Category Archives: Gravity

Only the Boring Kind of Parallel Universes


No. No. Bad journalist. See what happens when you…

Mir Faizal, one of the three-strong team of physicists behind the experiment, said: “Just as many parallel sheets of paper, which are two dimensional objects [breadth and length] can exist in a third dimension [height], parallel universes can also exist in higher dimensions.

Bad physicist, bad! No biscuit for you!

Not nice at all!

For the technically-minded, Sabine Hossenfelder goes into thorough detail about what went wrong here. Not only do parallel universes have nothing to do with what Mir Faizal and collaborators have been studying, but the actual paper they’re hyping here is apparently riddled with holes.

BLACK holes! …no, actually, just logic holes.

But why did parallel universes even come up? If they have nothing to do with Faizal’s work, why did he mention them? Do parallel universes ever come up in real physics at all?

The answer to this last question is yes. There are real, viable ideas in physics that involve parallel universes. The universes involved, however, are usually boring ones.

The ideas are generally referred to as brane-world theories. If you’ve heard of string theory, you’ve probably heard that it proposes that the world is made of tiny strings. That’s all well and good, but it’s not the whole story. String theory has other sorts of objects in it too: higher dimensional generalizations of strings called membranes, branes for short. In fact, M theory, the theory of which every string theory is some low-energy limit, has no strings at all, just branes.

When these branes are one-dimensional, they’re strings. When they’re two-dimensional, they’re what you would normally picture as a membrane, a vibrating sheet, potentially infinite in size. When they’re three-dimensional, they fill three-dimensional space, again potentially up to infinity.

Filling three dimensional space, out to infinity…well that sure sounds a whole lot like what we’d normally call a universe.

In brane-world constructions, what we call our universe is precisely this sort of three-dimensional brane. It then lives in a higher-dimensional space, where its position in this space influences things like the strength of gravity, or the speed at which the universe expands.

Sometimes (not all the time!) these sorts of constructions include other branes, besides the one that contains our universe. These other branes behave in a similar way, and can have very important effects on our universe. They, if anything, are the parallel universes of theoretical physics.

It’s important to point out, though that these aren’t the sort of sci-fi parallel universes you might imagine! You aren’t going to find a world where everyone has a goatee, or even a world with an empty earth full of teleporting apes.

Pratchett reference!

That’s because, in order for these extra branes to do useful physical work, they generally have to be very different from our world. They’re worlds where gravity is very strong, or world with dramatically different densities of energy and matter. In the end, this means they’re not even the sort of universes that produce interesting aliens, or where we could send an astronaut, or really anything that lends itself well to (non-mathematical) imagination. From a sci-fi perspective, they’re as boring as can be.

Faizal’s idea, though, doesn’t even involve the boring kind of parallel universe!

His idea involves extra dimensions, specifically what physicists refer to as “large” extra dimensions, in contrast with the small extra dimensions of string theory. Large extra dimensions can explain the weakness of gravity, and theories that use them often predict that it’s much easier to create microscopic black holes than it otherwise would be. So far, these models haven’t had much luck at the LHC, and while I get the impression that they haven’t been completely ruled out, they aren’t very popular anymore.

The thing is, extra dimensions don’t mean parallel universes.

In fiction, the two get used interchangeably a lot. People go to “another dimension”, vaguely described as traveling along another dimension of space, and find themselves in a strange new world. In reality, though, there’s no reason to think that traveling along an extra dimension would put you in any sort of “strange new world”. The whole reason that our world is limited to three dimensions is because it’s “bound” to something: a brane, in the string theory picture. If there’s not another brane to bind things to, traveling in an extra dimension won’t put you in a new universe, it will just put you in an empty space where none of the types of matter you’re made of even exist.

It’s really tempting, when talking to laypeople, to fall back on stories. If you mention parallel universes, their faces light up with the idea that this is something they get, if only from imaginary examples. It gives you that same sense of accomplishment as if you had actually taught them something real. But you haven’t. It’s wrong, and Mir Faizal shouldn’t have stooped to doing it.

