What’s a Cosmic String?

Nowadays, we have telescopes that detect not just light, but gravitational waves. We’ve already learned quite a bit about astrophysics from these telescopes. They observe ripples coming from colliding black holes, giving us a better idea of what kinds of black holes exist in the universe. But the coolest thing a gravitational wave telescope could discover is something that hasn’t been seen yet: a cosmic string.

You might have heard of cosmic strings, but unless you’re a physicist you probably don’t know much about them. They’re a prediction, coming from cosmology, of giant string-like objects floating out in space.

That might sound like it has something to do with string theory, but it doesn’t actually have to, you can have these things without any string theory at all. Instead, you might have heard that cosmic strings are some kind of “cracks” or “wrinkles” in space-time. Some articles describe this as like what happens when ice freezes, cracks forming as water settles into a crystal.

That description, in terms of ice forming cracks between crystals, is great…if you’re a physicist who already knows how ice forms cracks between crystals. If you’re not, I’m guessing reading those kinds of explanations isn’t helpful. I’m guessing you’re still wondering why there ought to be any giant strings floating in space.

The real explanation has to do with a type of mathematical gadget physicists use, called a scalar field. You can think of a scalar field as described by a number, like a temperature, that can vary in space and time. The field carries potential energy, and that energy depends on what the scalar field’s “number” is. Left alone, the field settles into a situation with as little potential energy as it can, like a ball rolling down a hill. That situation is one of the field’s default values, something we call a “vacuum” value. Changing the field away from its vacuum value can take a lot of energy. The Higgs boson is one example of a scalar field. Its vacuum value is the value it has in day to day life. In order to make a detectable Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider, they needed to change the field away from its vacuum value, and that took a lot of energy.

In the very early universe, almost back at the Big Bang, the world was famously in a hot dense state. That hot dense state meant that there was a lot of energy to go around, so scalar fields could vary far from their vacuum values, pretty much randomly. As the universe expanded and cooled, there was less and less energy available for these fields, and they started to settle down.

Now, the thing about these default, “vacuum” values of a scalar field is that there doesn’t have to be just one of them. Depending on what kind of mathematical function the field’s potential energy is, there could be several different possibilities each with equal energy.

Let’s imagine a simple example, of a field with two vacuum values: +1 and -1. As the universe cooled down, some parts of the universe would end up with that scalar field number equal to +1, and some to -1. But what happens in between?

The scalar field can’t just jump from -1 to +1, that’s not allowed in physics. It has to pass through 0 in between. But, unlike -1 and +1, 0 is not a vacuum value. When the scalar field number is equal to 0, the field has more energy than it does when it’s equal to -1 or +1. Usually, a lot more energy.

That means the region of scalar field number 0 can’t spread very far: the further it spreads, the more energy it takes to keep it that way. On the other hand, the region can’t vanish altogether: something needs to happen to transition between the numbers -1 and +1.

The thing that happens is called a domain wall. A domain wall is a thin sheet, as thin as it can physically be, where the scalar field doesn’t take its vacuum value. You can roughly think of it as made up of the scalar field, a churning zone of the kind of bosons the LHC was trying to detect.

This sheet still has a lot of energy, bound up in the unusual value of the scalar field, like an LHC collision in every proton-sized chunk. As such, like any object with a lot of energy, it has a gravitational field. For a domain wall, the effect of this gravity would be very very dramatic: so dramatic, that we’re pretty sure they’re incredibly rare. If they were at all common, we would have seen evidence of them long before now!

Ok, I’ve shown you a wall, that’s weird, sure. What does that have to do with cosmic strings?

The number representing a scalar field doesn’t have to be a real number: it can be imaginary instead, or even complex. Now I’d like you to imagine a field with vacuum values on the unit circle, in the complex plane. That means that +1 and -1 are still vacuum values, but so are $e^{i \pi/2}$, and $e^{3 i \pi/2}$, and everything else you can write as $e^{i\theta}$. However, 0 is still not a vacuum value. Neither is, for example, $2 e^{i\pi/3}$.

With vacuum values like this, you can’t form domain walls. You can make a path between -1 and +1 that only goes through the unit circle, through $e^{i \pi/2}$ for example. The field will be at its vacuum value throughout, taking no extra energy.

However, imagine the different regions form a circle. In the picture above, suppose that the blue area at the bottom is at vacuum value -1 and red is at +1. You might have $e^{i \pi/2}$ in the green region, and $e^{3 i \pi/2}$ in the purple region, covering the whole circle smoothly as you go around.

Now, think about what happens in the middle of the circle. On one side of the circle, you have -1. On the other, +1. (Or, on one side $e^{i \pi/2}$, on the other, $e^{3 i \pi/2}$). No matter what, different sides of the circle are not allowed to be next to each other, you can’t just jump between them. So in the very middle of the circle, something else has to happen.

Once again, that something else is a field that goes away from its vacuum value, that passes through 0. Once again, that takes a lot of energy, so it occupies as little space as possible. But now, that space isn’t a giant wall. Instead, it’s a squiggly line: a cosmic string.

Cosmic strings don’t have as dramatic a gravitational effect as domain walls. That means they might not be super-rare. There might be some we haven’t seen yet. And if we do see them, it could be because they wiggle space and time, making gravitational waves.

Cosmic strings don’t require string theory, they come from a much more basic gadget, scalar fields. We know there is one quite important scalar field, the Higgs field. The Higgs vacuum values aren’t like +1 and -1, or like the unit circle, though, so the Higgs by itself won’t make domain walls or cosmic strings. But there are a lot of proposals for scalar fields, things we haven’t discovered but that physicists think might answer lingering questions in particle physics, and some of those could have the right kind of vacuum values to give us cosmic strings. Thus, if we manage to detect cosmic strings, we could learn something about one of those lingering questions.