I’m at a workshop this week. It’s part of a series of “Bethe Forums”, cozy little conferences run by the Bethe Center for Theoretical Physics in Bonn.
The workshop’s title, “Geometries and Special Functions for Physics and Mathematics”, covers a wide range of topics. There are talks on Calabi-Yau manifolds, elliptic (and hyper-elliptic) polylogarithms, and cluster algebras and cluster polylogarithms. Some of the talks are by mathematicians, others by physicists.
In addition to the talks, this conference added a fun innovative element, “my favorite problem sessions”. The idea is that a speaker spends fifteen minutes introducing their “favorite problem”, then the audience spends fifteen minutes discussing it. Some treated these sessions roughly like short talks describing their work, with the open directions at the end framed as their favorite problem. Others aimed broader, trying to describe a general problem and motivate interest in people of other sub-fields.
This was a particularly fun conference for me, because the seemingly distinct topics all connect in one way or another to my own favorite problem. In our “favorite theory” of N=4 super Yang-Mills, we can describe our calculations in terms of an “alphabet” of pieces that let us figure out predictions almost “by guesswork”. These alphabets, at least in the cases we know how to handle, turn out to correspond to mathematical structures called cluster algebras. If we look at interactions of six or seven particles, these cluster algebras are a powerful guide. For eight or nine, they still seem to matter, but are much harder to use.
We don’t know what an “alphabet” should look like for these Calabi-Yau manifolds (but I’m working on it). Because of that, we don’t know how these cluster algebras should appear.
In my view, any explanation for the role of cluster algebras in our calculations has to extend to these cases, to elliptic polylogarithms and Calabi-Yau manifolds. Without knowing how to frame an alphabet for these things, we won’t be able to solve the lingering mysteries that fill our field.
Because of that, “my favorite problem” is one of my biggest motivations, the question that drives a large chunk of what I do. It’s what’s made this conference so much fun, and so stimulating: almost every talk had something I wanted to learn.
There are infinitely many of these diagrams, but they’re all beautifully simple, variations on a theme that can be written down in a precise mathematical way.
Change things a little bit, though, and the situation gets wildly more intractable. Let the rungs of the ladder peek through the sides, and you get something looking more like the tracks for a train:
These traintrack integrals are much more complicated. Describing them requires the mathematics of Calabi-Yau manifolds, involving higher and higher dimensions as the tracks get longer. I don’t think there’s any hope of understanding these things for all loops, at least not any time soon.
What if we aimed somewhere in between? A ladder that just started to turn traintrack?
Add just a single pair of rungs, and it turns out that things remain relatively simple. If we do this, it turns out we don’t need any complicated Calabi-Yau manifolds. We just need the simplest Calabi-Yau manifold, called an elliptic curve. It’s actually the same curve for every version of the diagram. And the situation is simple enough that, with some extra cleverness, it looks like we’ve found a trick to calculate these diagrams to any number of loops we’d like.
These developments are exciting, because Feynman diagrams with elliptic curves are still tough to deal with. We still have whole conferences about them. These new elliptic diagrams can be a long list of test cases, things we can experiment with with any number of loops. With time, we might truly understand them as well as the ladder diagrams!
The problem of quantum gravity is one of the most famous problems in physics. You’ve probably heard someone say that quantum mechanics and general relativity are fundamentally incompatible. Most likely, this was narrated over pictures of a foaming, fluctuating grid of space-time. Based on that, you might think that all we have to do to solve this problem is to measure some quantum property of gravity. Maybe we could make a superposition of two different gravitational fields, see what happens, and solve the problem that way.
I mean, we could do that, some people are trying to. But it won’t solve the problem. That’s because the problem of quantum gravity isn’t just the problem of quantum gravity. It’s the problem of high-energy quantum gravity.
Merging quantum mechanics and general relativity is actually pretty easy. General relativity is a big conceptual leap, certainly, a theory in which gravity is really just the shape of space-time. At the same time, though, it’s also a field theory, the same general type of theory as electromagnetism. It’s a weirder field theory than electromagnetism, to be sure, one with deeper implications. But if we want to describe low energies, and weak gravitational fields, then we can treat it just like any other field theory. We know how to write down some pretty reasonable-looking equations, we know how to do some basic calculations with them. This part is just not that scary.
The scary part happens later. The theory we get from these reasonable-looking equations continues to look reasonable for a while. It gives formulas for the probability of things happening: things like gravitational waves bouncing off each other, as they travel through space. The problem comes when those waves have very high energy, and the nice reasonable probability formula now says that the probability is greater than one.