Merry Newtonmas!

Yesterday, people around the globe celebrated the birth of someone whose new perspective and radical ideas changed history, perhaps more than any other.

I’m referring, of course, to Isaac Newton.

Ho ho ho!

Born on December 25, 1642, Newton is justly famed as one of history’s greatest scientists. By relating gravity on Earth to the force that holds the planets in orbit, Newton arguably created physics as we know it.

However, like many prominent scientists, Newton’s greatness was not so much in what he discovered as how he discovered it. Others had already had similar ideas about gravity. Robert Hooke in particular had written to Newton mentioning a law much like the one Newton eventually wrote down, leading Hooke to accuse Newton of plagiarism.

Newton’s great accomplishment was not merely proposing his law of gravitation, but justifying it, in a way that no-one had ever done before. When others (Hooke for example) had proposed similar laws, they were looking for a law that perfectly described the motion of the planets. Kepler had already proposed ellipse-shaped orbits, but it was clear by Newton and Hooke’s time that such orbits did not fully describe the motion of the planets. Hooke and others hoped that if some sufficiently skilled mathematician started with the correct laws, they could predict the planets’ motions with complete accuracy.

The genius of Newton was in attacking this problem from a different direction. In particular, Newton showed that his laws of gravitation do result in (incorrect) ellipses…provided that there was only one planet.

With multiple planets, things become much more complicated. Even just two planets orbiting a single star is so difficult a problem that it’s impossible to write down an exact solution.

Sensibly, Newton didn’t try to write down an exact solution. Instead, he figured out an approximation: since the Sun is much bigger than the planets, he could simplify the problem and arrive at a partial solution. While he couldn’t perfectly predict the motions of the planets, he knew more than that they were just “approximately” ellipses: he had a prediction for how different from ellipses they should be.

That step was Newton’s great contribution. That insight, that science was able not just to provide exact answers to simpler problems but to guess how far those answers might be off, was something no-one else had really thought about before. It led to error analysis in experiments, and perturbation methods in theory. More generally, it led to the idea that scientists have to be responsible, not just for getting things “almost right”, but for explaining how their results are still wrong.

So this holiday season, let’s give thanks to the man whose ideas created science as we know it. Merry Newtonmas everyone!

Sorry Science Fiction, Quantum Gravity Doesn’t Do What You Think It Does

I saw Interstellar this week. There’s been a lot of buzz among physicists about it, owing in part to the involvement of black hole expert Kip Thorne in the film’s development. I’d just like to comment on one aspect of the film that bugged me, a problem that shows up pretty frequently in science fiction.

In the film, Michael Caine plays a theoretical physicist working for NASA. His dream is to save humanity from an Earth plagued by a blight that is killing off the world’s food supply. To do this, he plans to build giant anti-gravity spaceships capable of taking as many people as possible away from the dying Earth to find a new planet capable of supporting human life. And in order to do that, apparently, he needs a theory of quantum gravity.

The thing is, quantum gravity has nothing to do with making giant anti-gravity spaceships.

Michael Caine lied to us?

This mistake isn’t unique to Interstellar. Lots of science fiction works assume that once we understand quantum gravity then everything else will follow: faster than light travel, wormholes, anti-gravity…pretty much every sci-fi staple.

It’s not just present in science fiction, either. Plenty of science popularizers like to mention all of the marvelous technology that’s going to come out of quantum gravity, including people who really should know better. A good example comes from a recent piece by quantum gravity researcher Sabine Hossenfelder:

But especially in high energy physics and quantum gravity, progress has basically stalled since the development of the standard model in the mid 70s. […] it is a frustrating situation and this makes you wonder if not there are other reasons for lack of progress, reasons that we can do something about. Especially in a time when we really need a game changer, some breakthrough technology, clean energy, that warp drive, a transporter!

None of these are things we’re likely to get from quantum gravity, and the reason is rather basic. It boils down to one central issue: if we can’t control the classical physics, we can’t control the quantum physics.

