Congratulations to Simon Caron-Huot and Pedro Vieira for the New Horizons Prize!

The 2020 Breakthrough Prizes were announced last week, awards in physics, mathematics, and life sciences. The physics prize was awarded to the Event Horizon Telescope, with the $3 million award to be split among the 347 members of the collaboration. The Breakthrough Prize Foundation also announced this year’s New Horizons prizes, six smaller awards of $100,000 each to younger researchers in physics and math. One of those awards went to two people I know, Simon Caron-Huot and Pedro Vieira. Extremely specialized as I am, I hope no-one minds if I ignore all the other awards and talk about them.

The award for Caron-Huot and Vieira is “For profound contributions to the understanding of quantum field theory.” Indeed, both Simon and Pedro have built their reputations as explorers of quantum field theories, the kind of theories we use in particle physics. Both have found surprising behavior in these theories, where a theory people thought they understood did something quite unexpected. Both also developed new calculation methods, using these theories to compute things that were thought to be out of reach. But this is all rather vague, so let me be a bit more specific about each of them:

Simon Caron-Huot is known for his penetrating and mysterious insight. He has the ability to take a problem and think about it in a totally original way, coming up with a solution that no-one else could have thought of. When I first worked with him, he took a calculation that the rest of us would have taken a month to do and did it by himself in a week. His insight seems to come in part from familiarity with the physics literature, forgotten papers from the 60’s and 70’s that turn out surprisingly useful today. Largely, though, his insight is his own, an inimitable style that few can anticipate. His interests are broad, from exotic toy models to well-tested theories that describe the real world, covering a wide range of methods and approaches. Physicists tend to describe each other in terms of standard “virtues”: depth and breadth, knowledge and originality. Simon somehow seems to embody all of them.

Pedro Vieira is mostly known for his work with integrable theories. These are theories where if one knows the right trick one can “solve” the theory exactly, rather than using the approximations that physicists often rely on. Pedro was a mentor to me when I was a postdoc at the Perimeter Institute, and one thing he taught me was to always expect more. When calculating with computer code I would wait hours for a result, while Pedro would ask “why should it take hours?”, and if we couldn’t propose a reason would insist we find a quicker way. This attitude paid off in his research, where he has used integrable theories to calculate things others would have thought out of reach. His Pentagon Operator Product Expansion, or “POPE”, uses these tricks to calculate probabilities that particles collide, and more recently he pushed further to other calculations with a hexagon-based approach (which one might call the “HOPE”). Now he’s working on “bootstrapping” up complicated theories from simple physical principles, once again asking “why should this be hard?”

In Life and in Science, Test

Think of a therapist, and you might picture a pipe-smoking Freudian, interrogating you about repressed feelings. These days, you’re more likely to meet a more modern form of therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy (or CBT for short). CBT focuses on correcting distorted thoughts and maladaptive behaviors: basically, helping you reason through your problems. It’s supposed to be one of the types of therapy that has the most actual scientific evidence behind it.

What impresses me about CBT isn’t just the scientific evidence for it, but the way it tries to teach something like a scientific worldview. If you’re depressed or anxious, a common problem is obsessive thoughts about what others think of you. Maybe you worry that everyone is just putting up with you out of pity, or that you’re hopelessly behind your peers. For many scientists, these are familiar worries.

The standard CBT advice for these worries is as obvious as it is scary: if you worry what others think of you, ask!

This is, at its heart, a very scientific thing to do. If you’re curious about something, and you can test it, just test it! Of course, there are risks to doing this, both in your personal life and in your science, but typical CBT advice applies surprisingly well to both.

If you constantly ask your friends what they think about you, you end up annoying them. Similarly, if you perform the same experiment over and over, you can keep going until you get the result you want. In both cases, the solution is to commit to trusting your initial results: just like scientists pre-registering a study, if you ask your friends what they think you need to trust them and not second-guess what they say. If they say they’re happy with you, trust that. If they criticize, take their criticism seriously and see if you can improve.