For those of you who haven’t taken a math class in a while, probabilities greater than one don’t make sense. A probability of one is a certainty, something guaranteed to happen. A probability greater than one isn’t more certain than certain, it’s just nonsense.
So we know something needs to change, we know we need a new theory. But we only know we need that theory when the energy is very high: when it’s the Planck energy. Before then, we might still have a different theory, but we might not: it’s not a “problem” yet.
Now, a few of you understand this part, but still have a misunderstanding. The Planck energy seems high for particle physics, but it isn’t high in an absolute sense: it’s about the energy in a tank of gasoline. Does that mean that all we have to do to measure quantum gravity is to make a quantum state out of your car?
Again, no. That’s because the problem of quantum gravity isn’t just the problem of high-energy quantum gravity either.
Energy seems objective, but it’s not. It’s subjective, or more specifically, relative. Due to special relativity, observers moving at different speeds observe different energies. Because of that, high energy alone can’t be the requirement: it isn’t something either general relativity or quantum field theory can “care about” by itself.
Instead, the real thing that matters is something that’s invariant under special relativity. This is hard to define in general terms, but it’s best to think of it as a requirement for not energy, but energy density.
(For the experts: I’m justifying this phrasing in part because of how you can interpret the quantity appearing in energy conditions as the energy density measured by an observer. This still isn’t the correct way to put it, but I can’t think of a better way that would be understandable to a non-technical reader. If you have one, let me know!)
Why do we need quantum gravity to fully understand black holes? Not just because they have a lot of mass, but because they have a lot of mass concentrated in a small area, a high energy density. Ditto for the Big Bang, when the whole universe had a very large energy density. Particle colliders are useful not just because they give particles high energy, but because they give particles high energy and put them close together, creating a situation with very high energy density.
Once you understand this, you can use it to think about whether some experiment or observation will help with the problem of quantum gravity. Does the experiment involve very high energy density, much higher than anything we can do in a particle collider right now? Is that telescope looking at something created in conditions of very high energy density, or just something nearby?
It’s not impossible for an experiment that doesn’t meet these conditions to find something. Whatever the correct quantum gravity theory is, it might be different from our current theories in a more dramatic way, one that’s easier to measure. But the only guarantee, the only situation where we know we need a new theory, is for very high energy density.
As the new year approaches, people think about the future. Me, I’m thinking about the future of fundamental physics, about what might lie beyond the Standard Model. Physicists search for many different things, with many different motivations. Some are clear missing pieces, places where the Standard Model fails and we know we’ll need to modify it. Others are based on experience, with no guarantees but an expectation that, whatever we find, it will be surprising. Finally, some are cool possibilities, ideas that would explain something or fill in a missing piece but aren’t strictly necessary.
The Almost-Sure Things
Science isn’t math, so nothing here is really a sure thing. We might yet discover a flaw in important principles like quantum mechanics and special relativity, and it might be that an experimental result we trust turns out to be flawed. But if we chose to trust those principles, and our best experiments, then these are places we know the Standard Model is incomplete:
Neutrino Masses: The original Standard Model’s neutrinos were massless. Eventually, physicists discovered this was wrong: neutrinos oscillate, switching between different types in a way they only could if they had different masses. This result is familiar enough that some think of it as already part of the Standard Model, not really beyond. But the masses of neutrinos involve unsolved mysteries: we don’t know what those masses are, but more, there are different ways neutrinos could have mass, and we don’t yet know which is present in nature. Neutrino masses also imply the existence of an undiscovered “sterile” neutrino, a particle that doesn’t interact with the strong, weak, or electromagnetic forces.
Dark Matter Phenomena (and possibly Dark Energy Phenomena): Astronomers first suggested dark matter when they observed galaxies moving at speeds inconsistent with the mass of their stars. Now, they have observed evidence for it in a wide variety of situations, evidence which seems decisively incompatible with ordinary gravity and ordinary matter. Some solve this by introducing dark matter, others by modifying gravity, but this is more of a technical difference than it sounds: in order to modify gravity, one must introduce new quantum fields, much the same way one does when introducing dark matter. The only debate is how “matter-like” those fields need to be, but either approach goes beyond the Standard Model.
Quantum Gravity:It isn’t as hard to unite quantum mechanics and gravity as you might think. Physicists have known for decades how to write down a naive theory of quantum gravity, one that follows the same steps one might use to derive the quantum theory of electricity and magnetism. The problem is, this theory is incomplete. It works at low energies, but as the energy increases it loses the ability to make predictions, eventually giving nonsensical answers like probabilities greater than one. We have candidate solutions to this problem, like string theory, but we might not know for a long time which solution is right.
