week, awarded to Roger Penrose for his theorems about black holes and Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez for discovering the black hole at the center of our galaxy.

Of the three, I’m most familiar with Penrose’s work. People had studied black holes before Penrose, but only the simplest of situations, like an imaginary perfectly spherical star. Some wondered whether black holes in nature were limited in this way, if they could only exist under perfectly balanced conditions. Penrose showed that wasn’t true: he proved mathematically that black holes not only can form, they must form, in very general situations. He’s also worked on a wide variety of other things. He came up with “twistor space”, an idea intended for a new theory of quantum gravity that ended up as a useful tool for “amplitudeologists” like me to study particle physics. He discovered a set of four types of tiles such that if you tiled a floor with them the pattern would never repeat. And he has some controversial hypotheses about quantum gravity and consciousness.

I’m less familiar with Genzel and Ghez, but by now everyone should be familiar with what they found. Genzel and Ghez led two teams that peered into the center of our galaxy. By carefully measuring the way stars moved deep in the core, they figured out something we now teach children: that our beloved Milky Way has a dark and chewy center, an enormous black hole around which everything else revolves. These appear to be a common feature of galaxies, and many others have been shown to orbit black holes as well.

Like last year, I find it a bit odd that the Nobel committee decided to lump these two prizes together. Both discoveries concern black holes, so they’re more related than last year’s laureates, but the contexts are quite different: it’s not as if Penrose predicted the black hole in the center of our galaxy. Usually the Nobel committee avoids mathematical work like Penrose’s, except when it’s tied to a particular experimental discovery. It doesn’t look like anyone has gotten a Nobel prize for discovering that black holes exist, so maybe that’s the intent of this one…but Genzel and Ghez were not the first people to find evidence of a black hole. So overall I’m confused. I’d say that Penrose deserved a Nobel Prize, and that Genzel and Ghez did as well, but I’m not sure why they needed to split one with each other.

At “Antidifferentiation and the Calculation of Feynman Amplitudes”

I was at a conference this week, called Antidifferentiation and the Calculation of Feynman Amplitudes. The conference is a hybrid kind of affair: I attended via Zoom, but there were seven or so people actually there in the room (the room in question being at DESY Zeuthen, near Berlin).

The road to this conference was a bit of a roller-coaster. It was originally scheduled for early March. When the organizers told us they were postponing it, they seemed at the time a little overcautious…until the world proved me, and all of us, wrong. They rescheduled for October, and as more European countries got their infection rates down it looked like the conference could actually happen. We booked rooms at the DESY guest house, until it turned out they needed the space to keep the DESY staff socially distanced, and we quickly switched to booking at a nearby hotel.

Then Europe’s second wave hit. Cases in Denmark started to rise, so Germany imposed a quarantine on entry from Copenhagen and I switched to remote participation. Most of the rest of the participants did too, even several in Germany. For the few still there in person they have a variety of measures to stop infection, from fixed seats in the conference room to gloves for the coffee machine.

The content has been interesting. It’s an eclectic mix of review talks and talks on recent research, all focused on different ways to integrate (or, as one of the organizers emphasized, antidifferentiate) functions in quantum field theory. I’ve learned about the history of the field, and gotten a better feeling for the bottlenecks in some LHC-relevant calculations.

This week was also the announcement of the Physics Nobel Prize. I’ll do my traditional post on it next week, but for now, congratulations to Penrose, Genzel, and Ghez!

The Multiverse You Can Visit Is Not the True Multiverse

I don’t want to be the kind of science blogger who constantly complains about science fiction, but sometimes I can’t help myself.

When I blogged about zero-point energy a few weeks back, there was a particular book that set me off. Ian McDonald’s River of Gods depicts the interactions of human and AI agents in a fragmented 2047 India. One subplot deals with a power company pursuing zero-point energy, using an imagined completion of M theory called M* theory. This post contains spoilers for that subplot.

What frustrated me about River of Gods is that the physics in it almost makes sense. It isn’t just an excuse for magic, or a standard set of tropes. Even the name “M* theory” is extremely plausible, the sort of term that could get used for technical reasons in a few papers and get accidentally stuck as the name of our fundamental theory of nature. But because so much of the presentation makes sense, it’s actively frustrating when it doesn’t.