Even then, you may be tempted to come up with reasons why you can’t trust what your friends say. You’ll come up with reasons why they might be forced to be polite, while they secretly still hate you. Similarly, as a scientist you can always come up with theories that get around the evidence: no matter what you observe, a complicated enough chain of logic can make it consistent with anything you want. In both cases, the solution is a dose of Occam’s Razor: don’t fixate on an extremely complicated explanation when a simpler one already fits. If your friends say they like you, they probably do.

In Defense of the Streetlight

If you read physics blogs, you’ve probably heard this joke before:

A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “this is where the light is”.

The drunk’s line of thinking has a name, the streetlight effect, and while it may seem ridiculous it’s a common error, even among experts. When it gets too tough to research something, scientists will often be tempted by an easier problem even if it has little to do with the original question. After all, it’s “where the light is”.

Physicists get accused of this all the time. Dark matter could be completely undetectable on Earth, but physicists still build experiments to search for it. Our universe appears to be curved one way, but string theory makes it much easier to study universes curved the other way, so physicists write a lot of nice proofs about a universe we don’t actually inhabit. In my own field, we spend most of our time studying a very nice theory that we know can’t describe the real world.

I’m not going to defend this behavior in general. There are real cases where scientists trick themselves into thinking they can solve an easy problem when they need to solve a hard one. But there is a crucial difference between scientists and drunkards looking for their keys, one that makes this behavior a lot more reasonable: scientists build technology.

As scientists, we can’t just grope around in the dark for our keys. The spaces we’re searching, from the space of all theories of gravity to actual outer space, are much too vast to search randomly. We need new ideas, new mathematics or new equipment, to do the search properly. If we were the drunkard of the story, we’d need to invent night-vision goggles.

Is the light better here, or is it just me?

Suppose you wanted to design new night-vision goggles, to search for your keys in the park. You could try to build them in the dark, but you wouldn’t be able to see what you were doing: you’d lose pieces, miss screws, and break lenses. Much better to build the goggles under that convenient streetlight.

Of course, if you build and test your prototype goggles under the streetlight, you risk that they aren’t good enough for the dark. You’ll have calibrated them in an unrealistic case. In all likelihood, you’ll have to go back and fix your goggles, tweaking them as you go, and you’ll run into the same problem: you can’t see what you’re doing in the dark.

At that point, though, you have an advantage: you now know how to build night-vision goggles. You’ve practiced building goggles in the light, and now even if the goggles aren’t good enough, you remember how you put them together. You can tweak the process, modify your goggles, and make something good enough to find your keys. You’re good enough at making goggles that you can modify them now, even in the dark.

Sometimes scientists really are like the drunk, searching under the most convenient streetlight. Sometimes, though, scientists are working where the light is for a reason. Instead of wasting their time lost in the dark, they’re building new technology and practicing new methods, getting better and better at searching until, when they’re ready, they can go back and find their keys. Sometimes, the streetlight is worth it.

“X Meets Y” Conferences

Most conferences focus on a specific sub-field. If you call a conference “Strings” or “Amplitudes”, people know what to expect. Likewise if you focus on something more specific, say Elliptic Integrals. But what if your conference is named after two sub-fields?

These conferences, with names like “QCD Meets Gravity” and “Scattering Amplitudes and the Conformal Bootstrap”, try to connect two different sub-fields together. I’ll call them “X Meets Y” conferences.

The most successful “X Meets Y” conferences involve two sub-fields that have been working together for quite some time. At that point, you don’t just have “X” researchers and “Y” researchers, but “X and Y” researchers, people who work on the connection between both topics. These people can glue a conference together, showing the separate “X” and “Y” researchers what “X and Y” research looks like. At a conference like that speakers have a clear idea of what to talk about: the “X” researchers know how to talk to the “Y” researchers, and vice versa, and the organizers can invite speakers who they know can talk to both groups.