Landau Poles: Here’s a more obscure one. In particle physics we can zoom in and out in our theories, using similar theories at different scales. What changes are the coupling constants, numbers that determine the strength of the different forces. You can think of this in a loosely reductionist way, with the theories at smaller scales determining the constants for theories at larger scales. This gives workable theories most of the time, but it fails for at least one part of the Standard Model. In electricity and magnetism, the coupling constant increases as you zoom in. Eventually, it becomes infinite, and what’s more, does so at a finite energy scale. It’s still not clear how we should think about this, but luckily we won’t have to very soon: this energy scale is vastly vastly higher than even the scale of quantum gravity.
Some Surprises Guarantee Others: The Standard Model is special in a way that gravity isn’t. Even if you dial up the energy, a Standard Model calculation will always “make sense”: you never get probabilities greater than one. This isn’t true for potential deviations from the Standard Model. If the Higgs boson turns out to interact differently than we expect, it wouldn’t just be a violation of the Standard Model on its own: it would guarantee mathematically that, at some higher energy, we’d have to find something new. That was precisely the kind of argument the LHC used to find the Higgs boson: without the Higgs, something new was guaranteed to happen within the energy range of the LHC to prevent impossible probability numbers.
The Argument from (Theoretical) Experience
Everything in this middle category rests on a particular sort of argument. It’s short of a guarantee, but stronger than a dream or a hunch. While the previous category was based on calculations in theories we already know how to write down, this category relies on our guesses about theories we don’t yet know how to write.
Suppose we had a deeper theory, one that could use fewer parameters to explain the many parameters of the Standard Model. For example, it might explain the Higgs mass, letting us predict it rather than just measuring it like we do now. We don’t have a theory like that yet, but what we do have are many toy model theories, theories that don’t describe the real world but do, in this case, have fewer parameters. We can observe how these theories work, and what kinds of discoveries scientists living in worlds described by them would make. By looking at this process, we can get a rough idea of what to expect, which things in our own world would be “explained” in other ways in these theories.
The Hierarchy Problem: This is also called the naturalness problem. Suppose we had a theory that explained the mass of the Higgs, one where it wasn’t just a free parameter. We don’t have such a theory for the real Higgs, but we do have many toy models with similar behavior, ones with a boson with its mass determined by something else. In these models, though, the mass of the boson is always close to the energy scale of other new particles, particles which have a role in determining its mass, or at least in postponing that determination. This was the core reason why people expected the LHC to find something besides the Higgs. Without such new particles, the large hierarchy between the mass of the Higgs and the mass of new particles becomes a mystery, one where it gets harder and harder to find a toy model with similar behavior that still predicts something like the Higgs mass.
The Strong CP Problem: The weak nuclear force does what must seem like a very weird thing, by violating parity symmetry: the laws that govern it are not the same when you flip the world in a mirror. This is also true when you flip all the charges as well, a combination called CP (charge plus parity). But while it may seem strange that the weak force violates this symmetry, physicists find it stranger that the strong force seems to obey it. Much like in the hierarchy problem, it is very hard to construct a toy model that both predicts a strong force that maintains CP (or almost maintains it) and doesn’t have new particles. The new particle in question, called the axion, is something some people also think may explain dark matter.
Matter-Antimatter Asymmetry: We don’t know the theory of quantum gravity. Even if we did, the candidate theories we have struggle to describe conditions close to the Big Bang. But while we can’t prove it, many physicists expect the quantum gravity conditions near the Big Bang to produce roughly equal amounts of matter and antimatter. Instead, matter dominates: we live in a world made almost entirely of matter, with no evidence of large antimatter areas even far out in space. This lingering mystery could be explained if some new physics was biased towards matter instead of antimatter.
Various Problems in Cosmology: Many open questions in cosmology fall in this category. The small value of the cosmological constant is mysterious for the same reasons the small value of the Higgs mass is, but at a much larger and harder to fix scale. The early universe surprises many cosmologists by its flatness and uniformity, which has led them to propose new physics. This surprise is not because such flatness and uniformity is mathematically impossible, but because it is not the behavior they would expect out of a theory of quantum gravity.
The Cool Possibilities
Some ideas for physics beyond the standard model aren’t required, either from experience or cold hard mathematics. Instead, they’re cool, and would be convenient. These ideas would explain things that look strange, or make for a simpler deeper theory, but they aren’t the only way to do so.