When science fiction authors speculate about the benefits of quantum gravity, they’re thinking about the benefits of quantum mechanics. Understanding the quantum world has allowed some of the greatest breakthroughs of the 20th century, from miniaturizing circuits to developing novel materials.

The assumption writers make is that the same will be true for quantum gravity: understand it, and gravity technology will flow. But this assumption forgets that quantum mechanics was so successful because it let us understand things we were already working with.

In order to miniaturize circuits, you have to know how to build a circuit in the first place. Only then, when you try to make the circuit smaller and don’t understand why it stops working, does quantum mechanics step in to tell you what you’re missing. Quantum mechanics helps us develop new materials because it helps us understand how existing materials work.

We don’t have any gravity circuits to shrink down, or gravity materials to understand. When gravity limits our current technology, it does so on a macro level (such as the effect of the Earth’s gravity on GPS satellites) not on a quantum level. If there isn’t a way to build anti-gravity technology using classical physics, there probably isn’t a way using quantum physics.

Scientists and popularizers generally argue that we can’t know what the future will bring. This is true, up to a point. When Maxwell wrote down equations to unify electricity and magnetism he could not have imagined the wealth of technology we have today. And often, technologies come from unexpected places. The spinoff technologies of the space race are the most popular example, another is that CERN (the facility that houses the Large Hadron Collider) was instrumental in developing the world wide web.

While it’s great to emphasize the open-ended promise of scientific advances (especially on grant applications!), in this context it’s misleading because it erases the very real progress people are making on these issues without quantum gravity.

Want to invest in clean energy? There are a huge number of scientists working on it, with projects ranging from creating materials that can split water using solar energy to nuclear fusion. Quantum gravity is just about the last science likely to give us clean energy, and I’m including the social sciences in that assessment.

How about a warp drive?

Indeed, how about one?

That’s not obviously related to quantum gravity either. There has actually been some research into warp drives, but they’re based on a solution to Einstein’s equations without quantum mechanics. It’s not clear whether quantum gravity has something meaningful to say about them…while there are points to be made, from what I’ve been able to gather they’re more related to talking about how other quantum systems interact with gravity than the quantum properties of gravity itself. The same seems to apply to the difficulties involved in wormholes, another sci-fi concept that comes straight out of Einstein’s theory.

As for teleportation, that’s an entirely different field, and it probably doesn’t work how you think it does.

So what is quantum gravity actually good for?

Quantum gravity becomes relevant when gravity becomes very strong, places where Einstein’s theory would predict infinitely dense singularities. That means the inside of black holes, and the Big Bang. Quantum gravity smooths out these singularities, which means it can tell you about the universe’s beginnings (by smoothing out the big bang and showing what could cause it), or its long-term future (for example, problems with the long-term evolution of black holes).

These are important questions! They tell us about where we come from and where we’re going: in short, about our ultimate place in the universe. Almost every religion in history has tried to answer these questions. They’re very important to us as a species, even if they don’t directly impact our daily lives.

What they are not, however, is a source of technology.

So please, science fiction, use some other field for your plot-technology. There are plenty of scientific advances to choose from, people who are really working on cutting-edge futuristic stuff. They don’t need to wait on a theory of quantum gravity to get their work done. Neither do you.

N=8: That’s a Whole Lot of Symmetry

In two weeks, I’m planning an extensive overhaul of the blog. I’ll be switching from to just, since I’m no longer a grad student. Don’t worry, I’ll be forwarding traffic from the old address, so if you miss the changeover you’ll have plenty of time to readjust. I’ll also be changing the blog’s look a bit, and adding some new tools and sections, including my current project, a series on the theory N=8 supergravity. This is post will be the last in the N=8 supergravity series.

I’ve told you about how gravity can be thought of as interactions with spin 2 particles, called gravitons. I’ve talked about how adding supersymmetry gives you a whole new type of particle, a gravitino, one different from all of the other particles we’ve seen in nature. Add supersymmetry to gravity, and you get a type of theory called supergravity.

In this post I want to discuss a particularly interesting form of supergravity. It’s called N=8 supergravity, and it’s closely related to N=4 super Yang-Mills.

