This is going to be a bit more technical than my usual, but you were warned.
There are a few things you’ll need to know to understand this post.
First, you should know that when we calculate probabilities of things happening in particle physics, we can do it by drawing Feynman diagrams, pictures of particles traveling and interacting. These diagrams can have loops, and the particle in the loop can have any momentum, from zero on up to infinity: you have to add up all the possibilities to get whatever you’re trying to calculate.
Second, you should understand that the “particles” in these loops aren’t really particles. They’re “virtual particles”, better understood as disturbances in quantum fields. Matt Strassler has a very nice article about this. In particular, these “particles” don’t have to obey (or rather, if we include kinetic energy, , where is the momentum).
You can imagine a space that the momentum and energy “live in”. It’s got three dimensions for the three directions momentum can have, and one more dimension for the energy. Virtual particles can live anywhere in this four-dimensional space, but real particles have to live on a “shell” of points that obey . If you’ve heard physicists say “on-shell” or “off-shell”, they’re referring to whether a particle is virtual, a quantum mechanical disturbance (and thus lives anywhere in the space) or a real classical particle (living on this “shell”).
Third, you should appreciate that in quantum physics, in Scott Aaronson’s words, we put complex numbers in our ontologies. Often, quantum weirdness shows itself when we look at our calculations as functions of complex numbers.
Let’s say I’m calculating an amplitude with one loop, and I draw a diagram like this:
Unitarity is how particle physicists say “all probabilities have to add up to one”. Since we have complex numbers in our ontologies, this statement is more complicated than it looks. One thing it ends up implying is that if I calculate an amplitude from the one-loop diagram above, its imaginary part will be given by multiplying together two simpler amplitudes:
Here you can imagine that I took a pair of scissors and “cut” the diagram in two along the dashed line. Now that the diagram has been “cut”, the particles I cut through are no longer part of a loop, so they’re no longer virtual: they’re real, on-shell particles.
If I wanted, I could keep “cutting” the diagram, generalizing this implication of unitarity. (For those who know some complex analysis, this involves taking residues.) I could cut all of the lines in the loop, like this:
Now something interesting happens. Here I’ve forced all four of the particles in the loop to be “on-shell”, to obey . Previously, the momentum and energy in the loop was entirely free, living in its four-dimensional space. Now, though, it must obey four equations. And for those who’ve seen some algebra, four independent equations and four unknowns gives us one solution. By cutting all of these particles, we’ve killed all of the freedom that the loop momentum had. Instead of the living, quantum amplitude we had, we’ve cut it up into a bunch of dead, classical parts.
Why do this?
Well, suppose we have a guess for what the full amplitude should be. We’ve still got some uncertainty in our guess: it’s an ansatz.
If we wanted to check our guess, to fix the uncertainty in our ansatz, we could compare it to the full amplitude. But then we’d have to calculate the full quantum amplitude, and that’s hard.
It’s a lot easier, though, to calculate those “dead” classical amplitudes.
That’s the method we call “generalized unitarity”. We stitch together these easier-to-calculate, “dead” amplitudes. Enough different stitching patterns, and we can fix all the uncertainty in our ansatz, ending up with a unique correct answer without ever doing the full quantum calculation. Like Frankenstein, from dead parts we’ve assembled a living thing.
How well does this work?
That depends on how good the ansatz is. The ansatze for one loop are very well understood, and for two loops the community is getting there. For higher loops, you have to be either smart or lucky. I happen to know some people who are both, I’ll be talking about them next week.