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 , and , and everything else you can write as . However, 0 is still not a vacuum value. Neither is, for example, .
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 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 in the green region, and 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 , on the other, ). 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.
So, would you believe I’ve never visited CERN before?
I was at CERN for a few days this week, visiting friends and collaborators and giving an impromptu talk. Surprisingly, this is the first time I’ve been, a bit of an embarrassing admission for someone who’s ostensibly a particle physicist.
Despite that, CERN felt oddly familiar. The maze of industrial buildings and winding roads, the security gates and cards (and work-arounds for when you arrive outside of card-issuing hours, assisted by friendly security guards), the constant construction and remodeling, all of it reminded me of the times I visited SLAC during my PhD. This makes a lot of sense, of course: one accelerator is at least somewhat like another. But besides a visit to Fermilab for a conference several years ago, I haven’t been in many other places like that since then.
(One thing that might have also been true of SLAC and Fermilab but I never noticed: CERN buildings not only have evacuation instructions for the building in case of a fire, but also evacuation instructions for the whole site.)
CERN is a bit less “pretty” than SLAC on average, without the nice grassy area in the middle or the California sun that goes with it. It makes up for it with what seems like more in terms of outreach resources, including a big wooden dome of a mini-museum sponsored by Rolex, and a larger visitor center still under construction.
CERN hosts a variety of theoretical physicists doing various different types of work. I was hosted by the “QCD group”, but the string theorists just down the hall include a few people I know as well. The lounge had a few cardboard signs hidden under the table, leftovers of CERN’s famous yearly Christmas play directed by John Ellis.
It’s been a fun, if brief, visit. I’ll likely get to see a bit more this summer, when they host Amplitudes 2023. Until then, it was fun reconnecting with that “accelerator feel”.
I’ve had this conversation a few times over the years. Usually, the people I’m talking to are worried about black holes. They’ve heard that the Large Hadron Collider speeds up particles to amazingly high energies before colliding them together. They worry that these colliding particles could form a black hole, which would fall into the center of the Earth and busily gobble up the whole planet.
This pretty clearly hasn’t happened. But also, physicists were pretty confident that it couldn’t happen. That isn’t to say they thought it was impossible to make a black hole with the LHC. Some physicists actually hoped to make a black hole: it would have been evidence for extra dimensions, curled-up dimensions much larger than the tiny ones required by string theory. They figured out the kind of evidence they’d see if the LHC did indeed create a black hole, and we haven’t seen that evidence. But even before running the machine, they were confident that such a black hole wouldn’t gobble up the planet. Why?
The best argument is also the most unsatisfying. The LHC speeds up particles to high energies, but not unprecedentedly high energies. High-energy particles called cosmic rays enter the atmosphere every day, some of which are at energies comparable to the LHC. The LHC just puts the high-energy particles in front of a bunch of sophisticated equipment so we can measure everything about them. If the LHC could destroy the world, cosmic rays would have already done so.
That’s a very solid argument, but it doesn’t really explain why. Also, it may not be true for future colliders: we could build a collider with enough energy that cosmic rays don’t commonly meet it. So I should give another argument.
The next argument is Hawking radiation. In Stephen Hawking’s most famous accomplishment, he argued that because of quantum mechanics black holes are not truly black. Instead, they give off a constant radiation of every type of particle mixed together, shrinking as it does so. The radiation is faintest for large black holes, but gets more and more intense the smaller the black hole is, until the smallest black holes explode into a shower of particles and disappear. This argument means that a black hole small enough that the LHC could produce it would radiate away to nothing in almost an instant: not long enough to leave the machine, let alone fall to the center of the Earth.
This is a good argument, but maybe you aren’t as sure as I am about Hawking radiation. As it turns out, we’ve never measured Hawking radiation, it’s just a theoretical expectation. Remember that the radiation gets fainter the larger the black hole is: for a black hole in space with the mass of a star, the radiation is so tiny it would be almost impossible to detect even right next to the black hole. From here, in our telescopes, we have no chance of seeing it.
So suppose tiny black holes didn’t radiate, and suppose the LHC could indeed produce them. Wouldn’t that have been dangerous?
Here, we can do a calculation. I want you to appreciate how tiny these black holes would be.
From science fiction and cartoons, you might think of a black hole as a kind of vacuum cleaner, sucking up everything nearby. That’s not how black holes work, though. The “sucking” black holes do is due to gravity, no stronger than the gravity of any other object with the same mass at the same distance. The only difference comes when you get close to the event horizon, an invisible sphere close-in around the black hole. Pass that line, and the gravity is strong enough that you will never escape.