The problem is the role the landscape of M* theory plays in the story. The string theory (or M theory) landscape is the space of all consistent vacua, a list of every consistent “default” state the world could have. In the story, one of the AIs is trying to make a portal to somewhere else in the landscape, a world of pure code where AIs can live in peace without competing with humans.

The problem is that the landscape is not actually a real place in string theory. It’s a metaphorical mathematical space, a list organized by some handy coordinates. The other vacua, the other “default states”, aren’t places you can travel to, there just other ways the world could have been.

Ok, but what about the multiverse?

There are physicists out there who like to talk about multiple worlds. Some think they’re hypothetical, others argue they must exist. Sometimes they’ll talk about the string theory landscape. But to get a multiverse out of the string theory landscape, you need something else as well.

Two options for that “something else” exist. One is called eternal inflation, the other is the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. And neither lets you travel around the multiverse.

In eternal inflation, the universe is expanding faster and faster. It’s expanding so fast that, in most places, there isn’t enough time for anything complicated to form. Occasionally, though, due to quantum randomness, a small part of the universe expands a bit more slowly: slow enough for stars, planets, and maybe life. Each small part like that is its own little “Big Bang”, potentially with a different “default” state, a different vacuum from the string landscape. If eternal inflation is true then you can get multiple worlds, but they’re very far apart, and getting farther every second: not easy to visit.

The many-worlds interpretation is a way to think about quantum mechanics. One way to think about quantum mechanics is to say that quantum states are undetermined until you measure them: a particle could be spinning left or right, Schrödinger’s cat could be alive or dead, and only when measured is their state certain. The many-worlds interpretation offers a different way: by doing away with measurement, it instead keeps the universe in the initial “undetermined” state. The universe only looks determined to us because of our place in it: our states become entangled with those of particles and cats, so that our experiences only correspond to one determined outcome, the “cat alive branch” or the “cat dead branch”. Combine this with the string landscape, and our universe might have split into different “branches” for each possible stable state, each possible vacuum. But you can’t travel to those places, your experiences are still “just on one branch”. If they weren’t, many-worlds wouldn’t be an interpretation, it would just be obviously wrong.

In River of Gods, the AI manipulates a power company into using a particle accelerator to make a bubble of a different vacuum in the landscape. Surprisingly, that isn’t impossible. Making a bubble like that is a bit like what the Large Hadron Collider does, but on a much larger scale. When the Large Hadron Collider detected a Higgs boson, it had created a small ripple in the Higgs field, a small deviation from its default state. One could imagine a bigger ripple doing more: with vastly more energy, maybe you could force the Higgs all the way to a different default, a new vacuum in its landscape of possibilities.

Doing that doesn’t create a portal to another world, though. It destroys our world.

That bubble of a different vacuum isn’t another branch of quantum many-worlds, and it isn’t a far-off big bang from eternal inflation. It’s a part of our own universe, one with a different “default state” where the particles we’re made of can’t exist. And typically, a bubble like that spreads at the speed of light.

In the story, they have a way to stabilize the bubble, stop it from growing or shrinking. That’s at least vaguely believable. But it means that their “portal to another world” is just a little bubble in the middle of a big expensive device. Maybe the AI can live there happily…until the humans pull the plug.

Or maybe they can’t stabilize it, and the bubble spreads and spreads at the speed of light destroying everything. That would certainly be another way for the AI to live without human interference. It’s a bit less peaceful than advertised, though.

Which Things Exist in Quantum Field Theory

If you ever think metaphysics is easy, learn a little quantum field theory.

Someone asked me recently about virtual particles. When talking to the public, physicists sometimes explain the behavior of quantum fields with what they call “virtual particles”. They’ll describe forces coming from virtual particles going back and forth, or a bubbling sea of virtual particles and anti-particles popping out of empty space.

The thing is, this is a metaphor. What’s more, it’s a metaphor for an approximation. As physicists, when we draw diagrams with more and more virtual particles, we’re trying to use something we know how to calculate with (particles) to understand something tougher to handle (interacting quantum fields). Virtual particles, at least as you’re probably picturing them, don’t really exist.

I don’t really blame physicists for talking like that, though. Virtual particles are a metaphor, sure, a way to talk about a particular calculation. But so is basically anything we can say about quantum field theory. In quantum field theory, it’s pretty tough to say which things “really exist”.