Grand Unified Theories: Not the same as a “theory of everything”, Grand Unified Theories unite the three “particle physics forces”: the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, and electromagnetism. Under such a theory, the different parameters that determine the strengths of those forces could be predicted from one shared parameter, with the forces only seeming different at low energies. These theories often unite the different matter particles too, but they also introduce new particles and new forces. These forces would, among other things, make protons unstable, and so giant experiments have been constructed to try to detect a proton decaying into other particles. So far none has been seen.
Low-Energy Supersymmetry: String theory requires supersymmetry, a relationship where matter and force particles share many properties. That supersymmetry has to be “broken”, which means that while the matter and force particles have the same charges, they can have wildly different masses, so that the partner particles are all still undiscovered. Those masses may be extremely high, all the way up at the scale of quantum gravity, but they could also be low enough to test at the LHC. Physicists hoped to detect such particles, as they could have been a good solution to the hierarchy problem. Now that the LHC hasn’t found these supersymmetric particles, it is much harder to solve the problem this way, though some people are still working on it.
Large Extra Dimensions: String theory also involves extra dimensions, beyond our usual three space and one time. Those dimensions are by default very small, but some proposals have them substantially bigger, big enough that we could have seen evidence for them at the LHC. These proposals could explain why gravity is so much weaker than the other forces. Much like the previous members of this category though, no evidence for this has yet been found.
I think these categories are helpful, but experts may quibble about some of my choices. I also haven’t mentioned every possible thing that could be found beyond the Standard Model. If you’ve heard of something and want to know which category I’d put it in, let me know in the comments!
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’ve done a lot of work with what we like to call “bootstrap” methods. Instead of doing a particle physics calculation in all its gory detail, we start with a plausible guess and impose requirements based on what we know. Eventually, we have the right answer pulled up “by its own bootstraps”: the only answer the calculation could have, without actually doing the calculation.
This method works very well, but so far it’s only been applied to certain kinds of calculations, involving mathematical functions called polylogarithms. More complicated calculations involve a mathematical object called an elliptic curve, and until very recently it wasn’t clear how to bootstrap them. To get people thinking about it, my colleagues Hjalte Frellesvig and Andrew McLeod asked the Carlsberg Foundation (yes, that Carlsberg) to fund a mini-conference. The idea was to get elliptic people and bootstrap people together (along with Hjalte’s tribe, intersection theory people) to hash things out. “Jumpstart people” are not a thing in physics, so despite the title they were not invited.
Having the conference so soon after the yearly Elliptics meeting had some strange consequences. There was only one actual duplicate talk, but the first day of talks all felt like they would have been welcome additions to the earlier conference. Some might be functioning as “overflow”: Elliptics this year focused on discussion and so didn’t have many slots for talks, while this conference despite its discussion-focused goal had a more packed schedule. In other cases, people might have been persuaded by the more relaxed atmosphere and lack of recording or posted slides to give more speculative talks. Oliver Schlotterer’s talk was likely in this category, a discussion of the genus-two functions one step beyond elliptics that I think people at the previous conference would have found very exciting, but which involved work in progress that I could understand him being cautious about presenting.
The other days focused more on the bootstrap side, with progress on some surprising but not-quite-yet elliptic avenues. It was great to hear that Mark Spradlin is making new progress on his Ziggurat story, to hear James Drummond suggest a picture for cluster algebras that could generalize to other theories, and to get some idea of the mysterious ongoing story that animates my colleague Cristian Vergu.
There was one thing the organizers couldn’t have anticipated that ended up throwing the conference into a new light. The goal of the conference was to get people started bootstrapping elliptic functions, but in the meantime people have gotten started on their own. Roger Morales Espasa presented his work on this with several of my other colleagues. They can already reproduce a known result, the ten-particle elliptic double-box, and are well on-track to deriving something genuinely new, the twelve-particle version. It’s exciting, but it definitely makes the rest of us look around and take stock. Hopefully for the better!
I had a paper two weeks ago with a Master’s student, Alex Chaparro Pozo. I haven’t gotten a chance to talk about it yet, so I thought I should say a few words this week. It’s another entry in what I’ve been calling my cabinet of curiosities, interesting mathematical “objects” I’m sharing with the world.
