Tag Archives: quantum field theory

A Non-Amplitudish Solution to an Amplitudish Problem

There was an interesting paper last week, claiming to solve a long-standing problem in my subfield.

I calculate what are called scattering amplitudes, formulas that tell us the chance that two particles scatter off each other. Formulas like these exist for theories like the strong nuclear force, called Yang-Mills theories, they also exist for the hypothetical graviton particles of gravity. One of the biggest insights in scattering amplitude research in the last few decades is that these two types of formulas are tied together: as we like to say, gravity is Yang-Mills squared.

A huge chunk of my subfield grew out of that insight. For one, it’s why some of us think we have something useful to say about colliding black holes. But while it’s been used in a dozen different ways, an important element was missing: the principle was never actually proven (at least, not in the way it’s been used).

Now, a group in the UK and the Czech Republic claims to have proven it.

I say “claims” not because I’m skeptical, but because without a fair bit more reading I don’t think I can judge this one. That’s because the group, and the approach they use, isn’t “amplitudish”. They aren’t doing what amplitudes researchers would do.

In the amplitudes subfield, we like to write things as much as possible in terms of measurable, “on-shell” particles. This is in contrast to the older approach that writes things instead in terms of more general quantum fields, with formulas called Lagrangians to describe theories. In part, we avoid the older Lagrangian framing to avoid redundancy: there are many different ways to write a Lagrangian for the exact same physics. We have another reason though, which might seem contradictory: we avoid Lagrangians to stay flexible. There are many ways to rewrite scattering amplitudes that make different properties manifest, and some of the strangest ones don’t seem to correspond to any Lagrangian at all.

If you’d asked me before last week, I’d say that “gravity is Yang-Mills squared” was in that category: something you couldn’t make manifest fully with just a Lagrangian, that you’d need some stranger magic to prove. If this paper is right, then that’s wrong: if you’re careful enough you can prove “gravity is Yang-Mills squared” in the old-school, Lagrangian way.

I’m curious how this is going to develop: what amplitudes people will think about it, what will happen as the experts chime in. For now, as mentioned, I’m reserving judgement, except to say “interesting if true”.

Unification That Does Something

I’ve got unification on the brain.

Recently, a commenter asked me what physicists mean when they say two forces unify. While typing up a response, I came across this passage, in a science fiction short story by Ted Chiang.

Physics admits of a lovely unification, not just at the level of fundamental forces, but when considering its extent and implications. Classifications like ‘optics’ or ‘thermodynamics’ are just straitjackets, preventing physicists from seeing countless intersections.

This passage sounds nice enough, but I feel like there’s a misunderstanding behind it. When physicists seek after unification, we’re talking about something quite specific. It’s not merely a matter of two topics intersecting, or describing them with the same math. We already plumb intersections between fields, including optics and thermodynamics. When we hope to find a unified theory, we do so because it does something. A real unified theory doesn’t just aid our calculations, it gives us new ways to alter the world.

To show you what I mean, let me start with something physicists already know: electroweak unification.

There’s a nice series of posts on the old Quantum Diaries blog that explains electroweak unification in detail. I’ll be a bit vaguer here.

You might have heard of four fundamental forces: gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force. You might have also heard that two of these forces are unified: the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force form something called the electroweak force.

What does it mean that these forces are unified? How does it work?

Zoom in far enough, and you don’t see the electromagnetic force and the weak force anymore. Instead you see two different forces, I’ll call them “W” and “B”. You’ll also see the Higgs field. And crucially, you’ll see the “W” and “B” forces interact with the Higgs.

The Higgs field is special because it has what’s called a “vacuum” value. Even in otherwise empty space, there’s some amount of “Higgsness” in the background, like the color of a piece of construction paper. This background Higgs-ness is in some sense an accident, just one stable way the universe happens to sit. In particular, it picks out an arbitrary kind of direction: parts of the “W” and “B” forces happen to interact with it, and parts don’t.

Now let’s zoom back out. We could, if we wanted, keep our eyes on the “W” and “B” forces. But that gets increasingly silly. As we zoom out we won’t be able to see the Higgs field anymore. Instead, we’ll just see different parts of the “W” and “B” behaving in drastically different ways, depending on whether or not they interact with the Higgs. It will make more sense to talk about mixes of the “W” and “B” fields, to distinguish the parts that are “lined up” with the background Higgs and the parts that aren’t. It’s like using “aft” and “starboard” on a boat. You could use “north” and “south”, but that would get confusing pretty fast.