I’ll start with an example, neutrino oscillation.

You might have heard that there are three types of neutrinos, corresponding to the three “generations” of the Standard Model: electron-neutrinos, muon-neutrinos, and tau-neutrinos. Each is produced in particular kinds of reactions: electron-neutrinos, for example, get produced by beta-plus decay, when a proton turns into a neutron, an anti-electron, and an electron-neutrino.

Leave these neutrinos alone though, and something strange happens. Detect what you expect to be an electron-neutrino, and it might have changed into a muon-neutrino or a tau-neutrino. The neutrino oscillated.

Why does this happen?

One way to explain it is to say that electron-neutrinos, muon-neutrinos, and tau-neutrinos don’t “really exist”. Instead, what really exists are neutrinos with specific masses. These don’t have catchy names, so let’s just call them neutrino-one, neutrino-two, and neutrino-three. What we think of as electron-neutrinos, muon-neutrinos, and tau-neutrinos are each some mix (a quantum superposition) of these “really existing” neutrinos, specifically the mixes that interact nicely with electrons, muons, and tau leptons respectively. When you let them travel, it’s these neutrinos that do the traveling, and due to quantum effects that I’m not explaining here you end up with a different mix than you started with.

This probably seems like a perfectly reasonable explanation. But it shouldn’t. Because if you take one of these mass-neutrinos, and interact with an electron, or a muon, or a tau, then suddenly it behaves like a mix of the old electron-neutrinos, muon-neutrinos, and tau-neutrinos.

That’s because both explanations are trying to chop the world up in a way that can’t be done consistently. There aren’t electron-neutrinos, muon-neutrinos, and tau-neutrinos, and there aren’t neutrino-ones, neutrino-twos, and neutrino-threes. There’s a mathematical object (a vector space) that can look like either.

Whether you’re comfortable with that depends on whether you think of mathematical objects as “things that exist”. If you aren’t, you’re going to have trouble thinking about the quantum world. Maybe you want to take a step back, and say that at least “fields” should exist. But that still won’t do: we can redefine fields, add them together or even use more complicated functions, and still get the same physics. The kinds of things that exist can’t be like this. Instead you end up invoking another kind of mathematical object, equivalence classes.

If you want to be totally rigorous, you have to go a step further. You end up thinking of physics in a very bare-bones way, as the set of all observations you could perform. Instead of describing the world in terms of “these things” or “those things”, the world is a black box, and all you’re doing is finding patterns in that black box.

Is there a way around this? Maybe. But it requires thought, and serious philosophy. It’s not intuitive, it’s not easy, and it doesn’t lend itself well to 3d animations in documentaries. So in practice, whenever anyone tells you about something in physics, you can be pretty sure it’s a metaphor. Nice describable, non-mathematical things typically don’t exist.

When and How Scientists Reach Out

You’ve probably heard of the myth of the solitary scientist. While Newton might have figured out calculus isolated on his farm, most scientists work better when they communicate. If we reach out to other scientists, we can make progress a lot faster.

Even if you understand that, you might not know what that reaching out actually looks like. I’ve seen far too many crackpots who approach scientific communication like a spammer: sending out emails to everyone in a department, commenting in every vaguely related comment section they can find. While commercial spammers hope for a few gullible people among the thousands they contact, that kind of thing doesn’t benefit crackpots. As far as I can tell, they communicate that way because they genuinely don’t know any better.

So in this post, I want to give a road map for how we scientists reach out to other scientists. Keep these steps in mind, and if you ever need to reach out to a scientist you’ll know what to do.

First, decide what you want to know. This may sound obvious, but sometimes people skip this step. We aren’t communicating just to communicate, but because we want to learn something from the other person. Maybe it’s a new method or idea, maybe we just want confirmation we’re on the right track. We don’t reach out just to “show our theory”, but because we hope to learn something from the response.