If the sub-fields have less history of collaboration, “X Meets Y” conferences become trickier. You need at least a few “X and Y” researchers (or at least aspiring “X and Y” researchers) to guide the way. Even if most of the “X” researchers don’t know how to talk to “Y” researchers, the “X and Y” researchers can give suggestions, telling “X” which topics would be most interesting to “Y” and vice versa. With that kind of guidance, “X Meets Y” conferences can inspire new directions of research, opening one field up to the tools of another.

The biggest risk in an “X Meets Y” conference, that becomes more likely the fewer “X and Y” researchers there are, is that everyone just gives their usual talks. The “X” researchers talk about their “X”, and the “Y” researchers talk about their “Y”, and both groups nod politely and go home with no new ideas whatsoever. Scientists are fundamentally lazy creatures. If we already have a talk written, we’re tempted to use it, even if it doesn’t quite fit the occasion. Counteracting that is a tough job, and one that isn’t always feasible.

“X Meets Y” conferences can be very productive, the beginning of new interdisciplinary ideas. But they’re certainly hard to get right. Overall, they’re one of the trickier parts of the social side of science.

At Aspen

I’m at the Aspen Center for Physics this week, for a workshop on Scattering Amplitudes and the Conformal Bootstrap.

A place even greener than its ubiquitous compost bins

Aspen is part of a long and illustrious tradition of physics conference sites located next to ski resorts. It’s ten years younger than its closest European counterpart Les Houches School of Physics, but if anything its traditions are stricter: all blackboard talks, and a minimum two-week visit. Instead of the summer schools of Les Houches, Aspen’s goal is to inspire collaboration: to get physicists to spend time working and hiking around each other until inspiration strikes.

This workshop is a meeting between two communities: people who study the Conformal Bootstrap (nice popular description here) and my own field of Scattering Amplitudes. The Conformal Boostrap is one of our closest sister-fields, so there may be a lot of potential for collaboration. This week’s talks have been amplitudes-focused, I’m looking forward to the talks next week that will highlight connections between the two fields.

Breakthrough Prize for Supergravity

This week, $3 Million was awarded by the Breakthrough Prize to Sergio Ferrara, Daniel Z. Freedman and Peter van Nieuwenhuizen, the discoverers of the theory of supergravity, part of a special award separate from their yearly Fundamental Physics Prize. There’s a nice interview with Peter van Nieuwenhuizen on the Stony Brook University website, about his reaction to the award.

The Breakthrough Prize was designed to complement the Nobel Prize, rewarding deserving researchers who wouldn’t otherwise get the Nobel. The Nobel Prize is only awarded to theoretical physicists when they predict something that is later observed in an experiment. Many theorists are instead renowned for their mathematical inventions, concepts that other theorists build on and use but that do not by themselves make testable predictions. The Breakthrough Prize celebrates these theorists, and while it has also been awarded to others who the Nobel committee could not or did not recognize (various large experimental collaborations, Jocelyn Bell Burnell), this has always been the physics prize’s primary focus.

The Breakthrough Prize website describes supergravity as a theory that combines gravity with particle physics. That’s a bit misleading: while the theory does treat gravity in a “particle physics” way, unlike string theory it doesn’t solve the famous problems with combining quantum mechanics and gravity. (At least, as far as we know.)

It’s better to say that supergravity is a theory that links gravity to other parts of particle physics, via supersymmetry. Supersymmetry is a relationship between two types of particles: bosons, like photons, gravitons, or the Higgs, and fermions, like electrons or quarks. In supersymmetry, each type of boson has a fermion “partner”, and vice versa. In supergravity, gravity itself gets a partner, called the gravitino. Supersymmetry links the properties of particles and their partners together: both must have the same mass and the same charge. In a sense, it can unify different types of particles, explaining both under the same set of rules.

In the real world, we don’t see bosons and fermions with the same mass and charge. If gravitinos exist, then supersymmetry would have to be “broken”, giving them a high mass that makes them hard to find. Some hoped that the Large Hadron Collider could find these particles, but now it looks like it won’t, so there is no evidence for supergravity at the moment.