We know how to calculate the position of the event horizon of a black hole. It’s the Schwarzchild radius, and we can write it in terms of Newton’s constant G, the mass of the black hole M, and the speed of light c, as follows:
The Large Hadron Collider’s two beams each have an energy around seven tera-electron-volts, or TeV, so there are 14 TeV of energy in total in each collision. Imagine all of that energy being converted into mass, and that mass forming a black hole. That isn’t how it would actually happen: some of the energy would create other particles, and some would give the black hole a “kick”, some momentum in one direction or another. But we’re going to imagine a “worst-case” scenario, so let’s assume all the energy goes to form the black hole. Electron-volts are a weird physicist unit, but if we divide them by the speed of light squared (as we should if we’re using to create a mass), then Wikipedia tells us that each electron-volt will give us kilograms. “Tera” is the SI prefix for . Thus our tiny black hole starts with a mass of
Plugging in Newton’s constant ( meters cubed per kilogram per second squared), and the speed of light ( meters per second), and we get a radius of,
That, by the way, is amazingly tiny. The size of an atom is about meters. If every atom was a tiny person, and each of that person’s atoms was itself a person, and so on for five levels down, then the atoms of the smallest person would be the same size as this event horizon.
Now, we let this little tiny black hole fall. Let’s imagine it falls directly towards the center of the Earth. The only force affecting it would be gravity (if it had an electrical charge, it would quickly attract a few electrons and become neutral). That means you can think of it as if it were falling through a tiny hole, with no friction, gobbling up anything unfortunate enough to fall within its event horizon.
For our first estimate, we’ll treat the black hole as if it stays the same size through its journey. Imagine the black hole travels through the entire earth, absorbing a cylinder of matter. Using the Earth’s average density of 5515 kilograms per cubic meter, and the Earth’s maximum radius of 6378 kilometers, our cylinder adds a mass of,
That’s absurdly tiny. That’s much, much, much tinier than the mass we started out with. Absorbing an entire cylinder through the Earth makes barely any difference.
You might object, though, that the black hole is gaining mass as it goes. So really we ought to use a differential equation. If the black hole travels a distance r, absorbing mass as it goes at average Earth density , then we find,
Solving this, we get
Where is the mass we start out with.
Plug in the distance through the Earth for r, and we find…still about ! It didn’t change very much, which makes sense, it’s a very very small difference!
So let’s ask a question: how long would it take for a black hole, oscillating like this, to double its mass?
We want to solve,
so we need the black hole to travel a total distance of
That’s a huge distance! The Earth’s radius, remember, is 6378 kilometers. So traveling that far would take
Ten to the sixty-seven years. Our universe is only about ten to the ten years old. In another five times ten to the nine years, the Sun will enter its red giant phase, and swallow the Earth. There simply isn’t enough time for this tiny tiny black hole to gobble up the world, before everything is already gobbled up by something else. Even in the most pessimistic way to walk through the calculation, it’s just not dangerous.
I hope that, if you were worried about black holes at the LHC, you’re not worried any more. But more than that, I hope you’ve learned three lessons. First, that even the highest-energy particle physics involves tiny energies compared to day-to-day experience. Second, that gravitational effects are tiny in the context of particle physics. And third, that with Wikipedia access, you too can answer questions like this. If you’re worried, you can make an estimate, and check!
There’s a saying in physics, attributed to the famous genius John von Neumann: “With four parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk.”
Say you want to model something, like some surprising data from a particle collider. You start with some free parameters: numbers in your model that aren’t decided yet. You then decide those numbers, “fixing” them based on the data you want to model. Your goal is for your model not only to match the data, but to predict something you haven’t yet measured. Then you can go out and check, and see if your model works.
The more free parameters you have in your model, the easier this can go wrong. More free parameters make it easier to fit your data, but that’s because they make it easier to fit any data. Your model ends up not just matching the physics, but matching the mistakes as well: the small errors that crop up in any experiment. A model like that may look like it’s a great fit to the data, but its predictions will almost all be wrong. It wasn’t just fit, it was overfit.
So, did you know machine learning was just modeling data?
All of the much-hyped recent advances in artificial intelligence, GPT and Stable Diffusion and all those folks, at heart they’re all doing this kind of thing. They start out with a model (with a lot more than five parameters, arranged in complicated layers…), then use data to fix the free parameters. Unlike most of the models physicists use, they can’t perfectly fix these numbers: there are too many of them, so they have to approximate. They then test their model on new data, and hope it still works.
Increasingly, it does, and impressively well, so well that the average person probably doesn’t realize this is what it’s doing. When you ask one of these AIs to make an image for you, what you’re doing is asking what image the model predicts would show up captioned with your text. It’s the same sort of thing as asking an economist what their model predicts the unemployment rate will be when inflation goes up. The machine learning model is just way, way more complicated.
As a physicist, the first time I heard about this, I had von Neumann’s quote in the back of my head. Yes, these machines are dealing with a lot more data, from a much more complicated reality. They literally are trying to fit elephants, even elephants wiggling their trunks. Still, the sheer number of parameters seemed fishy here. And for a little bit things seemed even more fishy, when I learned about double descent.
Suppose you start increasing the number of parameters in your model. Initially, your model gets better and better. Your predictions have less and less error, your error descends. Eventually, though, the error increases again: you have too many parameters so you’re over-fitting, and your model is capturing accidents in your data, not reality.
In machine learning, weirdly, this is often not the end of the story. Sometimes, your prediction error rises, only to fall once more, in a double descent.