My cabin is on the west side of the ship…unless we’re sailing east….

What are those “mixes” of the “W” and “B” forces? Why, they’re the weak nuclear force and the electromagnetic force!

This, broadly speaking, is the kind of unification physicists look for. It doesn’t have to be a “mix” of two different forces: most of the models physicists imagine start with a single force. But the basic ideas are the same: that if you “zoom in” enough you see a simpler model, but that model is interacting with something that “by accident” picks a particular direction, so that as we zoom out different parts of the model behave in different ways. In that way, you could get from a single force to all the different forces we observe.

That “by accident” is important here, because that accident can be changed. That’s why I said earlier that real unification lets us alter the world.

To be clear, we can’t change the background Higgs field with current technology. The biggest collider we have can just make a tiny, temporary fluctuation (that’s what the Higgs boson is). But one implication of electroweak unification is that, with enough technology, we could. Because those two forces are unified, and because that unification is physical, with a physical cause, it’s possible to alter that cause, to change the mix and change the balance. This is why this kind of unification is such a big deal, why it’s not the sort of thing you can just chalk up to “interpretation” and ignore: when two forces are unified in this way, it lets us do new things.

Mathematical unification is valuable. It’s great when we can look at different things and describe them in the same language, or use ideas from one to understand the other. But it’s not the same thing as physical unification. When two forces really unify, it’s an undeniable physical fact about the world. When two forces unify, it does something.

How the Higgs Is, and Is Not, Like an Eel

In the past, what did we know about eel reproduction? What do we know now?

The answer to both questions is, surprisingly little! For those who don’t know the story, I recommend this New Yorker article. Eels turn out to have a quite complicated life cycle, and can only reproduce in the very last stage. Different kinds of eels from all over Europe and the Americas spawn in just one place: the Sargasso Sea. But while researchers have been able to find newborn eels in those waters, and more recently track a few mature adults on their migration back, no-one has yet observed an eel in the act. Biologists may be able to infer quite a bit, but with no direct evidence yet the truth may be even more surprising than they expect. The details of eel reproduction are an ongoing mystery, the “eel question” one of the field’s most enduring.

But of course this isn’t an eel blog. I’m here to answer a different question.

In the past, what did we know about the Higgs boson? What do we know now?

Ask some physicists, and they’ll say that even before the LHC everyone knew the Higgs existed. While this isn’t quite true, it is certainly true that something like the Higgs boson had to exist. Observations of other particles, the W and Z bosons in particular, gave good evidence for some kind of “Higgs mechanism”, that gives other particles mass in a “Higgs-like-way”. A Higgs boson was in some sense the simplest option, but there could have been more than one, or a different sort of process instead. Some of these alternatives may have been sensible, others as silly as believing that eels come from horses’ tails. Until 2012, when the Higgs boson was observed, we really didn’t know.

We also didn’t know one other piece of information: the Higgs boson’s mass. That tells us, among other things, how much energy we need to make one. Physicists were pretty sure the LHC was capable of producing a Higgs boson, but they weren’t sure where or how they’d find it, or how much energy would ultimately be involved.

Now thanks to the LHC, we know the mass of the Higgs boson, and we can rule out some of the “alternative” theories. But there’s still quite a bit we haven’t observed. In particular, we haven’t observed many of the Higgs boson’s couplings.

The couplings of a quantum field are how it interacts, both with other quantum fields and with itself. In the case of the Higgs, interacting with other particles gives those particles mass, while interacting with itself is how it itself gains mass. Since we know the masses of these particles, we can infer what these couplings should be, at least for the simplest model. But, like the eels, the truth may yet surprise us. Nothing guarantees that the simplest model is the right one: what we call simplicity is a judgement based on aesthetics, on how we happen to write models down. Nature may well choose differently. All we can honestly do is parametrize our ignorance.

In the case of the eels, each failure to observe their reproduction deepens the mystery. What are they doing that is so elusive, so impossible to discover? In this, eels are different from the Higgs boson. We know why we haven’t observed the Higgs boson coupling to itself, at least according to our simplest models: we’d need a higher-energy collider, more powerful than the LHC, to see it. That’s an expensive proposition, much more expensive than using satellites to follow eels around the ocean. Because our failure to observe the Higgs self-coupling is itself no mystery, our simplest models could still be correct: as theorists, we probably have it easier than the biologists. But if we want to verify our models in the real world, we have it much harder.