Instead, supergravity’s success has been as a tool to understand other theories of gravity. When the theory was proposed in the 1970’s, it was thought of as a rival to string theory. Instead, over the years it consistently managed to point out aspects of string theory that the string theorists themselves had missed, for example noticing that the theory needed not just strings but higher-dimensional objects called “branes”. Now, supergravity is understood as one part of a broader string theory picture.

In my corner of physics, we try to find shortcuts for complicated calculations. We benefit a lot from toy models: simpler, unrealistic theories that let us test our ideas before applying them to the real world. Supergravity is one of the best toy models we’ve got, a theory that makes gravity simple enough that we can start to make progress. Right now, colleagues of mine are developing new techniques for calculations at LIGO, the gravitational wave telescope. If they hadn’t worked with supergravity first, they would never have discovered these techniques.

The discovery of supergravity by Ferrara, Freedman, and van Nieuwenhuizen is exactly the kind of work the Breakthrough Prize was created to reward. Supergravity is a theory with deep mathematics, rich structure, and wide applicability. There is of course no guarantee that such a theory describes the real world. What is guaranteed, though, is that someone will find it useful.

Communicating the Continuum Hypothesis

I have a friend who is shall we say, pessimistic, about science communication. He thinks it’s too much risk for too little gain, too many misunderstandings while the most important stuff is so abstract the public will never understand it anyway. When I asked him for an example, he started telling me about a professor who works on the continuum hypothesis.

The continuum hypothesis is about different types of infinity. You might have thought there was only one type of infinity, but in the nineteenth century the mathematician Georg Cantor showed there were more, the most familiar of which are countable and uncountable. If you have a countably infinite number of things, then you can “count” them, “one, two, three…”, assigning a number to each one (even if, since they’re still infinite, you never actually finish). To imagine something uncountably infinite, think of a continuum, like distance on a meter stick, where you can always look at smaller and smaller distances. Cantor proved, using various ingenious arguments, that these two types of infinity are different: the continuum is “bigger” than a mere countable infinity.

Cantor wondered if there could be something in between, a type of infinity bigger than countable and smaller than uncountable. His hypothesis (now called the continuum hypothesis) was that there wasn’t: he thought there was no type of infinite between countable and uncountable.

(If you think you have an easy counterexample, you’re wrong. In particular, fractions are countable.)

Kurt Gödel didn’t prove the continuum hypothesis, but in 1940 he showed that at least it couldn’t be disproved, which you’d think would be good enough. In 1964, though, another mathematician named Paul Cohen showed that the continuum hypothesis also can’t be proved, at least with mathematicians’ usual axioms.

In science, if something can’t be proved or disproved, then we shrug our shoulders and say we don’t know. Math is different. In math, we choose the axioms. All we have to do is make sure they’re consistent.

What Cohen and Gödel really showed is that mathematics is consistent either way: if the continuum hypothesis is true or false, the rest of mathematics still works just as well. You can add it as an extra axiom, and add-on that gives you different types of infinity but doesn’t change everyday arithmetic.

You might think that this, finally, would be the end of the story. Instead, it was the beginning of a lively debate that continues to this day. It’s a debate that touches on what mathematics is for, whether infinity is merely a concept or something out there in the world, whether some axioms are right or wrong and what happens when you change them. It involves attempts to codify intuition, arguments about which rules “make sense” that blur the boundary between philosophy and mathematics. It also involves the professor my friend mentioned, W. H. Woodin.

Now, can I explain Woodin’s research to you?

No. I don’t understand it myself, it’s far more abstract and weird than any mathematics I’ve ever touched.

Despite that, I can tell you something about it. I can tell you about the quest he’s on, its history and its relevance, what is and is not at stake. I can get you excited, for the same reasons that I’m excited, I can show you it’s important for the same reasons I think it’s important. I can give you the “flavor” of the topic, and broaden your view of the world you live in, one containing a hundred-year conversation about the nature of infinity.

My friend is right that the public will never understand everything. I’ll never understand everything either. But what we can do, what I strive to do, is to appreciate this wide weird world in all its glory. That, more than anything, is why I communicate science.