In my articles about N=4 super Yang-Mills, I talked about supersymmetry. Supersymmetry is a relationship between particles of spin X and particles of spin X-½, but it gets more complicated when N (the number of “directions” of supersymmetry) is greater than one.

I’d encourage you to read at least the two links in the above paragraph. The gist is that just like a symmetrical object can be turned in different directions and still remain the same, a supersymmetrical theory can be “turned” so that a particle with spin X becomes a particle of spin X-½ (a different type of particle), and the theory will remain the same. The higher the number N, the more different directions the theory can be “turned”.

N=4 was something I could depict in a picture. We started with a particle of spin 1, then could “turn” it in four different directions, each resulting in a different particle of spin ½. By combining two different “turns” we ended up with six distinct particles of spin 0. Miraculously, I could fit this all into one image.

N=8 is tougher. This time, we start with 1 particle of spin 2: the graviton, the particle that corresponds to the force of gravity. From there we can “turn” the theory in eight different directions, leading to 8 different gravitino particles with spin 3/2.

After that, things get more complicated. You can “turn” the theory twice to reach spin 1. Spin 1 particles correspond to Yang-Mills forces, the fundamental forces of nature (besides gravity). Photons are the spin 1 particles that correspond to Electromagnetism. The spin 1 particles here, connected as they are to gravity by supersymmetry, are typically called graviphotons. There are 28 distinct graviphotons in N=8 supergravity.

From the graviphotons, we can keep turning, getting to spin ½, where we find 56 new particles of the same “type” as electrons and quarks. On our fourth turn, we get to spin 0, the scalars, with 70 new particles. Turning further takes us back: from spin 0 to spin ½, spin ½ to spin 1, spin 1 to spin 3/2, and spin 3/2 to spin 2, back where we started after eight “turns”.

I’ve tried to depict this in the same way as N=4 super Yang-Mills, but there’s just no way to fit everything in. The best I can do is to take a slice through the space, letting certain particles overlap to give at best a general impression of what’s going on.

Graviton in black, gravitinos in grey, graviphotons in yellow, fermions in orange, scalars in red, and comprehensibility omitted entirely.

Graviton in black, gravitinos in grey, graviphotons in yellow, fermions in orange, scalars in red, making a firework of incomprehensible graphics. Incidentally, happy 4th of July to my American readers.

That picture doesn’t give you any intuition about the numbers. It doesn’t show you why there are 28 graviphotons, or 70 scalars. To explain that, it’s best to turn to another, hopefully more familiar picture, Pascal’s triangle.

Getting math class flashbacks yet?

Pascal’s triangle is a way of writing down how many distinct combinations you can make out of a list, and that’s really all that’s going on here. If you have four directions to “turn” and you pick one, you have four options, while picking two gives you six distinct choices. That’s just the 1-4-6-4-1 line on the triangle. If you go down to the eighth, you’ll spot the numbers from N=8 supergravity: 1 graviton, 8 gravitinos, 28 graviphotons, 56 fermions, and 70 scalars.

That’s a lot of particles. With that many particles, you might wonder if you could somehow fit the real world in there.

Actually, that isn’t such a naive thought. When N=8 supergravity was first discovered, people tried to fit the existing particles of nature inside it, hoping that it could explain them. Over the years though, it was realized that N=8 supergravity simply doesn’t provide enough tools to fully capture the particles of the standard model. Something more diverse, like string theory, would be needed.

That means that N=8 supergravity, like many of the things theorists call theories, does not describe the real world. Instead, it’s interesting for a different reason.

You’ve probably heard that gravity and quantum mechanics are incompatible. That’s not exactly true: you can write down a quantum theory of gravity about as easily as you can write down a quantum theory of anything else. The problem is that most such theories have divergences, infinite results that shouldn’t be infinite. Dealing with those results involves a process called renormalization, which papers over the infinities but reduces our ability to make predictions. For gravity theories, this process has to be performed an infinite number of times, resulting in an infinite loss of predictability. So while you can certainly write down a theory of quantum gravity, you can’t predict anything with it.