Zoomplitudes Retrospective

During Zoomplitudes (my field’s big yearly conference, this year on Zoom) I didn’t have time to write a long blog post. I said a bit about the format, but didn’t get a chance to talk about the science. I figured this week I’d go back and give a few more of my impressions. As always, conference posts are a bit more technical than my usual posts, so regulars be warned!

The conference opened with a talk by Gavin Salam, there as an ambassador for LHC physics. Salam pointed out that, while a decent proportion of speakers at Amplitudes mention the LHC in their papers, that fraction has fallen over the years. (Another speaker jokingly wondered which of those mentions were just in the paper’s introduction.) He argued that there is still useful work for us, LHC measurements that will require serious amplitudes calculations to understand. He also brought up what seems like the most credible argument for a new, higher-energy collider: that there are important properties of the Higgs, in particular its interactions, that we still have not observed.

The next few talks hopefully warmed Salam’s heart, as they featured calculations for real-world particle physics. Nathaniel Craig and Yael Shadmi in particular covered the link between amplitudes and Standard Model Effective Field Theory (SMEFT), a method to systematically characterize corrections beyond the Standard Model. Shadmi’s talk struck me because the kind of work she described (building the SMEFT “amplitudes-style”, directly from observable information rather than more complicated proxies) is something I’d seen people speculate about for a while, but which hadn’t been done until quite recently. Now, several groups have managed it, and look like they’ve gotten essentially “all the way there”, rather than just partial results that only manage to replicate part of the SMEFT. Overall it’s much faster progress than I would have expected.

After Shadmi’s talk was a brace of talks on N=4 super Yang-Mills, featuring cosmic Galois theory and an impressively groan-worthy “origin story” joke. The final talk of the day, by Hofie Hannesdottir, covered work with some of my colleagues at the NBI. Due to coronavirus I hadn’t gotten to hear about this in person, so it was good to hear a talk on it, a blend of old methods and new priorities to better understand some old discoveries.

The next day focused on a topic that has grown in importance in our community, calculations for gravitational wave telescopes like LIGO. Several speakers focused on new methods for collisions of spinning objects, where a few different approaches are making good progress (Radu Roiban’s proposal to use higher-spin field theory was particularly interesting) but things still aren’t quite “production-ready”. The older, post-Newtonian method is still very much production-ready, as evidenced by Michele Levi’s talk that covered, among other topics, our recent collaboration. Julio Parra-Martinez discussed some interesting behavior shared by both supersymmetric and non-supersymmetric gravity theories. Thibault Damour had previously expressed doubts about use of amplitudes methods to answer this kind of question, and part of Parra-Martinez’s aim was to confirm the calculation with methods Damour would consider more reliable. Damour (who was actually in the audience, which I suspect would not have happened at an in-person conference) had already recanted some related doubts, but it’s not clear to me whether that extended to the results Parra-Martinez discussed (or whether Damour has stated the problem with his old analysis).

There were a few talks that day that didn’t relate to gravitational waves, though this might have been an accident, since both speakers also work on that topic. Zvi Bern’s talk linked to the previous day’s SMEFT discussion, with a calculation using amplitudes methods of direct relevance to SMEFT researchers. Clifford Cheung’s talk proposed a rather strange/fun idea, conformal symmetry in negative dimensions!

Wednesday was “amplituhedron day”, with a variety of talks on positive geometries and cluster algebras. Featured in several talks was “tropicalization“, a mathematical procedure that can simplify complicated geometries while still preserving essential features. Here, it was used to trim down infinite “alphabets” conjectured for some calculations into a finite set, and in doing so understand the origin of “square root letters”. The day ended with a talk by Nima Arkani-Hamed, who despite offering to bet that he could finish his talk within the half-hour slot took almost twice that. The organizers seemed to have planned for this, since there was one fewer talk that day, and as such the day ended at roughly the usual time regardless.

We also took probably the most unique conference photo I will ever appear in.

