Cabinet of Curiosities: The Nested Toy

I had a paper two weeks ago with a Master’s student, Alex Chaparro Pozo. I haven’t gotten a chance to talk about it yet, so I thought I should say a few words this week. It’s another entry in what I’ve been calling my cabinet of curiosities, interesting mathematical “objects” I’m sharing with the world.

I calculate scattering amplitudes, formulas that give the probability that particles scatter off each other in particular ways. While in principle I could do this with any particle physics theory, I have a favorite: a “toy model” called N=4 super Yang-Mills. N=4 super Yang-Mills doesn’t describe reality, but it lets us figure out cool new calculation tricks, and these often end up useful in reality as well.

Many scattering amplitudes in N=4 super Yang-Mills involve a type of mathematical functions called polylogarithms. These functions are especially easy to work with, but they aren’t the whole story. One we start considering more complicated situations (what if two particles collide, and eight particles come out?) we need more complicated functions, called elliptic polylogarithms.

A few years ago, some collaborators and I figured out how to calculate one of these elliptic scattering amplitudes. We didn’t do it as well as we’d like, though: the calculation was “half-done” in a sense. To do the other half, we needed new mathematical tools, tools that came out soon after. Once those tools were out, we started learning how to apply them, trying to “finish” the calculation we started.

The original calculation was pretty complicated. Two particles colliding, eight particles coming out, meant that in total we had to keep track of ten different particles. That gets messy fast. I’m pretty good at dealing with six particles, not ten. Luckily, it turned out there was a way to pretend there were six particles only: by “twisting” up the calculation, we found a toy model within the toy model: a six-particle version of the calculation. Much like the original was in a theory that doesn’t describe the real world, these six particles don’t describe six particles in that theory: they’re a kind of toy calculation within the toy model, doubly un-real.

Not quintuply-unreal though

With this nested toy model, I was confident we could do the calculation. I wasn’t confident I’d have time for it, though. This ended up making it perfect for a Master’s thesis, which is how Alex got into the game.

Alex worked his way through the calculation, programming and transforming, going from one type of mathematical functions to another (at least once because I’d forgotten to tell him the right functions to use, oops!) There were more details and subtleties than expected, but in the end everything worked out.

Then, we were scooped.

Another group figured out how to do the full, ten-particle problem, not just the toy model. That group was just “down the hall”…or would have been “down the hall” if we had been going to the office (this was 2021, after all). I didn’t hear about what they were working on until it was too late to change plans.

Alex left the field (not, as far as I know, because of this). And for a while, because of that especially thorough scooping, I didn’t publish.

What changed my mind, in part, was seeing the field develop in the meantime. It turns out toy models, and even nested toy models, are quite useful. We still have a lot of uncertainty about what to do, how to use the new calculation methods and what they imply. And usually, the best way to get through that kind of uncertainty is with simple, well-behaved toy models.

So I thought, in the end, that this might be useful. Even if it’s a toy version of something that already exists, I expect it to be an educational toy, one we can learn a lot from. So I’ve put it out into the world, as part of this year’s cabinet of curiosities.

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