Then, figure out who might know it. To do this, we first need to decide how specialized our question is. We often have questions about specific papers: a statement we don’t understand, a formula that seems wrong, or a method that isn’t working. For those, we contact an author from that paper. Other times, the question hasn’t been addressed in a paper, but does fall under a specific well-defined topic: a particular type of calculation, for example. For those we seek out a specialist on that specific topic. Finally, sometimes the question is more general, something anyone in our field might in principle know but we happen not to. For that kind of question, we look for someone we trust, someone we have a prior friendship with and feel comfortable asking “dumb questions”. These days, we can supplement that with platforms like PhysicsOverflow that let us post technical questions and invite anyone to respond.

Note that, for all of these, there’s some work to do first. We need to read the relevant papers, bone up on a topic, even check Wikipedia sometimes. We need to put in enough work to at least try to answer our question, so that we know exactly what we need the other person for.

Finally, contact them appropriately. Papers will usually give contact information for one, or all, of the authors. University websites will give university emails. We’d reach out with something like that first, and switch to personal email (or something even more casual, like Skype or social media) only for people we already have a track record of communicating with in that way.

By posing and directing our questions well, scientists can reach out and get help when we struggle. Science is a team effort, we’re stronger when we work together.

To Elliptics and Beyond!

I’ve been busy running a conference this week, Elliptics and Beyond.

After Amplitudes was held online this year, a few of us at the Niels Bohr Institute were inspired. We thought this would be the perfect time to hold a small online conference, focused on the Calabi-Yaus that have been popping up lately in Feynman diagrams. Then we heard from the organizers of Elliptics 2020. They had been planning to hold a conference in Mainz about elliptic integrals in Feynman diagrams, but had to postpone it due to the pandemic. We decided to team up and hold a joint conference on both topics: the elliptic integrals that are just starting to be understood, and the mysterious integrals that lie beyond. Hence, Elliptics and Beyond.

I almost suggested Buzz Lightyear for the logo but I chickened out

The conference has been fun thus far. There’s been a mix of review material bringing people up to speed on elliptic integrals and exciting new developments. Some are taking methods that have been successful in other areas and generalizing them to elliptic integrals, others have been honing techniques for elliptics to make them “production-ready”. A few are looking ahead even further, to higher-genus amplitudes in string theory and Calabi-Yaus in Feynman diagrams.

We organized the conference along similar lines to Zoomplitudes, but with a few experiments of our own. Like Zoomplitudes, we made a Slack space for the conference, so people could chat physics outside the talks. Ours was less active, though. I suspect that kind of space needs a critical mass of people, and with a smaller conference we may just not have gotten there. Having fewer people did allow us a more relaxed schedule, which in turn meant we could mostly keep things on-time. We had discussion sessions in the morning (European time), with talks in the afternoon, so almost everyone could make the talks at least. We also had a “conference dinner”, which went much better than I would have expected. We put people randomly into Zoom Breakout Rooms of five or six, to emulate the tables of an in-person conference, and folks chatted while eating their (self-brought of course) dinner. People seemed to really enjoy the chance to just chat casually with the other folks at the conference. If you’re organizing an online conference soon, I’d recommend trying it!

Holding a conference online means that a lot of people can attend who otherwise couldn’t. We had over a hundred people register, and while not all of them showed up there were typically fifty or sixty people on the Zoom session. Some of these were specialists in elliptics or Calabi-Yaus who wouldn’t ordinarily make it to a conference like this. Others were people from the rest of the amplitudes field who joined for parts of the conference that caught their eye. But surprisingly many weren’t even amplitudeologists, but students and young researchers in a variety of topics from all over the world. Some seemed curious and eager to learn, others I suspect just needed to say they had been to a conference. Both are responding to a situation where suddenly conference after conference is available online, free to join. It will be interesting to see if, and how, the world adapts.

Zero-Point Energy, Zero-Point Diagrams

Listen to a certain flavor of crackpot, or a certain kind of science fiction, and you’ll hear about zero-point energy. Limitless free energy drawn from quantum space-time itself, zero-point energy probably sounds like bullshit. Often it is. But lurking behind the pseudoscience and the fiction is a real physics concept, albeit one that doesn’t really work like those people imagine.

In quantum mechanics, the zero-point energy is the lowest energy a particular system can have. That number doesn’t actually have to be zero, even for empty space. People sometimes describe this in terms of so-called virtual particles, popping up from nothing in particle-antiparticle pairs only to annihilate each other again, contributing energy in the absence of any “real particles”. There’s a real force, the Casimir effect, that gets attributed to this, a force that pulls two metal plates together even with no charge or extra electromagnetic field. The same bubbling of pairs of virtual particles also gets used to explain the Hawking radiation of black holes.