String theory is different. It doesn’t have the same sorts of infinite results, doesn’t require renormalization. That, really, is it’s purpose, it’s biggest virtue: everything else is a side benefit.

N=4 super Yang-Mills isn’t a theory of gravity at all, but it does have that same neat trait: you never get this sort of infinite results, so you never need to give up predictive power.

What’s so cool about N=8 supergravity is that it just might be in the same category. By all rights, it shouldn’t be…but loop after loop its divergences seem to be behaving much like N=4 super Yang-Mills. (For those new to this blog, loops are a measure of how complex a calculation is in particle physics. Most practical calculations only involve one or two loops, while four loops represents possibly the most precise test ever performed by science.)

Now, two predictions are at the fore. One suggests that this magic behavior will be broken at the terrifyingly complex level of seven loops. The other proposes that the magic will continue, and N=8 supergravity will never see a divergence. The only way for certain is to do the calculation, look at four gravitons at seven loops and see what happens.

If N=8 supergravity really doesn’t diverge, then the biggest “point” of string theory isn’t unique anymore. If you don’t need all the bells and whistles of string theory to get an acceptable quantum theory of gravity, then maybe there’s a better way to think about the problem of quantum gravity in general. Even if N=8 supergravity doesn’t describe the real world, there may be other ways forward, other ways to handle the problem of divergences. If someone can manage that calculation (not as impossible as it sounds nowadays, but still very very hard) then we might see something really truly new.

(Super)gravity: Meet the Gravitino

I’m putting together a series of posts about N=8 supergravity, with the goal of creating a guide much like I have for N=4 super Yang-Mills and the (2,0) theory.

N=8 supergravity is what happens when you add the maximum amount of supersymmetry to a theory of gravity. I’m going to strongly recommend that you read both of those posts before reading this one, as there are a number of important concepts there: the idea that different types of particles are categorized by a number called spin, the idea that supersymmetry is a relationship between particles with spin X and particles with spin X-½, and the idea that gravity can be thought of equally as a bending of space and time or as a particle with spin 2, called a graviton.

Knowing all that, if you add supersymmetry to gravity, you’d relate a spin 2 particle (the graviton) to a spin 3/2 particle (for 2-½).

What is a spin 3/2 particle?

Spin 0 particles correspond to a single number, like a temperature, that can vary over space. The Higgs boson is the one example of a spin 0 particle that we know of in the real world. Spin ½ covers electrons, protons, and almost all of the particles that make up ordinary matter, while spin 1 covers Yang-Mills forces. That covers the entire Standard Model, all of the particles scientists have seen in the real world. So what could a spin 3/2 particle possibly be?

We can at least guess at what it would be called. Whatever this spin 3/2 particle is, it’s the supersymmetric partner of the graviton. For somewhat stupid reasons, that means its name is determined by taking “graviton” and adding “-ino” to the end, to get gravitino.

But that still doesn’t answer the question: What is a gravitino?

Here’s the quick answer: A gravitino is a spin 1 particle combined with a spin ½ particle.

What sort of combination am I talking about? Not the one you might think. A gravitino is a fundamental particle, it is not made up of other particles.


NOT like this.

So in what sense is it a combination?

A handy way for physicists to think about particles is as manifestations of an underlying field. The field is stronger or weaker in different places, and when the field is “on”, a particle is present. For example, the electron field covers all of space, but only where that electron field is greater than zero do actual electrons show up.

I’ve said that a scalar field is simple to understand because it’s just a number, like a temperature, that takes different values in different places. The other types of fields are like this too, but instead of one number there’s generally a more complicated set of numbers needed to define them. Yang-Mills fields, with spin 1, are forces, with a direction and a strength. This is why they’re often called vector fields. Spin ½ particles have a set of numbers that characterizes them as well. It’s called a spinor, and unfortunately it’s not something I can give you an intuitive definition for. Just be aware that, like vectors, it involves a series of numbers that specify how the field behaves at each point.

