Tag Archives: quantum field theory

The Changing Meaning of “Explain”

This is another “explanations are weird” post.

I’ve been reading a biography of James Clerk Maxwell, who formulated the theory of electromagnetism. Nowadays, we think about the theory in terms of fields: we think there is an “electromagnetic field”, filling space and time. At the time, though, this was a very unusual way to think, and not even Maxwell was comfortable with it. He felt that he had to present a “physical model” to justify the theory: a picture of tiny gears and ball bearings, somehow occupying the same space as ordinary matter.

Bang! Bang! Maxwell’s silver bearings…

Maxwell didn’t think space was literally filled with ball bearings. He did, however, believe he needed a picture that was sufficiently “physical”, that wasn’t just “mathematics”. Later, when he wrote down a theory that looked more like modern field theory, he still thought of it as provisional: a way to use Lagrange’s mathematics to ignore the unknown “real physical mechanism” and just describe what was observed. To Maxwell, field theory was a description, but not an explanation.

This attitude surprised me. I would have thought physicists in Maxwell’s day could have accepted fields. After all, they had accepted Newton.

In his time, there was quite a bit of controversy about whether Newton’s theory of gravity was “physical”. When rival models described planets driven around by whirlpools, Newton simply described the mathematics of the force, an “action at a distance”. Newton famously insisted hypotheses non fingo, “I feign no hypotheses”, and insisted that he wasn’t saying anything about why gravity worked, merely how it worked. Over time, as the whirlpool models continued to fail, people gradually accepted that gravity could be explained as action at a distance.

You’d think that this would make them able to accept fields as well. Instead, by Maxwell’s day the options for a “physical explanation” had simply been enlarged by one. Now instead of just explaining something with mechanical parts, you could explain it with action at a distance as well. Indeed, many physicists tried to explain electricity and magnetism with some sort of gravity-like action at a distance. They failed, though. You really do need fields.

The author of the biography is an engineer, not a physicist, so I find his perspective unusual at times. After discussing Maxwell’s discomfort with fields, the author says that today physicists are different: instead of insisting on a physical explanation, they accept that there are some things they just cannot know.

At first, I wanted to object: we do have physical explanations, we explain things with fields! We have electromagnetic fields and electron fields, gluon fields and Higgs fields, even a gravitational field for the shape of space-time. These fields aren’t papering over some hidden mechanism, they are the mechanism!

Are they, though?

Fields aren’t quite like the whirlpools and ball bearings of historical physicists. Sometimes fields that look different are secretly the same: the two “different explanations” will give the same result for any measurement you could ever perform. In my area of physics, we try to avoid this by focusing on the measurements instead, building as much as we can out of observable quantities instead of fields. In effect we’re going back yet another layer, another dose of hypotheses non fingo.

Physicists still ask for “physical explanations”, and still worry that some picture might be “just mathematics”. But what that means has changed, and continues to change. I don’t think we have a common standard right now, at least nothing as specific as “mechanical parts or action at a distance, and nothing else”. Somehow, we still care about whether we’ve given an explanation, or just a description, even though we can’t define what an explanation is.

Congratulations to Simon Caron-Huot and Pedro Vieira for the New Horizons Prize!

The 2020 Breakthrough Prizes were announced last week, awards in physics, mathematics, and life sciences. The physics prize was awarded to the Event Horizon Telescope, with the $3 million award to be split among the 347 members of the collaboration. The Breakthrough Prize Foundation also announced this year’s New Horizons prizes, six smaller awards of $100,000 each to younger researchers in physics and math. One of those awards went to two people I know, Simon Caron-Huot and Pedro Vieira. Extremely specialized as I am, I hope no-one minds if I ignore all the other awards and talk about them.

The award for Caron-Huot and Vieira is “For profound contributions to the understanding of quantum field theory.” Indeed, both Simon and Pedro have built their reputations as explorers of quantum field theories, the kind of theories we use in particle physics. Both have found surprising behavior in these theories, where a theory people thought they understood did something quite unexpected. Both also developed new calculation methods, using these theories to compute things that were thought to be out of reach. But this is all rather vague, so let me be a bit more specific about each of them:

Simon Caron-Huot is known for his penetrating and mysterious insight. He has the ability to take a problem and think about it in a totally original way, coming up with a solution that no-one else could have thought of. When I first worked with him, he took a calculation that the rest of us would have taken a month to do and did it by himself in a week. His insight seems to come in part from familiarity with the physics literature, forgotten papers from the 60’s and 70’s that turn out surprisingly useful today. Largely, though, his insight is his own, an inimitable style that few can anticipate. His interests are broad, from exotic toy models to well-tested theories that describe the real world, covering a wide range of methods and approaches. Physicists tend to describe each other in terms of standard “virtues”: depth and breadth, knowledge and originality. Simon somehow seems to embody all of them.