For a while, I found this deeply disturbing. The idea that you can fit your data, start overfitting, and then keep overfitting, and somehow end up safe in the end, was terrifying. The way some of the popular accounts described it, like you were just overfitting more and more and that was fine, was baffling, especially when they seemed to predict that you could keep adding parameters, keep fitting tinier and tinier fleas on the elephant’s trunk, and your predictions would never start going wrong. It would be the death of Occam’s Razor as we know it, more complicated explanations beating simpler ones off to infinity.
Luckily, that’s not what happens. And after talking to a bunch of people, I think I finally understand this enough to say something about it here.
The right way to think about double descent is as overfitting prematurely. You do still expect your error to eventually go up: your model won’t be perfect forever, at some point you will really overfit. It might take a long time, though: machine learning people are trying to model very complicated things, like human behavior, with giant piles of data, so very complicated models may often be entirely appropriate. In the meantime, due to a bad choice of model, you can accidentally overfit early. You will eventually overcome this, pushing past with more parameters into a model that works again, but for a little while you might convince yourself, wrongly, that you have nothing more to learn.
So Occam’s Razor still holds, but with a twist. The best model is simple enough, but no simpler. And if you’re not careful enough, you can convince yourself that a too-simple model is as complicated as you can get.
I was reminded of all this recently by somearticles by Sabine Hossenfelder.
Hossenfelder is a critic of mainstream fundamental physics. The articles were her restating a point she’s made many times before, including in (at least) one of her books. She thinks the people who propose new particles and try to search for them are wasting time, and the experiments motivated by those particles are wasting money. She’s motivated by something like Occam’s Razor, the need to stick to the simplest possible model that fits the evidence. In her view, the simplest models are those in which we don’t detect any more new particles any time soon, so those are the models she thinks we should stick with.
I tend to disagree with Hossenfelder. Here, I was oddly conflicted. In some of her examples, it seemed like she had a legitimate point. Others seemed like she missed the mark entirely.
Talk to most astrophysicists, and they’ll tell you dark matter is settled science. Indeed, there is a huge amount of evidence that something exists out there in the universe that we can’t see. It distorts the way galaxies rotate, lenses light with its gravity, and wiggled the early universe in pretty much the way you’d expect matter to.
What isn’t settled is whether that “something” interacts with anything else. It has to interact with gravity, of course, but everything else is in some sense “optional”. Astroparticle physicists use satellites to search for clues that dark matter has some other interactions: perhaps it is unstable, sometimes releasing tiny signals of light. If it did, it might solve other problems as well.
Hossenfelder thinks this is bunk (in part because she thinks those other problems are bunk). I kind of do too, though perhaps for a more general reason: I don’t think nature owes us an easy explanation. Dark matter isn’t obligated to solve any of our other problems, it just has to be dark matter. That seems in some sense like the simplest explanation, the one demanded by Occam’s Razor.
At the same time, I disagree with her substantially more on collider physics. At the Large Hadron Collider so far, all of the data is reasonably compatible with the Standard Model, our roughly half-century old theory of particle physics. Collider physicists search that data for subtle deviations, one of which might point to a general discrepancy, a hint of something beyond the Standard Model.
While my intuitions say that the simplest dark matter is completely dark, they don’t say that the simplest particle physics is the Standard Model. Back when the Standard Model was proposed, people might have said it was exceptionally simple because it had a property called “renormalizability”, but these days we view that as less important. Physicists like Ken Wilson and Steven Weinberg taught us to view theories as a kind of series of corrections, like a Taylor series in calculus. Each correction encodes new, rarer ways that particles can interact. A renormalizable theory is just the first term in this series. The higher terms might be zero, but they might not. We even know that some terms cannot be zero, because gravity is not renormalizable.
The two cases on the surface don’t seem that different. Dark matter might have zero interactions besides gravity, but it might have other interactions. The Standard Model might have zero corrections, but it might have nonzero corrections. But for some reason, my intuition treats the two differently: I would find it completely reasonable for dark matter to have no extra interactions, but very strange for the Standard Model to have no corrections.
I think part of where my intuition comes from here is my experience with other theories.
One example is a toy model called sine-Gordon theory. In sine-Gordon theory, this Taylor series of corrections is a very familiar Taylor series: the sine function! If you go correction by correction, you’ll see new interactions and more new interactions. But if you actually add them all up, something surprising happens. Sine-Gordon turns out to be a special theory, one with “no particle production”: unlike in normal particle physics, in sine-Gordon particles can neither be created nor destroyed. You would never know this if you did not add up all of the corrections.
String theory itself is another example. In string theory, elementary particles are replaced by strings, but you can think of that stringy behavior as a series of corrections on top of ordinary particles. Once again, you can try adding these things up correction by correction, but once again the “magic” doesn’t happen until the end. Only in the full series does string theory “do its thing”, and fix some of the big problems of quantum gravity.
If the real world really is a theory like this, then I think we have to worry about something like double descent.
Remember, double descent happens when our models can prematurely get worse before getting better. This can happen if the real thing we’re trying to model is very different from the model we’re using, like the example in this explainer that tries to use straight lines to match a curve. If we think a model is simpler because it puts fewer corrections on top of the Standard Model, then we may end up rejecting a reality with infinite corrections, a Taylor series that happens to add up to something quite nice. Occam’s Razor stops helping us if we can’t tell which models are really the simple ones.
