When we study subatomic particles, particle physicists use a theory called Quantum Field Theory. But what is a quantum field?
Some people will describe a field in vague terms, and say it’s like a fluid that fills all of space, or a vibrating rubber sheet. These are all metaphors, and while they can be helpful, they can also be confusing. So let me avoid metaphors, and say something that may be just as confusing: a field is the answer to a question.
Suppose you’re interested in a particle, like an electron. There is an electron field that tells you, at each point, your chance of detecting one of those particles spinning in a particular way. Suppose you’re trying to measure a force, say electricity or magnetism. There is an electromagnetic field that tells you, at each point, what force you will measure.
Sometimes the question you’re asking has a very simple answer: just a single number, for each point and each time. An example of a question like that is the temperature: pick a city, pick a date, and the temperature there and then is just a number. In particle physics, the Higgs field answers a question like that: at each point, and each time, how “Higgs-y” is it there and then? You might have heard that the Higgs field gives other particles their mass: what this means is that the more “Higgs-y” it is somewhere, the higher these particles’ mass will be. The Higgs field is almost constant, because it’s very difficult to get it to change. That’s in some sense what the Large Hadron Collider did when they discovered the Higgs boson: pushed hard enough to cause a tiny, short-lived ripple in the Higgs field, a small area that was briefly more “Higgs-y” than average.
We like to think of some fields as fundamental, and others as composite. A proton is composite: it’s made up of quarks and gluons. Quarks and gluons, as far as we know, are fundamental: they’re not made up of anything else. More generally, since we’re thinking about fields as answers to questions, we can just as well ask more complicated, “composite” questions. For example, instead of “what is the temperature?”, we can ask “what is the temperature squared?” or “what is the temperature times the Higgs-y-ness?”.
But this raises a troubling point. When we single out a specific field, like the Higgs field, why are we sure that that field is the fundamental one? Why didn’t we start with “Higgs squared” instead? Or “Higgs plus Higgs squared”? Or something even weirder?
That kind of swap, from Higgs to Higgs squared, is called a field redefinition. In the math of quantum field theory, it’s something you’re perfectly allowed to do. Sometimes, it’s even a good idea. Other times, it can make your life quite complicated.
The reason why is that some fields are much simpler than others. Some are what we call free fields. Free fields don’t interact with anything else. They just move, rippling along in easy-to-calculate waves.
Redefine a free field, swapping it for some more complicated function, and you can easily screw up, and make it into an interacting field. An interacting field might interact with another field, like how electromagnetic fields move (and are moved by) electrons. It might also just interact with itself, a kind of feedback effect that makes any calculation we’d like to do much more difficult.
If we persevere with this perverse choice, and do the calculation anyway, we find a surprise. The final results we calculate, the real measurements people can do, are the same in both theories. The field redefinition changed how the theory appeared, quite dramatically…but it didn’t change the physics.
You might think the moral of the story is that you must always choose the right fundamental field. You might want to, but you can’t: not every field is secretly free. Some will be interacting fields, whatever you do. In that case, you can make one choice or another to simplify your life…but you can also just refuse to make a choice.
That’s something quite a few physicists do. Instead of looking at a theory and calling some fields fundamental and others composite, they treat every one of these fields, every different question they could ask, on the same footing. They then ask, for these fields, what one can measure about them. They can ask which fields travel at the speed of light, and which ones go slower, or which fields interact with which other fields, and how much. Field redefinitions will shuffle the fields around, but the patterns in the measurements will remain. So those, and not the fields, can be used to specify the theory. Instead of describing the world in terms of a few fundamental fields, they think about the world as a kind of field soup, characterized by how it shifts when you stir it with a spoon.
It’s not a perspective everyone takes. If you overhear physicists, sometimes they will talk about a theory with only a few fields, sometimes they will talk about many, and you might be hard-pressed to tell what they’re talking about. But if you keep in mind these two perspectives: either a few fundamental fields, or a “field soup”, you’ll understand them a little better.