It’s a bit like a computer game. The world is full of objects, and different objects have different stats. A weapon might have damage and speed, while a quest-giver would have information about what quests they give. Since everything is just code, though, you can combine the two, and all you have to do is put both types of stats on the same object.

Like this.

For quantum fields, the “stats” are the numbers I mentioned earlier: a single number for scalars, direction and strength for vectors, and the spinor information for spinors. So if you want to combine two of them, say spin 1 and spin ½, you just need a field that has both sets of “stats”.

That’s the gravitino. The gravitino has vector “stats” from the spin 1 part, and spinor “stats” from the spin ½ part. It’s a combination of two types of fundamental particles, to create one that nobody has seen before.

That doesn’t mean nobody will ever see one, though. Gravitinos could well exist in our world, they’re actually a potential (if problematic) candidate for dark matter.

But much like supersymmetry in general, while gravitinos may exist, N=8 of them certainly don’t. N=8 is a whole lot of supersymmetry…but that’s a topic for another post. Stay tuned for the next post in the series!

Gravity is Yang-Mills Squared

There’s a concept that I’ve wanted to present for quite some time. It’s one of the coolest accomplishments in my subfield, but I thought that explaining it would involve too much technical detail. However, the recent BICEP2 results have brought one aspect of it to the public eye, so I’ve decided that people are ready.

If you’ve been following the recent announcements by the BICEP2 telescope of their indirect observation of primordial gravitational waves, you’ve probably seen the phrases “E-mode polarization” and “B-mode polarization” thrown around. You may even have seen pictures, showing that light in the cosmic microwave background is polarized differently by quantum fluctuations in the inflaton field and by quantum fluctuations in gravity.

But why is there a difference? What’s unique about gravitational waves that makes them different from the other waves in nature?

As it turns out, the difference all boils down to one statement:

Gravity is Yang-Mills squared.

This is both a very simple claim and a very subtle one, and it comes up in many many places in physics.

Yang-Mills, for those who haven’t read my older posts, is a general category that contains most of the fundamental forces. Electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force are all variants of Yang-Mills forces.

Yang-Mills forces have “spin 1”. Another way to say this is that Yang-Mills forces are vector forces. If you remember vectors from math class, you might remember that a vector has a direction and a strength. This hopefully makes sense: forces point in a direction, and have a strength. You may also remember that vectors can also be described in terms of components. A vector in four space-time dimensions has four components: x, y, z, and time, like so:

\left( \begin{array}{c} x \\ y \\ z \\ t \end{array} \right)

Gravity has “spin 2”.

As I’ve talked about before, gravity bends space and time, which means that it modifies the way you calculate distances. In practice, that means it needs to be something that can couple two vectors together: a matrix, or more precisely, a tensor, like so:

\left( \begin{array}{cccc} xx & xy & xz & xt\\ yx & yy & yz & yt\\ zx & zy & zz & zt\\ tx & ty & tz & tt\end{array} \right)

So while a Yang-Mills force has four components, gravity has sixteen. Gravity is Yang-Mills squared.

(Technical note: gravity actually doesn’t use all sixteen components, because it’s traceless and symmetric. However, often when studying gravity’s quantum properties theorists often add on extra fields to “complete the square” and fill in the remaining components.)

There’s much more to the connection than that, though. For one, it appears in the kinds of waves the two types of forces can create.

In order to create an electromagnetic wave you need a dipole, a negative charge and a positive charge at opposite ends of a line, and you need that dipole to change over time.

Change over time, of course, is a property of Gifs.

Gravity doesn’t have negative and positive charges, it just has one type of charge. Thus, to create gravitational waves you need not a dipole, but a quadrupole: instead of a line between two opposite charges, you have four gravitational charges (masses) arranged in a square. This creates a “breathing” sort of motion, instead of the back-and-forth motion of electromagnetic waves.

This is your brain on gravitational waves.

This is why gravitational waves have a different shape than electromagnetic waves, and why they have a unique effect on the cosmic microwave background, allowing them to be spotted by BICEP2. Gravity, once again, is Yang-Mills squared.

But wait there’s more!