The problem here is that every notion of “simple” we can appeal to here is aesthetic, a choice based on what makes the math look nicer. Other sciences don’t have this problem. When a biologist or a chemist wants to look for the simplest model, they look for a model with fewer organisms, fewer reactions…in the end, fewer atoms and molecules, fewer of the building-blocks given to those fields by physics. Fundamental physics can’t do this: we build our theories up from mathematics, and mathematics only demands that we be consistent. We can call theories simpler because we can write them in a simple way (but we could write them in a different way too). Or we can call them simpler because they look more like toy models we’ve worked with before (but those toy models are just a tiny sample of all the theories that are possible). We don’t have a standard of simplicity that is actually reliable.
There is one other way out of this pickle. A theory that is easier to write down is under no obligation to be true. But it is more likely to be useful. Even if the real world is ultimately described by some giant pile of mathematical parameters, if a simple theory is good enough for the engineers then it’s a better theory to aim for: a useful theory that makes peoples’ lives better.
I kind of get the feeling Hossenfelder would make this objection. I’ve seen her argue on twitter that scientists should always be able to say what their research is good for, and her Guardian article has this suggestive sentence: “However, we do not know that dark matter is indeed made of particles; and even if it is, to explain astrophysical observations one does not need to know details of the particles’ behaviour.”
Ok yes, to explain astrophysical observations one doesn’t need to know the details of dark matter particles’ behavior. But taking a step back, one doesn’t actually need to explain astrophysical observations at all.
Astrophysics and particle physics are not engineering problems. Nobody out there is trying to steer a spacecraft all the way across a galaxy, navigating the distribution of dark matter, or creating new universes and trying to make sure they go just right. Even if we might do these things some day, it will be so far in the future that our attempts to understand them won’t just be quaint: they will likely be actively damaging, confusing old research in dead languages that the field will be better off ignoring to start from scratch.
Because of that, usefulness is also not a meaningful guide. It cannot tell you which theories are more simple, which to favor with Occam’s Razor.
Hossenfelder’s highest-profile recent work falls afoul of one or the other of her principles. Her work on the foundations of quantum mechanics could genuinely be useful, but there’s no reason aside from claims of philosophical beauty to expect it to be true. Her work on modeling dark matter is at least directly motivated by data, but is guaranteed to not be useful.
I’m not pointing this out to call Hossenfelder a hypocrite, as some sort of ad hominem or tu quoque. I’m pointing this out because I don’t think it’s possible to do fundamental physics today without falling afoul of these principles. If you want to hold out hope that your work is useful, you don’t have a great reason besides a love of pretty math: otherwise, anything useful would have been discovered long ago. If you just try to model existing data as best you can, then you’re making a model for events far away or locked in high-energy particle colliders, a model no-one else besides other physicists will ever use.
I don’t know the way through this. I think if you need to take Occam’s Razor seriously, to build on the same foundations that work in every other scientific field…then you should stop doing fundamental physics. You won’t be able to make it work. If you still need to do it, if you can’t give up the sub-field, then you should justify it on building capabilities, on the kind of “practice” Hossenfelder also dismisses in her Guardian piece.
We don’t have a solid foundation, a reliable notion of what is simple and what isn’t. We have guesses and personal opinions. And until some experiment uncovers some blinding flash of new useful meaningful magic…I don’t think we can do any better than that.
I’m back from Amplitudes 2022 with more time to write, and (besides the several papers I’m working on) that means writing about the conference! Casual readers be warned, there’s no way around this being a technical post, I don’t have the space to explain everything!
I mostly said all I wanted about the way the conference was set up in last week’s post, but one thing I didn’t say much about was the conference dinner. Most conference dinners are the same aside from the occasional cool location or haggis speech. This one did have a cool location, and a cool performance by a blind pianist, but the thing I really wanted to comment on was the setup. Typically, the conference dinner at Amplitudes is a sit-down affair: people sit at tables in one big room, maybe getting up occasionally to pick up food, and eventually someone gives an after-dinner speech. This time the tables were standing tables, spread across several rooms. This was a bit tiring on a hot day, but it did have the advantage that it naturally mixed people around. Rather than mostly talking to “your table”, you’d wander, ending up at a new table every time you picked up new food or drinks. It was a good way to meet new people, a surprising number of which in my case apparently read this blog. It did make it harder to do an after-dinner speech, so instead Lance gave an after-conference speech, complete with the now-well-established running joke where Greta Thunberg tries to get us to fly less.
(In another semi-running joke, the organizers tried to figure out who had attended the most of the yearly Amplitudes conferences over the years. Weirdly, no-one has attended all twelve.)
In terms of the content, and things that stood out:
Nima is getting close to publishing his newest ‘hedron, the surfacehedron, and correspondingly was able to give a lot more technical detail about it. (For his first and most famous amplituhedron, see here.) He still didn’t have enough time to explain why he has to use category theory to do it, but at least he was concrete enough that it was reasonably clear where the category theory was showing up. (I wasn’t there for his eight-hour lecture at the school the week before, maybe the students who stuck around until 2am learned some category theory there.) Just from listening in on side discussions, I got the impression that some of the ideas here actually may have near-term applications to computing Feynman diagrams: this hasn’t been a feature of previous ‘hedra and it’s an encouraging development.