I’d like to try explaining all of these things in a different way, one that might clear up some common misconceptions. To start, let’s talk about, not zero-point energy, but zero-point diagrams.

Feynman diagrams are a tool we use to study particle physics. We start with a question: if some specific particles come together and interact, what’s the chance that some (perhaps different) particles emerge? We start by drawing lines representing the particles going in and out, then connect them in every way allowed by our theory. Finally we translate the diagrams to numbers, to get an estimate for the probability. In particle physics slang, the number of “points” is the total number of particles: particles in, plus particles out. For example, let’s say we want to know the chance that two electrons go in and two electrons come out. That gives us a “four-point” diagram: two in, plus two out. A zero-point diagram, then, means zero particles in, zero particles out.

A four-point diagram and a zero-point diagram

(Note that this isn’t why zero-point energy is called zero-point energy, as far as I can tell. Zero-point energy is an older term from before Feynman diagrams.)

Remember, each Feynman diagram answers a specific question, about the chance of particles behaving in a certain way. You might wonder, what question does a zero-point diagram answer? The chance that nothing goes to nothing? Why would you want to know that?

To answer, I’d like to bring up some friends of mine, who do something that might sound equally strange: they calculate one-point diagrams, one particle goes to none. This isn’t strange for them because they study theories with defects.

For some reason, they didn’t like my suggestion to use this stamp on their papers

Normally in particle physics, we think about our particles in an empty, featureless space. We don’t have to, though. One thing we can do is introduce features in this space, like walls and mirrors, and try to see what effect they have. We call these features “defects”.

If there’s a defect like that, then it makes sense to calculate a one-point diagram, because your one particle can interact with something that’s not a particle: it can interact with the defect.

A one-point diagram with a wall, or “defect”

You might see where this is going: let’s say you think there’s a force between two walls, that comes from quantum mechanics, and you want to calculate it. You could imagine it involves a diagram like this:

A “zero-point diagram” between two walls

Roughly speaking, this is the kind of thing you could use to calculate the Casimir effect, that mysterious quantum force between metal plates. And indeed, it involves a zero-point diagram.

Here’s the thing, though: metal plates aren’t just “defects”. They’re real physical objects, made of real physical particles. So while you can think of the Casimir effect with a “zero-point diagram” like that, you can also think of it with a normal diagram, more like the four-point diagram I showed you earlier: one that computes, not a force between defects, but a force between the actual electrons and protons that make up the two plates.

A lot of the time when physicists talk about pairs of virtual particles popping up out of the vacuum, they have in mind a picture like this. And often, you can do the same trick, and think about it instead as interactions between physical particles. There’s a story of roughly this kind for Hawking radiation: you can think of a black hole event horizon as “cutting in half” a zero-point diagram, and see pairs of particles going out from the black hole…but you can also do a calculation that looks more like particles interacting with a gravitational field.

This also might help you understand why, contra the crackpots and science fiction writers, zero-point energy isn’t a source of unlimited free energy. Yes, a force like the Casimir effect comes “from the vacuum” in some sense. But really, it’s a force between two particles. And just like the gravitational force between two particles, this doesn’t give you unlimited free power. You have to do the work to move the particles back over and over again, using the same amount of power you gained from the force to begin with. And unlike the forces you’re used to, these are typically very small effects, as usual for something that depends on quantum mechanics. So it’s even less useful than more everyday forces for this.

Why do so many crackpots and authors expect zero-point energy to be a massive source of power? In part, this is due to mistakes physicists made early on.

Sometimes, when calculating a zero-point diagram (or any other diagram), we don’t get a sensible number. Instead, we get infinity. Physicists used to be baffled by this. Later, they understood the situation a bit better, and realized that those infinities were probably just due to our ignorance. We don’t know the ultimate high-energy theory, so it’s possible something happens at high energies to cancel those pesky infinities. Without knowing exactly what happened, physicists would estimate by using a “cutoff” energy where they expected things to change.

That kind of calculation led to an estimate you might have heard of, that the zero-point energy inside single light bulb could boil all the world’s oceans. That estimate gives a pretty impressive mental image…but it’s also wrong.