For lack of a better name, I’ll call Thursday’s theme “celestial”. The day included talks by cosmologists (including approaches using amplitudes-ish methods from Daniel Baumann and Charlotte Sleight, and a curiously un-amplitudes-related talk from Daniel Green), talks on “celestial amplitudes” (amplitudes viewed from the surface of an infinitely distant sphere), and various talks with some link to string theory. I’m including in that last category intersection theory, which has really become its own thing. This included a talk by Simon Caron-Huot about using intersection theory more directly in understanding Feynman integrals, and a talk by Sebastian Mizera using intersection theory to investigate how gravity is Yang-Mills squared. Both gave me a much better idea of the speakers’ goals. In Mizera’s case he’s aiming for something very ambitious. He wants to use intersection theory to figure out when and how one can “double-copy” theories, and might figure out why the procedure “got stuck” at five loops. The day ended with a talk by Pedro Vieira, who gave an extremely lucid and well-presented “blackboard-style” talk on bootstrapping amplitudes.

Friday was a grab-bag of topics. Samuel Abreu discussed an interesting calculation using the numerical unitarity method. It was notable in part because renormalization played a bigger role than it does in most amplitudes work, and in part because they now have a cool logo for their group’s software, Caravel. Claude Duhr and Ruth Britto gave a two-part talk on their work on a Feynman integral coaction. I’d had doubts about the diagrammatic coaction they had worked on in the past because it felt a bit ad-hoc. Now, they’re using intersection theory, and have a clean story that seems to tie everything together. Andrew McLeod talked about our work on a Feynman diagram Calabi-Yau “bestiary”, while Cristian Vergu had a more rigorous understanding of our “traintrack” integrals.

There are two key elements of a conference that are tricky to do on Zoom. You can’t do a conference dinner, so you can’t do the traditional joke-filled conference dinner speech. The end of the conference is also tricky: traditionally, this is when everyone applauds the organizers and the secretaries are given flowers. As chair for the last session, Lance Dixon stepped up to fill both gaps, with a closing speech that was both a touching tribute to the hard work of organizing the conference and a hilarious pile of in-jokes, including a participation award to Arkani-Hamed for his (unprecedented, as far as I’m aware) perfect attendance.

The Sum of Our Efforts

I got a new paper out last week, with Andrew McLeod, Henrik Munch, and Georgios Papathanasiou.

A while back, some collaborators and I found an interesting set of Feynman diagrams that we called “Omega”. These Omega diagrams were fun because they let us avoid one of the biggest limitations of particle physics: that we usually have to compute approximations, diagram by diagram, rather than finding an exact answer. For these Omegas, we figured out how to add all the infinite set of Omega diagrams up together, with no approximation.

One implication of this was that, in principle, we now knew the answer for each individual Omega diagram, far past what had been computed before. However, writing down these answers was easier said than done. After some wrangling, we got the answer for each diagram in terms of an infinite sum. But despite tinkering with it for a while, even our resident infinite sum expert Georgios Papathanasiou couldn’t quite sum them up.

Naturally, this made me think the sums would make a great Master’s project.

When Henrik Munch showed up looking for a project, Andrew McLeod and I gave him several options, but he settled on the infinite sums. Impressively, he ended up solving the problem in two different ways!

First, he found an old paper none of us had seen before, that gave a general method for solving that kind of infinite sum. When he realized that method was really annoying to program, he took the principle behind it, called telescoping, and came up with his own, simpler method, for our particular case.

Picture an old-timey folding telescope. It might be long when fully extended, but when you fold it up each piece fits inside the previous one, resulting in a much smaller object. Telescoping a sum has the same spirit. If each pair of terms in a sum “fit together” (if their difference is simple), you can rearrange them so that most of the difficulty “cancels out” and you’re left with a much simpler sum.

Henrik’s telescoping idea worked even better than expected. We found that we could do, not just the Omega sums, but other sums in particle physics as well. Infinite sums are a very well-studied field, so it was interesting to find something genuinely new.

The rest of us worked to generalize the result, to check the examples and to put it in context. But the core of the work was Henrik’s. I’m really proud of what he accomplished. If you’re looking for a PhD student, he’s on the market!

4gravitons, Spinning Up

I had a new paper out last week, with Michèle Levi and Andrew McLeod. But to explain it, I’ll need to clarify something about our last paper.

Two weeks ago, I told you that Andrew and Michèle and I had written a paper, predicting what gravitational wave telescopes like LIGO see when black holes collide. You may remember that LIGO doesn’t just see colliding black holes: it sees colliding neutron stars too. So why didn’t we predict what happens when neutron stars collide?