Alex Edison talked about progress towards this blog’s namesake problem, the question of whether N=8 supergravity diverges at seven loops. Currently they’re working at six loops on the N=4 super Yang-Mills side, not yet in a form it can be “double-copied” to supergravity. The tools they’re using are increasingly sophisticated, including various slick tricks from algebraic geometry. They are looking to the future: if they’re hoping their methods will reach seven loops, the same methods have to make six loops a breeze.
While Nima was talking about a new ‘hedron, other talks focused on the original amplituhedron. Paul Heslop found that the amplituhedron is not literally a positive geometry, despite slogans to the contrary, but what it is is nonetheless an interesting generalization of the concept. Livia Ferro has made more progress on her group’s momentum amplituhedron: previously only valid at tree level, they now have a picture that can accomodate loops. I wasn’t sure this would be possible, there are a lot of things that work at tree level and not for loops, so I’m quite encouraged that this one made the leap successfully.
Sebastian Mizera, Andrew McLeod, and Hofie Hannesdottir all had talks that could be roughly summarized as “deep principles made surprisingly useful”. Each took topics that were explored in the 60’s and translated them into concrete techniques that could be applied to modern problems. There were surprisingly few talks on the completely concrete end, on direct applications to collider physics. I think Simone Zoia’s was the only one to actually feature collider data with error bars, which might explain why I singled him out to ask about those error bars later.
Likewise, Matthias Wilhelm’s talk was the only one on functions beyond polylogarithms, the elliptic functions I’ve also worked on recently. I wonder if the under-representation of some of these topics is due to the existence of independent conferences: in a year when in-person conferences are packed in after being postponed across the pandemic, when there are already dedicated conferences for elliptics and practical collider calculations, maybe people are just a bit too tired to go to Amplitudes as well.
Talks on gravitational waves seem to have stabilized at roughly a day’s worth, which seems reasonable. While the subfield’s capabilities continue to be impressive, it’s also interesting how often new conceptual challenges appear. It seems like every time a challenge to their results or methods is resolved, a new one shows up. I don’t know whether the field will ever get to a stage of “business as usual”, or whether it will be novel qualitative questions “all the way up”.
I haven’t said much about the variety of talks bounding EFTs and investigating their structure, though this continues to be an important topic. And I haven’t mentioned Lance Dixon’s talk on antipodal duality, largely because I’m planning a post on it later: Quanta Magazine had a good article on it, but there are some aspects even Quanta struggled to cover, and I think I might have a good way to do it.
Sometimes I envy astronomers. Particle physicists can write books full of words and pages of colorful graphs and charts, and the public won’t retain any of it. Astronomers can mesmerize the world with a single picture.
Images like this enter the popular imagination. The Hubble telescope’s deep field has appeared on essentially every artistic product one could imagine. As of writing this, searching for “Hubble” on Etsy gives almost 5,000 results. “JWST”, the acronym for the James Webb Space Telescope, already gives over 1,000, including several on the front page that already contain just-released images. Despite the Large Hadron Collider having operated for over a decade, searching “LHC” also leads to just around 1,000 results…and a few on the front page are actually pictures of the JWST!
It would be great as particle physicists to have that kind of impact…but I think we shouldn’t stress ourselves too much about it. Ultimately astronomers will always have this core advantage. Space is amazing, visually stunning and mind-bogglingly vast. It has always had a special place for human cultures, and I’m happy for astronomers to inherit that place.
I mean that literally. True, you aren’t a 7,000 ton assembly of wires and silicon, like the ATLAS experiment inside the Large Hadron Collider. You aren’t managed by thousands of scientists and engineers, trying to sift through data from a billion pairs of protons smashing into each other every second. Nonetheless, you are a particle detector. Your senses detect particles.
Your ears take vibrations in the air and magnify them, vibrating the fluid of your inner ear. Tiny hairs communicate that vibration to your nerves, which signal your brain. Particle detectors, too, magnify signals: photomultipliers take a single particle of light (called a photon) and set off a cascade, multiplying the signal one hundred million times so it can be registered by a computer.
Your nose and tongue are sensitive to specific chemicals, recognizing particular shapes and ignoring others. A particle detector must also be picky. A detector like ATLAS measures far more particle collisions than it could ever record. Instead, it learns to recognize particular “shapes”, collisions that might hold evidence of something interesting. Only those collisions are recorded, passed along to computer centers around the world.
Your sense of touch tells you something about the energy of a collision: specifically, the energy things have when they collide with you. Particle detectors do this with calorimeters, that generate signals based on a particle’s energy. Different parts of your body are more sensitive than others: your mouth and hands are much more sensitive than your back and shoulders. Different parts of a particle detector have different calorimeters: an electromagnetic calorimeter for particles like electrons, and a less sensitive hadronic calorimeter that can catch particles like protons.
