The Parke-Taylor Amplitudes: Why Quantum Field Theory Might Not Be So Hard, After All

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know that Quantum Field Theory is hard work. To calculate anything, you have to draw an ever-increasing number of diagrams, translate them into formulas involving the momentum and energy of your particles, and add all those formulas up to get your final result, the amplitude of the process you’re interested in.

As I said in that post, my area of research involves trying to find patterns in the results of these calculations, patterns that make doing the calculation simpler. With that in mind, you might wonder why we expect to find any patterns in the first place. If Quantum Field Theory is so complicated, what insurance do we have that it can be made simpler? Where does the motivation come from?

Our motivation comes from a series of discoveries that show that things really do simplify, often in unexpected ways. I won’t go through all of these discoveries here, but I want to tell you about one of the first discoveries that showed amplitudes researchers that they were on the right track.

Let’s try to calculate a comparatively simple process. Say that we’ve got two gluons (force carrying bosons for the strong force, an example of a Yang-Mills field). Suppose the two gluons collide, and some number of gluons emerge. It could be two again, or it could be three, or more.

For now, let’s just think about diagrams at tree level, that is, diagrams with no loops. The particles can travel from place to place in the diagram, but they can’t form closed loops on the inside.

Gluons have two types of interactions, places where particle lines can come together. You can either have three lines meeting at one point, or four.

If two gluons come in and two come out, we have four possible diagrams:


Note that while the last diagram looks like it has a loop in it (in the form of the triangle in the middle), actually that triangle just represents that two particles are passing each other without colliding, so that their lines cross.

The number of diagrams increases substantially as you increase the number of outgoing particles. With two particles going to three particles, you get fifteen diagrams. Here are three examples:


Since the number of diagrams just keeps increasing, you’d expect the final amplitude to become more and more complicated as well. However, Steven Parke and Tomasz Taylor found in 1986 that for a particular arrangement of the spins of the particles (for technical people: this is the Maximally Helicity Violating configuration, or two particles with negative helicity and all the rest with positive helicity) the answer simplifies dramatically. In the sort of variables we use these days, the result can be expressed in an incredibly simple form:

\frac{\langle 1 | 2 \rangle^4}{ \langle 1 | 2 \rangle\langle 2 | 3 \rangle\langle 3 | 4 \rangle \ldots \langle n-1 | n \rangle\langle n | 1 \rangle}

Here the angle brackets represent momenta of the incoming (for 1 and 2) and outgoing (all the other numbers) particles, with n being the total number of particles (two going in, and however many going out). (Technically, these are spinor-helicity variables, and those interested in the technical details should check out chapter 3 of this or chapter 2 of this.)

Nowadays, we know why this amplitude looks so simple, in terms of something called BCFW recursion. At the time though, it was quite extraordinary.

This is the sort of simplification we keep running into when studying amplitudes. Almost always, it means that there is some deeper principle that we don’t yet understand, something that would let us do our calculations much faster and more efficiently. It indicates that Quantum Field Theory might not be so hard after all.

2 thoughts on “The Parke-Taylor Amplitudes: Why Quantum Field Theory Might Not Be So Hard, After All

    1. 4gravitons Post author

      It’s also talking about a result from 40 years ago. 😉

      There have been a ton more results, amplitudeology is a whole field! For a taste, look for posts tagged “amplitudes” on this blog.



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