Actually, we did. Our calculation doesn’t just apply to black holes. It applies to neutron stars too. And not just neutron stars: it applies to anything of roughly the right size and shape. Black holes, neutron stars, very large grapefruits…

LIGO’s next big discovery

That’s the magic of Effective Field Theory, the “zoom lens” of particle physics. Zoom out far enough, and any big, round object starts looking like a particle. Black holes, neutron stars, grapefruits, we can describe them all using the same math.

Ok, so we can describe both black holes and neutron stars. Can we tell the difference between them?

In our last calculation, no. In this one, yes!

Effective Field Theory isn’t just a zoom lens, it’s a controlled approximation. That means that when we “zoom out” we don’t just throw out anything “too small to see”. Instead, we approximate it, estimating how big of an effect it can have. Depending on how precise we want to be, we can include more and more of these approximated effects. If our estimates are good, we’ll include everything that matters, and get a good approximation for what we’re trying to observe.

At the precision of our last calculation, a black hole and a neutron star still look exactly the same. Our new calculation aims for a bit higher precision though. (For the experts: we’re at a higher order in spin.) The higher precision means that we can actually see the difference: our result changes for two colliding black holes versus two colliding grapefruits.

So does that mean I can tell you what happens when two neutron stars collide, according to our calculation? Actually, no. That’s not because we screwed up the calculation: it’s because some of the properties of neutron stars are unknown.

The Effective Field Theory of neutron stars has what we call “free parameters”, unknown variables. People have tried to estimate some of these (called “Love numbers” after the mathematician A. E. H. Love), but they depend on the details of how neutron stars work: what stuff they contain, how that stuff is shaped, and how it can move. To find them out, we probably can’t just calculate: we’ll have to measure, observe an actual neutron star collision and see what the numbers actually are.

That’s one of the purposes of gravitational wave telescopes. It’s not (as far as I know) something LIGO can measure. But future telescopes, with more precision, should be able to. By watching two colliding neutron stars and comparing to a high-precision calculation, physicists will better understand what those neutron stars are made of. In order to do that, they will need someone to do that high-precision calculation. And that’s why people like me are involved.

4gravitons Exchanges a Graviton

I had a new paper up last Friday with Michèle Levi and Andrew McLeod, on a topic I hadn’t worked on before: colliding black holes.

I am an “amplitudeologist”. I work on particle physics calculations, computing “scattering amplitudes” to find the probability that fundamental particles bounce off each other. This sounds like the farthest thing possible from black holes. Nevertheless, the two are tightly linked, through the magic of something called Effective Field Theory.

Effective Field Theory is a kind of “zoom knob” for particle physics. You “zoom out” to some chosen scale, and write down a theory that describes physics at that scale. Your theory won’t be a complete description: you’re ignoring everything that’s “too small to see”. It will, however, be an effective description: one that, at the scale you’re interested in, is effectively true.

Particle physicists usually use Effective Field Theory to go between different theories of particle physics, to zoom out from strings to quarks to protons and neutrons. But you can zoom out even further, all the way out to astronomical distances. Zoom out far enough, and even something as massive as a black hole looks like just another particle.

Just click the “zoom X10” button fifteen times, and you’re there!

In this picture, the force of gravity between black holes looks like particles (specifically, gravitons) going back and forth. With this picture, physicists can calculate what happens when two black holes collide with each other, making predictions that can be checked with new gravitational wave telescopes like LIGO.

Researchers have pushed this technique quite far. As the calculations get more and more precise (more and more “loops”), they have gotten more and more challenging. This is particularly true when the black holes are spinning, an extra wrinkle in the calculation that adds a surprising amount of complexity.

That’s where I came in. I can’t compete with the experts on black holes, but I certainly know a thing or two about complicated particle physics calculations. Amplitudeologists, like Andrew McLeod and me, have a grab-bag of tricks that make these kinds of calculations a lot easier. With Michèle Levi’s expertise working with spinning black holes in Effective Field Theory, we were able to combine our knowledge to push beyond the state of the art, to a new level of precision.

This project has been quite exciting for me, for a number of reasons. For one, it’s my first time working with gravitons: despite this blog’s name, I’d never published a paper on gravity before. For another, as my brother quipped when he heard about it, this is by far the most “applied” paper I’ve ever written. I mostly work with a theory called N=4 super Yang-Mills, a toy model we use to develop new techniques. This paper isn’t a toy model: the calculation we did should describe black holes out there in the sky, in the real world. There’s a decent chance someone will use this calculation to compare with actual data, from LIGO or a future telescope. That, in particular, is an absurdly exciting prospect.

