When talking science, we need to be careful with our words. It’s easy for people to see a familiar word and assume something totally different from what we intend. And if we use the same word twice, for two different things…
I’ve noticed this problem with the word “integral”. When physicists talk about particle physics, there are two kinds of integrals we mention: path integrals, and loop integrals. I’ve seen plenty of people get confused, and assume that these two are the same thing. They’re not, and it’s worth spending some time explaining the difference.
Let’s start with path integrals (also referred to as functional integrals, or Feynman integrals). Feynman promoted a picture of quantum mechanics in which a particle travels along many different paths, from point A to point B.
You’ve probably seen a picture like this. Classically, a particle would just take one path, the shortest path, from A to B. In quantum mechanics, you have to add up all possible paths. Most longer paths cancel, so on average the short, classical path is the most important one, but the others do contribute, and have observable, quantum effects. The sum over all paths is what we call a path integral.
It’s easy enough to draw this picture for a single particle. When we do particle physics, though, we aren’t usually interested in just one particle: we want to look at a bunch of different quantum fields, and figure out how they will interact.
We still use a path integral to do that, but it doesn’t look like a bunch of lines from point A to B, and there isn’t a convenient image I can steal from Wikipedia for it. The quantum field theory path integral adds up, not all the paths a particle can travel, but all the ways a set of quantum fields can interact.
How do we actually calculate that?
One way is with Feynman diagrams, and (often, but not always) loop integrals.
I’ve talked about Feynman diagrams before. Each one is a picture of one possible way that particles can travel, or that quantum fields can interact. In some (loose) sense, each one is a single path in the path integral.
Each diagram serves as instructions for a calculation. We take information about the particles, their momenta and energy, and end up with a number. To calculate a path integral exactly, we’d have to add up all the diagrams we could possibly draw, to get a sum over all possible paths.
(There are ways to avoid this in special cases, which I’m not going to go into here.)
Sometimes, getting a number out of a diagram is fairly simple. If the diagram has no closed loops in it (if it’s what we call a tree diagram) then knowing the properties of the in-coming and out-going particles is enough to know the rest. If there are loops, though, there’s uncertainty: you have to add up every possible momentum of the particles in the loops. You do that with a different integral, and that’s the one that we sometimes refer to as a loop integral. (Perhaps confusingly, these are also often called Feynman integrals: Feynman did a lot of stuff!)
Loop integrals can be pretty complicated, but at heart they’re the same sort of thing you might have seen in a calculus class. Mathematicians are pretty comfortable with them, and they give rise to numbers that mathematicians find very interesting.
Path integrals are very different. In some sense, they’re an “integral over integrals”, adding up every loop integral you could write down. Mathematicians can define path integrals in special cases, but it’s still not clear that the general case, the overall path integral picture we use, actually makes rigorous mathematical sense.
So if you see physicists talking about integrals, it’s worth taking a moment to figure out which one we mean. Path integrals and loop integrals are both important, but they’re very, very different things.