I calculate scattering amplitudes, formulas that give the probability that particles scatter off each other in particular ways. While in principle I could do this with any particle physics theory, I have a favorite: a “toy model” called N=4 super Yang-Mills. N=4 super Yang-Mills doesn’t describe reality, but it lets us figure out cool new calculation tricks, and these often end up useful in reality as well.
Many scattering amplitudes in N=4 super Yang-Mills involve a type of mathematical functions called polylogarithms. These functions are especially easy to work with, but they aren’t the whole story. One we start considering more complicated situations (what if two particles collide, and eight particles come out?) we need more complicated functions, called elliptic polylogarithms.
The original calculation was pretty complicated. Two particles colliding, eight particles coming out, meant that in total we had to keep track of ten different particles. That gets messy fast. I’m pretty good at dealing with six particles, not ten. Luckily, it turned out there was a way to pretend there were six particles only: by “twisting” up the calculation, we found a toy model within the toy model: a six-particle version of the calculation. Much like the original was in a theory that doesn’t describe the real world, these six particles don’t describe six particles in that theory: they’re a kind of toy calculation within the toy model, doubly un-real.
With this nested toy model, I was confident we could do the calculation. I wasn’t confident I’d have time for it, though. This ended up making it perfect for a Master’s thesis, which is how Alex got into the game.
Alex worked his way through the calculation, programming and transforming, going from one type of mathematical functions to another (at least once because I’d forgotten to tell him the right functions to use, oops!) There were more details and subtleties than expected, but in the end everything worked out.
Alex left the field (not, as far as I know, because of this). And for a while, because of that especially thorough scooping, I didn’t publish.
What changed my mind, in part, was seeing the field develop in the meantime. It turns out toy models, and even nested toy models, are quite useful. We still have a lot ofuncertainty about what to do, how to use the new calculation methods and what they imply. And usually, the best way to get through that kind of uncertainty is with simple, well-behaved toy models.
So I thought, in the end, that this might be useful. Even if it’s a toy version of something that already exists, I expect it to be an educational toy, one we can learn a lot from. So I’ve put it out into the world, as part of this year’s cabinet of curiosities.
Elliptics has been growing in recent years, hurtling into prominence as a subfield of amplitudes (which is already a subfield of theoretical physics). This has led to growing lists of participants and a more and more packed schedule.
This year walked all of that back a bit. There were three talks a day: two one-hour talks by senior researchers and one half-hour talk by a junior researcher. The rest, as well as the whole last day, are geared to discussion. It’s an attempt to go back to the subfield’s roots. In the beginning, the Elliptics conferences drew together a small group to sort out a plan for the future, digging through the often-confusing mathematics to try to find a baseline for future progress. The field has advanced since then, but some of our questions are still almost as basic. What relations exist between different calculations? How much do we value fast numerics, versus analytical understanding? What methods do we want to preserve, and which aren’t serving us well? To answer these questions, it helps to get a few people together in one place, not to silently listen to lectures, but to question and discuss and hash things out. I may have heard a smaller range of topics at this year’s Elliptics, but due to the sheer depth we managed to probe on those fewer topics I feel like I’ve learned much more.
Since someone always asks, I should say that the talks were not recorded, but they are posting slides online, so if you’re interested in the topic you can watch there. A few people discussed new developments, some just published and some yet to be published. I discussed the work I talked about last week, and got a lot of good feedback and ideas about how to move forward.
I had two more papers out this week, continuing my cabinet of curiosities. I’ll talk about one of them today, and the other in (probably) two weeks.
This week, I’m talking about a paper I wrote with an excellent Master’s student, Andreas Forum. Andreas came to me looking for a project on the mathematical side. I had a rather nice idea for his project at first, to explain a proof in an old math paper so it could be used by physicists.
Unfortunately, the proof I sent him off to explain didn’t actually exist. Fortunately, by the time we figured this out Andreas had learned quite a bit of math, so he was ready for his next project: a coaction for Calabi-Yau Feynman diagrams.
We chose to focus on one particular diagram, called a sunrise diagram for its resemblance to a sun rising over the sea:
Feynman diagrams depict paths traveled by particles. The paths are a metaphor, or organizing tool, for more complicated calculations: computations of the chances fundamental particles behave in different ways. Each diagram encodes a complicated integral. This one shows one particle splitting into many, then those many particles reuniting into one.
Do the integrals in Feynman diagrams, and you get a variety of different mathematical functions. Many of them integrate to functions called polylogarithms, and we’ve gotten really really good at working with them. We can integrate them up, simplify them, and sometimes we can guess them so well we don’t have to do the integrals at all! We can do all of that because we know how to break polylogarithm functions apart, with a mathematical operation called a coaction. The coaction chops polylogarithms up to simpler parts, parts that are easier to work with.