Because this was such an applied calculation, it was an opportunity to explore the more applied part of my own field. We ended up using well-known techniques from that corner, but I look forward to doing something more inventive in future.

What I Was Not Saying in My Last Post

Science communication is a gradual process. Anything we say is incomplete, prone to cause misunderstanding. Luckily, we can keep talking, give a new explanation that corrects those misunderstandings. This of course will lead to new misunderstandings. We then explain again, and so on. It sounds fruitless, but in practice our audience nevertheless gets closer and closer to the truth.

Last week, I tried to explain physicists’ notion of a fundamental particle. In particular, I wanted to explain what these particles aren’t: tiny, indestructible spheres, like Democritus imagined. Instead, I emphasized the idea of fields, interacting and exchanging energy, with particles as just the tip of the field iceberg.

I’ve given this kind of explanation before. And when I do, there are two things people often misunderstand. These correspond to two topics which use very similar language, but talk about different things. So this week, I thought I’d get ahead of the game and correct those misunderstandings.

The first misunderstanding: None of that post was quantum.

If you’ve heard physicists explain quantum mechanics, you’ve probably heard about wave-particle duality. Things we thought were waves, like light, also behave like particles, things we thought were particles, like electrons, also behave like waves.

If that’s on your mind, and you see me say particles don’t exist, maybe you think I mean waves exist instead. Maybe when I say “fields”, you think I’m talking about waves. Maybe you think I’m choosing one side of the duality, saying that waves exist and particles don’t.

To be 100% clear: I am not saying that.

Particles and waves, in quantum physics, are both manifestations of fields. Is your field just at one specific point? Then it’s a particle. Is it spread out, with a fixed wavelength and frequency? Then it’s a wave. These are the two concepts connected by wave-particle duality, where the same object can behave differently depending on what you measure. And both of them, to be clear, come from fields. Neither is the kind of thing Democritus imagined.

The second misunderstanding: This isn’t about on-shell vs. off-shell.

Some of you have seen some more “advanced” science popularization. In particular, you might have listened to Nima Arkani-Hamed, of amplituhedron fame, talk about his perspective on particle physics. Nima thinks we need to reformulate particle physics, as much as possible, “on-shell”. “On-shell” means that particles obey their equations of motion, normally quantum calculations involve “off-shell” particles that violate those equations.

To again be clear: I’m not arguing with Nima here.

Nima (and other people in our field) will sometimes talk about on-shell vs off-shell as if it was about particles vs. fields. Normal physicists will write down a general field, and let it be off-shell, we try to do calculations with particles that are on-shell. But once again, on-shell doesn’t mean Democritus-style. We still don’t know what a fully on-shell picture of physics will look like. Chances are it won’t look like the picture of sloshing, omnipresent fields we started with, at least not exactly. But it won’t bring back indivisible, unchangeable atoms. Those are gone, and we have no reason to bring them back.

These Ain’t Democritus’s Particles

Physicists talk a lot about fundamental particles. But what do we mean by fundamental?

The Ancient Greek philosopher Democritus thought the world was composed of fundamental indivisible objects, constantly in motion. He called these objects “atoms”, and believed they could never be created or destroyed, with every other phenomenon explained by different types of interlocking atoms.

The things we call atoms today aren’t really like this, as you probably know. Atoms aren’t indivisible: their electrons can be split from their nuclei, and with more energy their nuclei can be split into protons and neutrons. More energy yet, and protons and neutrons can in turn be split into quarks. Still, at this point you might wonder: could quarks be Democritus’s atoms?

In a word, no. Nonetheless, quarks are, as far as we know, fundamental particles. As it turns out, our “fundamental” is very different from Democritus’s. Our fundamental particles can transform.

Think about beta decay. You might be used to thinking of it in terms of protons and neutrons: an unstable neutron decays, becoming a proton, an electron, and an (electron-anti-)neutrino. You might think that when the neutron decays, it literally “decays”, falling apart into smaller pieces.

But when you look at the quarks, the neutron’s smallest pieces, that isn’t the picture at all. In beta decay, a down quark in the neutron changes, turning into an up quark and an unstable W boson. The W boson then decays into an electron and a neutrino, while the up quark becomes part of the new proton. Even looking at the most fundamental particles we know, Democritus’s picture of unchanging atoms just isn’t true.