You are most like a particle detector, though, in your eyes. The cells of your eyes, rods and cones, detect light, and thus detect photons. Your eyes are more sensitive than you think: you are likely able to detect even a single photon. In an experiment, three people sat in darkness for forty minutes, then heard two sounds, one of which might come accompanied by a single photon of light flashed into their eye. The three didn’t notice the photons every time, that’s not possible for such a small sensation: but they did much better than a random guess.
(You can be even more literal than that. An older professor here told me stories of the early days of particle physics. To check that a machine was on, sometimes physicists would come close, and watch for flashes in the corner of their vision: a sign of electrons flying through their eyeballs!)
You are a particle detector, but you aren’t just a particle detector. A particle detector can’t move, its thousands of tons are fixed in place. That gives it blind spots: for example, the tube that the particles travel through is clear, with no detectors in it, so the particle can get through. Physicists have to account for this, correcting for the missing space in their calculations. In contrast, if you have a blind spot, you can act: move, and see the world from a new point of view. You observe not merely a series of particles, but the results of your actions: what happens when you turn one way or another, when you make one choice or another.
So while you are a particle detector, what’s more, you’re a particle experiment. You can learn a lot more than those big heaps of wires and silicon could on their own. You’re like the whole scientific effort: colliders and detectors, data centers and scientists around the world. May you learn as much in your life as the experiments do in theirs.
The W boson is a fundamental particle, part of the Standard Model of particle physics. It is what we call a “force-carrying boson”, a particle related to the weak nuclear force in the same way photons are related to electromagnetism. Unlike photons, W bosons are “heavy”: they have a mass. We can’t usually predict masses of particles, but the W boson is a bit different, because its mass comes from the Higgs boson in a special way, one that ties it to the masses of other particles like the Z boson. The upshot is that if you know the mass of a few other particles, you can predict the mass of the W.
And according to a recent publication, that prediction is wrong. A team analyzed results from an old experiment called the Tevatron, the biggest predecessor of today’s Large Hadron Collider. They treated the data with groundbreaking care, mindbogglingly even taking into account the shape of the machine’s wires. And after all that analysis, they found that the W bosons detected by the Tevatron had a different mass than the mass predicted by the Standard Model.
How different? Here’s where precision comes in. In physics, we decide whether to trust a measurement with a statistical tool. We calculate how likely the measurement would be, if it was an accident. In this case: how likely it would be that, if the Standard Model was correct, the measurement would still come out this way? To discover a new particle, we require this chance to be about one in 3.5 million, or in our jargon, five sigma. That was the requirement for discovering the Higgs boson. This super-precise measurement of the W boson doesn’t have five sigma…it has seven sigma. That means, if we trust the analysis team, then a measurement like this could come accidentally out of the Standard Model only about one in a trillion times.
Ok, should we trust the analysis team?
If you want to know that, I’m the wrong physicist to ask. The right physicists are experimental particle physicists. They do analyses like that one, and they know what can go wrong. Everyone I’ve heard from in that field emphasized that this was a very careful group, who did a lot of things impressively right…but there is still room for mistakes. One pointed out that the new measurement isn’t just inconsistent with the Standard Model, but with many previous measurements too. Those measurements are less precise, but still precise enough that we should be a bit skeptical. Another went into more detail about specific clues as to what might have gone wrong.
I’m not an experimentalist or a phenomenologist. I’m an “amplitudeologist”. I work not on the data, or the predictions, but the calculational tools used to make those predictions, called “scattering amplitudes”. And that gives me a different view on the situation.
See in my field, precision is one of our biggest selling-points. If you want theoretical predictions to match precise experiments, you need our tricks to compute them. We believe (and argue to grant agencies) that this precision will be important: if a precise experiment and a precise prediction disagree, it could be the first clue to something truly new. New solid evidence of something beyond the Standard Model would revitalize all of particle physics, giving us a concrete goal and killing fruitless speculation.
This result shakes my faith in that a little. Probably, the analysis team got something wrong. Possibly, all previous analyses got something wrong. Either way, a lot of very careful smart people tried to estimate their precision, got very confident…and got it wrong.
If some future analysis digs down deep in precision, and finds another deviation from the Standard Model, should we trust it? What if it’s measuring something new, and we don’t have the prior experiments to compare to?
(This would happen if we build a new even higher-energy collider. There are things the collider could measure, like the chance one Higgs boson splits into two, that we could not measure with any earlier machine. If we measured that, we couldn’t compare it to the Tevatron or the LHC, we’d have only the new collider to go on.)
Statistics are supposed to tell us whether to trust a result. Here, they’re not doing their job. And that creates the scary possibility that some anomaly shows up, some real deviation deep in the sigmas that hints at a whole new path for the field…and we just end up bickering about who screwed it up. Or the equally scary possibility that we find a seven-sigma signal of some amazing new physics, build decades of new theories on it…and it isn’t actually real.
We don’t just trust statistics. We also trust the things normal people trust. Do other teams find the same result? (I hope that they’re trying to get to this same precision here, and see what went wrong!) Does the result match other experiments? Does it make predictions, which then get tested in future experiments?