This kind of estimate led to “the worst theoretical prediction in the history of physics”, that the cosmological constant, the force that speeds up the expansion of the universe, is 120 orders of magnitude higher than its actual value (if it isn’t just zero). If there really were energy enough inside each light bulb to boil the world’s oceans, the expansion of the universe would be quite different than what we observe.

At this point, it’s pretty clear there is something wrong with these kinds of “cutoff” estimates. The only unclear part is whether that’s due to something subtle or something obvious. But either way, this particular estimate is just wrong, and you shouldn’t take it seriously. Zero-point energy exists, but it isn’t the magical untapped free energy you hear about in stories. It’s tiny quantum corrections to the forces between particles.

Grants at the Other End

I’m a baby academic. Two years ago I got my first real grant, a Marie Curie Individual Fellowship from the European Union. Applying for it was a complicated process, full of Word templates and mismatched expectations. Two years later the grant is over, and I get another new experience: grant reporting.

Writing a report after a grant is sort of like applying for a grant. Instead of summarizing and justifying what you intend to do, you summarize and justify what you actually did. There are also Word templates. Grant reports are probably easier than grant applications: you don’t have to “hook” your audience or show off. But they are harder in one aspect: they highlight the different ways different fields handle uncertainty.

If you do experiments, having a clear plan makes sense. You buy special equipment and hire postdocs and even technicians to do specific jobs. Your experiments may or may not find what you hope for, but at least you can try to do them on schedule, and describe the setbacks when you can’t.

As a theorist, you’re more nimble. Your equipment are computers, your postdocs have their own research. Overall, it’s easy to pick up new projects as new ideas come in. As a result, your plans change more. New papers might inspire you to try new things. They might also discourage you, if you learn the idea you had won’t actually work. The field can move fast, and you want to keep up with it.

Writing my first grant report will be interesting. I’ll need to thread the gap between expectations and reality, to look back on my progress and talk about why. And of course, I have to do it in Microsoft Word.

Particles vs Waves, Particles vs Strings

On my “Who Am I?” page, I open with my background, calling myself a string theorist, then clarify: “in practice I’m more of a Particle Theorist, describing the world not in terms of short lengths of string but rather with particles that each occupy a single point in space”.

When I wrote that I didn’t think it would confuse people. Now that I’m older and wiser, I know people can be confused in a variety of ways. And since I recently saw someone confused about this particular phrase (yes I’m vagueblogging, but I suspect you’re reading this and know who you are 😉 ), I figured I’d explain it.

If you’ve learned a few things about quantum mechanics, maybe you have this slogan in mind:

“What we used to think of as particles are really waves. They spread out over an area, with peaks and troughs that interfere, and you never know exactly where you will measure them.”

With that in mind, my talk of “particles that each occupy a single point” doesn’t make sense. Doesn’t the slogan mean that particles don’t exist?

Here’s the thing: that’s the wrong slogan. The right slogan is just a bit different:

“What we used to think of as particles are ALSO waves. They spread out over an area, with peaks and troughs that interfere, and you never know exactly where you will measure them.”

The principle you were remembering is often called “wave-particle duality“. That doesn’t mean “particles don’t exist”. It means “waves and particles are the same thing”.

This matters, because just as wave-like properties are important, particle-like properties are important. And while it’s true that you can never know exactly where you will measure a particle, it’s also true that it’s useful, and even necessary, to think of it as occupying a single point.

That’s because particles can only affect each other when they’re at the same point. Physicists call this the principle of locality, the idea that there is no real “action at a distance”, everything happens because of something traveling from point A to point B. Wave-particle duality doesn’t change that, it just makes the specific point uncertain. It means you have to add up over every specific point where the particles could have interacted, but each term in your sum has to still involve a specific point: quantum mechanics doesn’t let particles affect each other non-locally.

Strings, in turn, are a little bit different. Strings have length, particles don’t. Particles interact at a point, strings can interact anywhere along the string. Strings introduce a teeny bit of non-locality.

When you compare particles and waves, you’re thinking pre-quantum mechanics, two classical things neither of which is the full picture. When you compare particles and strings, both are quantum, both are also waves. But in a meaningful sense one occupies a single point, and the other doesn’t.