So far, I’ve shown you that gravity is the square of Yang-Mills, but not in a very literal way. Yes, there are lots of similarities, but it’s not like you can just square a calculation in Yang-Mills and get a calculation in gravity, right?

Well actually…

In quantum field theory, calculations are traditionally done using tools called Feynman diagrams, organized by how many loops the diagram contains. The simplest diagrams have no loops, and are called tree diagrams.

Fascinatingly, for tree diagrams the message of this post is as literal as it can be. Using something called the Kawai-Lewellen-Tye relations, the result of a tree diagram calculation in gravity can be found just by taking a similar calculation in Yang-Mills and squaring it.

(Interestingly enough, these relations were originally discovered using string theory, but they don’t require string theory to work. It’s yet another example of how string theory functions as a laboratory to make discoveries about quantum field theory.)

Does this hold beyond tree diagrams? As it turns out, the answer is again yes!
The calculation involved is a little more complicated, but as discovered by Zvi Bern, John Joseph Carrasco, and Henrik Johansson, if you can get your calculation in Yang-Mills into the right format then all you need to do is square the right thing at the right step to get gravity, even for diagrams with loops!


This trick, called BCJ duality after its discoverers, has allowed calculations in quantum gravity that far outpace what would be possible without it. In N=8 supergravity, the gravity analogue of N=4 super Yang-Mills, calculations have progressed up to four loops, and have revealed tantalizing hints that the uncontrolled infinities that usually plague gravity theories are absent in N=8 supergravity, even without adding in string theory. Results like these are why BCJ duality is viewed as one of the “foundational miracles” of the field for those of us who study scattering amplitudes.

Gravity is Yang-Mills squared, in more ways than one. And because gravity is Yang-Mills squared, gravity may just be tame-able after all.

What’s A Graviton? Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Quantum Gravity

I’m four gravitons and a grad student. And despite this, I haven’t bothered to explain what a graviton is. It’s time to change that.

Let’s start like we often do, with a quick answer that will take some unpacking:

Gravitons are the force-carrying bosons of gravity.

I mentioned force-carrying bosons briefly here. Basically, a force can either be thought of as a field, or as particles called bosons that carry the effect of that field. Thinking about the force in terms of particles helps, because it allows you to visualize Feynman diagrams. While most forces come from Yang-Mills fields with spin 1, gravity has spin 2.

Now you may well ask, how exactly does this relate to the idea that gravity, unlike other forces, is a result of bending space and time?

First, let’s talk about what it means for space itself to be bent. If space is bent, distances are different than they otherwise would be.

Suppose we’ve got some coordinates: x and y. How do we find a distance? We use the Pythagorean Theorem:


Where d is the full distance. If space is bent, the formula changes:


Here g_{x} and g_{y} come from gravity. Normally, they would depend on x and y, modifying the formula and thus “bending” space.

Let’s suppose instead of measuring a distance, we want to measure the momentum of some other particle, which we call \phi because physicists are overly enamored of Greek letters. If p_{x,\phi} is its momentum (physicists also really love subscripts), then its total momentum can be calculated using the Pythagorean Theorem as well:

p_\phi^2= p_{x,\phi}^2+ p_{y,\phi}^2

Or with gravity:

p_\phi^2= g_{x}p_{x,\phi}^2+ g_{y} p_{y,\phi}^2

At the moment, this looks just like the distance formula with a bunch of extra stuff in it. Interpreted another way, though, it becomes instructions for the interactions of the graviton. If g_{x} and g_{y} represent the graviton, then this formula says that one graviton can interact with two \phi particles, like so:


Saying that gravitons can interact with \phi particles ends up meaning the same thing as saying that gravity changes the way we measure the \phi particle’s total momentum. This is one of the more important things to understand about quantum gravity: the idea that when people talk about exotic things like “gravitons”, they’re really talking about the same theory that Einstein proposed in 1916. There’s nothing scary about describing gravity in terms of particles just like the other forces. The scary bit comes later, as a result of the particular way that quantum calculations with gravity end up. But that’s a tale for another day.