All of those are heuristics of course. Nothing can guarantee that we measure the truth. Each trick just corrects for some of our biases, some of the ways we make mistakes. We have to hope that’s good enough, that if there’s something to see we’ll see it, and if there’s nothing to see we won’t. Precision, my field’s raison d’être, can’t be enough to convince us by itself. But it can help.
In school, you learn that the world around you is made up of chemical elements. There’s oxygen and nitrogen in the air, hydrogen and oxygen in water, sodium and chlorine in salt, and carbon in all living things. Other elements are more rare. Often, that’s because they’re unstable, due to radioactivity, like the plutonium in a bomb or americium in a smoke detector. The heaviest elements are artificial, produced in tiny amounts by massive experiments. In 2002, the heaviest element yet was found at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research near Moscow. It was later named Oganesson, after the scientist who figured out how to make these heavy elements, Yuri Oganessian. To keep track of the different elements, we organize them in the periodic table like this:
In that same school, you probably also learn that the elements aren’t quite so elementary. Unlike the atoms imagined by the ancient Greeks, our atoms are made of smaller parts: protons and neutrons, surrounded by a cloud of electrons. They’re what give the periodic table its periodic structure, the way it repeats from row to row, with each different element having a different number of protons.
If your school is a bit more daring, you also learn that protons and neutrons themselves aren’t elementary. Each one is made of smaller particles called quarks: a proton of two “up quarks” and one “down quark”, and a neutron of two “down” and one “up”. Up quarks, down quarks, and electrons are all what physicists call fundamental particles, and they make up everything you see around you. Just like the chemical elements, some fundamental particles are more obscure than others, and the heaviest ones are all very unstable, produced temporarily by particle collider experiments. The most recent particle to be discovered was in 2012, when the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva found the Higgs boson. The Higgs boson is named after Peter Higgs, one of those who predicted it back in the 60’s. All the fundamental particles we know are part of something called the Standard Model, which we sometimes organize in a table like this:
So far, these stories probably sound similar. The experiments might not even sound that different: the Moscow experiment shoots a beam of high-energy calcium atoms at a target of heavy radioactive elements, while the Geneva one shoots a beam of high-energy protons at another beam of high-energy protons. With all those high-energy beams, what’s the difference really?
In fact there is a big different between chemical elements and fundamental particles, and between the periodic table and the Standard Model. The latter are fundamental, the former are not.
When they made new chemical elements, scientists needed to start with a lot of protons and neutrons. That’s why they used calcium atoms in their beam, and even heavier elements as their target. We know that heavy elements are heavy because they contain more protons and neutrons, and we can use the arrangement of those protons and neutrons to try to predict their properties. That’s why, even though only five or six oganesson atoms have been detected, scientists have some idea what kind of material it would make. Oganesson is a noble gas, like helium, neon, and radon. But calculations predict it is actually a solid at room temperature. What’s more, it’s expected to be able to react with other elements, something the other noble gases are very reluctant to do.
The Standard Model has patterns, just like the chemical elements. Each matter particle is one of three “generations”, each heavier and more unstable: for example, electrons have heavier relatives called muons, and still heavier ones called tauons. But unlike with the elements, we don’t know where these patterns come from. We can’t explain them with smaller particles, like we could explain the elements with protons and neutrons. We think the Standard Model particles might actually be fundamental, not made of anything smaller.
That’s why when we make them, we don’t need a lot of other particles: just two protons, each made of three quarks, is enough. With that, we can make not just new arrangements of quarks, but new particles altogether. Some are even heavier than the protons we started with: the Higgs boson is more than a hundred times as heavy as a proton! We can do this because, in particle physics, mass isn’t conserved: mass is just another type of energy, and you can turn one type of energy into another.
Discovering new elements is hard work, but discovering new particles is on another level. It’s hard to calculate which elements are stable or unstable, and what their properties might be. But we know the rules, and with enough skill and time we could figure it out. In particle physics, we don’t know the rules. We have some good guesses, simple models to solve specific problems, and sometimes, like with the Higgs, we’re right. But despite making many more than five or six Higgs bosons, we still aren’t sure it has the properties we expect. We don’t know the rules. Even with skill and time, we can’t just calculate what to expect. We have to discover it.
Now that I’ve rested up after this year’s Amplitudes, I’ll give a few of my impressions.
Overall, I think the conference went pretty well. People seemed amused by the digital Niels Bohr, even if he looked a bit like a puppet (Lance compared him to Yoda in his final speech, which was…apt). We used Gather.town, originally just for the poster session and a “virtual reception”, but later we also encouraged people to meet up in it during breaks. That in particular was a big hit: I think people really liked the ability to just move around and chat in impromptu groups, and while nobody seemed to use the “virtual bar”, the “virtual beach” had a lively crowd. Time zones were inevitably rough, but I think we ended up with a good compromise where everyone could still see a meaningful chunk of the conference.