Could there be some even lower level of reality that works the way Democritus imagined? It’s not impossible. But the key insight of modern particle physics is that there doesn’t need to be.

As far as we know, up quarks and down quarks are both fundamental. Neither is “made of” the other, or “made of” anything else. But they also aren’t little round indestructible balls. They’re manifestations of quantum fields, “ripples” that slosh from one sort to another in complicated ways.

When we ask which particles are fundamental, we’re asking what quantum fields we need to describe reality. We’re asking for the simplest explanation, the simplest mathematical model, that’s consistent with everything we could observe. So “fundamental” doesn’t end up meaning indivisible, or unchanging. It’s fundamental like an axiom: used to derive the rest.

You Can’t Anticipate a Breakthrough

As a scientist, you’re surrounded by puzzles. For every test and every answer, ten new questions pop up. You can spend a lifetime on question after question, never getting bored.

But which questions matter? If you want to change the world, if you want to discover something deep, which questions should you focus on? And which should you ignore?

Last year, my collaborators and I completed a long, complicated project. We were calculating the chance fundamental particles bounce off each other in a toy model of nuclear forces, pushing to very high levels of precision. We managed to figure out a lot, but as always, there were many questions left unanswered in the end.

The deepest of these questions came from number theory. We had noticed surprising patterns in the numbers that showed up in our calculation, reminiscent of the fancifully-named Cosmic Galois Theory. Certain kinds of numbers never showed up, while others appeared again and again. In order to see these patterns, though, we needed an unusual fudge factor: an unexplained number multiplying our result. It was clear that there was some principle at work, a part of the physics intimately tied to particular types of numbers.

There were also questions that seemed less deep. In order to compute our result, we compared to predictions from other methods: specific situations where the question becomes simpler and there are other ways of calculating the answer. As we finished writing the paper, we realized we could do more with some of these predictions. There were situations we didn’t use that nonetheless simplified things, and more predictions that it looked like we could make. By the time we saw these, we were quite close to publishing, so most of us didn’t have the patience to follow these new leads. We just wanted to get the paper out.

At the time, I expected the new predictions would lead, at best, to more efficiency. Maybe we could have gotten our result faster, or cleaned it up a bit. They didn’t seem essential, and they didn’t seem deep.

Fast forward to this year, and some of my collaborators (specifically, Lance Dixon and Georgios Papathanasiou, along with Benjamin Basso) have a new paper up: “The Origin of the Six-Gluon Amplitude in Planar N=4 SYM”. The “origin” in their title refers to one of those situations: when the variables in the problem are small, and you’re close to the “origin” of a plot in those variables. But the paper also sheds light on the origin of our calculation’s mysterious “Cosmic Galois” behavior.

It turns out that the origin (of the plot) can be related to another situation, when the paths of two particles in our calculation almost line up. There, the calculation can be done with another method, called the Pentagon Operator Product Expansion, or POPE. By relating the two, Basso, Dixon, and Papathanasiou were able to predict not only how our result should have behaved near the origin, but how more complicated as-yet un-calculated results should behave.

The biggest surprise, though, lurked in the details. Building their predictions from the POPE method, they found their calculation separated into two pieces: one which described the physics of the particles involved, and a “normalization”. This normalization, predicted by the POPE method, involved some rather special numbers…the same as the “fudge factor” we had introduced earlier! Somehow, the POPE’s physics-based setup “knows” about Cosmic Galois Theory!

It seems that, by studying predictions in this specific situation, Basso, Dixon, and Papathanasiou have accomplished something much deeper: a strong hint of where our mysterious number patterns come from. It’s rather humbling to realize that, were I in their place, I never would have found this: I had assumed “the origin” was just a leftover detail, perhaps useful but not deep.

I’m still digesting their result. For now, it’s a reminder that I shouldn’t try to pre-judge questions. If you want to learn something deep, it isn’t enough to sit thinking about it, just focusing on that one problem. You have to follow every lead you have, work on every problem you can, do solid calculation after solid calculation. Sometimes, you’ll just make incremental progress, just fill in the details. But occasionally, you’ll have a breakthrough, something that justifies the whole adventure and opens your door to something strange and new. And I’m starting to think that when it comes to breakthroughs, that’s always been the only way there.