More complicated Feynman diagrams give more complicated functions, though. Some of them give what are called elliptic functions. You can think of these functions as involving a geometrical shape, in this case a torus.
Other researchers had proposed a coaction for elliptic functions back in 2018. When they derived it, though, they left a recipe for something more general. Follow the instructions in the paper, and you could in principle find a coaction for other diagrams, even the Calabi-Yau ones, if you set it up right.
I had an idea for how to set it up right, and in the grand tradition of supervisors everywhere I got Andreas to do the dirty work of applying it. Despite the delay of our false start and despite the fact that this was probably in retrospect too big a project for a normal Master’s thesis, Andreas made it work!
Our result, though, is a bit weird. The coaction is a powerful tool for polylogarithms because it chops them up finely: keep chopping, and you get down to very simple functions. Our coaction isn’t quite so fine: we don’t chop our functions into as many parts, and the parts are more mysterious, more difficult to handle.
We think these are temporary problems though. The recipe we applied turns out to be a recipe with a lot of choices to make, less like Julia Child and more like one of those books where you mix-and-match recipes. We believe the community can play with the parameters of this recipe, finding new version of the coaction for new uses.
This is one of the shiniest of the curiosities in my cabinet this year, I hope it gets put to good use.
Before I launch into the post: I got interviewed on Theoretically Podcasting, a new YouTube channel focused on beginning grad student-level explanations of topics in theoretical physics. If that sounds interesting to you, check it out!
This Fall is paper season for me. I’m finishing up a number of different projects, on a number of different things. Each one was its own puzzle: a curious object found, polished, and sent off into the world.
I’ve mentioned before that the calculations I do involve a kind of “alphabet“. Break down a formula for the probability that two particles collide, and you find pieces that occur again and again. In the nicest cases, those pieces are rational functions, but they can easily get more complicated. I’ve talked before about a case where square roots enter the game, for example. But if square roots appear, what about something even more complicated? What about cubic roots?
Occasionally, my co-authors and I would say something like that at the end of a talk and an older professor would scoff: “Cube roots? Impossible!”
You might imagine these professors were just being unreasonable skeptics, the elderly-but-distinguished scientists from that Arthur C. Clarke quote. But while they turned out to be wrong, they weren’t being unreasonable. They were thinking back to theorems from the 60’s, theorems which seemed to argue that these particle physics calculations could only have a few specific kinds of behavior: they could behave like rational functions, like logarithms, or like square roots. Theorems which, as they understood them, would have made our claims impossible.
Eventually, we decided to figure out what the heck was going on here. We grabbed the simplest example we could find (a cube root involving three loops and eleven gluons in N=4 super Yang-Mills…yeah) and buckled down to do the calculation.
When we want to calculate something specific to our field, we can reference textbooks and papers, and draw on our own experience. Much of the calculation was like that. A crucial piece, though, involved something quite a bit less specific: calculating a cubic root. And for things like that, you can tell your teachers we use only the very best: Wikipedia.
Check out the Wikipedia entry for the cubic formula. It’s complicated, in ways the quadratic formula isn’t. It involves complex numbers, for one. But it’s not that crazy.
What those theorems from the 60’s said (and what they actually said, not what people misremembered them as saying), was that you can’t take a single limit of a particle physics calculation, and have it behave like a cubic root. You need to take more limits, not just one, to see it.
It turns out, you can even see this just from the Wikipedia entry. There’s a big cube root sign in the middle there, equal to some variable “C”. Look at what’s inside that cube root. You want that part inside to vanish. That means two things need to cancel: Wikipedia labels them , and . Do some algebra, and you’ll see that for those to cancel, you need .
So you look at the limit, . This time you need not just some algebra, but some calculus. I’ll let the students in the audience work it out, but at the end of the day, you should notice how C behaves when is small. It isn’t like . It’s like just plain . The cube root goes away.
It can come back, but only if you take another limit: not just , but as well. And that’s just fine according to those theorems from the 60’s. So our cubic curiosity isn’t impossible after all.
Our calculation wasn’t quite this simple, of course. We had to close a few loopholes, checking our example in detail using more than just Wikipedia-based methods. We found what we thought was a toy example, that turned out to be even more complicated, involving roots of a degree-six polynomial (one that has no “formula”!).
And in the end, polished and in their display case, we’ve put our examples up for the world to see. Let’s see what people think of them!