A few things didn’t work as well. For those planning conferences, I would strongly suggest not making a brand new gmail account to send out conference announcements: for a lot of people the emails went straight to spam. Zulip was a bust: I’m not sure if people found it more confusing than last year’s Slack or didn’t notice it due to the spam issue, but almost no-one posted in it. YouTube was complicated: the stream went down a few times and I could never figure out exactly why, it may have just been internet issues here at the Niels Bohr Institute (we did have a power outage one night and had to scramble to get internet access back the next morning). As far as I could tell YouTube wouldn’t let me re-open the previous stream so each time I had to post a new link, which probably was frustrating for those following along there.
That said, this was less of a problem than it might have been, because attendance/”viewership” as a whole was lower than expected. Zoomplitudes last year had massive numbers of people join in both on Zoom and via YouTube. We had a lot fewer: out of over 500 registered participants, we had fewer than 200 on Zoom at any one time, and at most 30 or so on YouTube. Confusion around the conference email might have played a role here, but I suspect part of the difference is simple fatigue: after over a year of this pandemic, online conferences no longer feel like an exciting new experience.
The actual content of the conference ranged pretty widely. Some people reviewed earlier work, others presented recent papers or even work-in-progress. As in recent years, a meaningful chunk of the conference focused on applications of amplitudes techniques to gravitational wave physics. This included a talk by Thibault Damour, who has by now mostly made his peace with the field after his early doubts were sorted out. He still suspected that the mismatch of scales (weak coupling on the one hand, classical scattering on the other) would cause problems in future, but after his work withLaporta and Mastrolia even he had to acknowledge that amplitudes techniques were useful.
In the past I would have put the double-copy and gravitational wave researchers under the same heading, but this year they were quite distinct. While a few of the gravitational wave talks mentioned the double-copy, most of those who brought it up were doing something quite a bit more abstract than gravitational wave physics. Indeed, several people were pushing the boundaries of what it means to double-copy. There were modified KLT kernels, different versions of color-kinematics duality, and explorations of what kinds of massive particles can and (arguably more interestingly) cannot be compatible with a double-copy framework. The sheer range of different generalizations had me briefly wondering whether the double-copy could be “too flexible to be meaningful”, whether the right definitions would let you double-copy anything out of anything. I was reassured by the points where each talk argued that certain things didn’t work: it suggests that wherever this mysterious structure comes from, its powers are limited enough to make it meaningful.
A fair number of talks dealt with what has always been our main application, collider physics. There the context shifted, but the message stayed consistent: for a “clean” enough process two or three-loop calculations can make a big difference, taking a prediction that would be completely off from experiment and bringing it into line. These are more useful the more that can be varied about the calculation: functions are more useful than numbers, for example. I was gratified to hear confirmation that a particular kind of process, where two massless particles like quarks become three massive particles like W or Z bosons, is one of these “clean enough” examples: it means someone will need to compute my “tardigrade” diagram eventually.
If collider physics is our main application, N=4 super Yang-Mills has always been our main toy model. Jaroslav Trnka gave us the details behind Nima’s exciting talk from last year, and Nima had a whole new exciting talk this year with promised connections to category theory (connections he didn’t quite reach after speaking for two and a half hours). Anastasia Volovich presented two distinct methods for predicting square-root symbol letters, while my colleague Chi Zhang showed some exciting progress with the elliptic double-box, realizing the several-year dream of representing it in a useful basis of integrals and showcasing several interesting properties. Anne Spiering came over from the integrability side to show us just how special the “planar” version of the theory really is: by increasing the number of colors of gluons, she showed that one could smoothly go between an “integrability-esque” spectrum and a “chaotic” spectrum. Finally, Lance Dixon mentioned his progress with form-factors in his talk at the end of the conference, showing off some statistics of coefficients of different functions and speculating that machine learning might be able to predict them.
On the more mathematical side, Francis Brown showed us a new way to get numbers out of graphs, one distinct but related to our usual interpretation in terms of Feynman diagrams. I’m still unsure what it will be used for, but the fact that it maps every graph to something finite probably has some interesting implications. Albrecht Klemm and Claude Duhr talked about two sides of the same story, their recent work on integrals involving Calabi-Yau manifolds. They focused on a particular nice set of integrals, and time will tell whether the methods work more broadly, but there are some exciting suggestions that at least parts will.
There’s been a resurgence of the old dream of the S-matrix community, constraining amplitudes via “general constraints” alone, and several talks dealt with those ideas. Sebastian Mizera went the other direction, and tried to test one of those “general constraints”, seeing under which circumstances he could prove that you can swap a particle going in with an antiparticle going out. Others went out to infinity, trying to understand amplitudes from the perspective of the so-called “celestial sphere” where they appear to be governed by conformal field theories of some sort. A few talks dealt with amplitudes in string theory itself: Yvonne Geyer built them out of field-theory amplitudes, while Ashoke Sen explained how to include D-instantons in them.
We also had three “special talks” in the evenings. I’ve mentioned Nima’s already. Zvi Bern gave a retrospective talk that I somewhat cheesily describe as “good for the soul”: a look to the early days of the field that reminded us of why we are who we are. Lance Dixon closed the conference with a light-hearted summary and a look to the future. That future includes next year’s Amplitudes, which after a hasty discussion during this year’s conference has now localized to Prague. Let’s hope it’s in person!