Pedro Vieira is mostly known for his work with integrable theories. These are theories where if one knows the right trick one can “solve” the theory exactly, rather than using the approximations that physicists often rely on. Pedro was a mentor to me when I was a postdoc at the Perimeter Institute, and one thing he taught me was to always expect more. When calculating with computer code I would wait hours for a result, while Pedro would ask “why should it take hours?”, and if we couldn’t propose a reason would insist we find a quicker way. This attitude paid off in his research, where he has used integrable theories to calculate things others would have thought out of reach. His Pentagon Operator Product Expansion, or “POPE”, uses these tricks to calculate probabilities that particles collide, and more recently he pushed further to other calculations with a hexagon-based approach (which one might call the “HOPE”). Now he’s working on “bootstrapping” up complicated theories from simple physical principles, once again asking “why should this be hard?”

At Aspen

I’m at the Aspen Center for Physics this week, for a workshop on Scattering Amplitudes and the Conformal Bootstrap.

A place even greener than its ubiquitous compost bins

Aspen is part of a long and illustrious tradition of physics conference sites located next to ski resorts. It’s ten years younger than its closest European counterpart Les Houches School of Physics, but if anything its traditions are stricter: all blackboard talks, and a minimum two-week visit. Instead of the summer schools of Les Houches, Aspen’s goal is to inspire collaboration: to get physicists to spend time working and hiking around each other until inspiration strikes.

This workshop is a meeting between two communities: people who study the Conformal Bootstrap (nice popular description here) and my own field of Scattering Amplitudes. The Conformal Boostrap is one of our closest sister-fields, so there may be a lot of potential for collaboration. This week’s talks have been amplitudes-focused, I’m looking forward to the talks next week that will highlight connections between the two fields.

Breakthrough Prize for Supergravity

This week, $3 Million was awarded by the Breakthrough Prize to Sergio Ferrara, Daniel Z. Freedman and Peter van Nieuwenhuizen, the discoverers of the theory of supergravity, part of a special award separate from their yearly Fundamental Physics Prize. There’s a nice interview with Peter van Nieuwenhuizen on the Stony Brook University website, about his reaction to the award.

The Breakthrough Prize was designed to complement the Nobel Prize, rewarding deserving researchers who wouldn’t otherwise get the Nobel. The Nobel Prize is only awarded to theoretical physicists when they predict something that is later observed in an experiment. Many theorists are instead renowned for their mathematical inventions, concepts that other theorists build on and use but that do not by themselves make testable predictions. The Breakthrough Prize celebrates these theorists, and while it has also been awarded to others who the Nobel committee could not or did not recognize (various large experimental collaborations, Jocelyn Bell Burnell), this has always been the physics prize’s primary focus.

The Breakthrough Prize website describes supergravity as a theory that combines gravity with particle physics. That’s a bit misleading: while the theory does treat gravity in a “particle physics” way, unlike string theory it doesn’t solve the famous problems with combining quantum mechanics and gravity. (At least, as far as we know.)

It’s better to say that supergravity is a theory that links gravity to other parts of particle physics, via supersymmetry. Supersymmetry is a relationship between two types of particles: bosons, like photons, gravitons, or the Higgs, and fermions, like electrons or quarks. In supersymmetry, each type of boson has a fermion “partner”, and vice versa. In supergravity, gravity itself gets a partner, called the gravitino. Supersymmetry links the properties of particles and their partners together: both must have the same mass and the same charge. In a sense, it can unify different types of particles, explaining both under the same set of rules.

In the real world, we don’t see bosons and fermions with the same mass and charge. If gravitinos exist, then supersymmetry would have to be “broken”, giving them a high mass that makes them hard to find. Some hoped that the Large Hadron Collider could find these particles, but now it looks like it won’t, so there is no evidence for supergravity at the moment.

Instead, supergravity’s success has been as a tool to understand other theories of gravity. When the theory was proposed in the 1970’s, it was thought of as a rival to string theory. Instead, over the years it consistently managed to point out aspects of string theory that the string theorists themselves had missed, for example noticing that the theory needed not just strings but higher-dimensional objects called “branes”. Now, supergravity is understood as one part of a broader string theory picture.

In my corner of physics, we try to find shortcuts for complicated calculations. We benefit a lot from toy models: simpler, unrealistic theories that let us test our ideas before applying them to the real world. Supergravity is one of the best toy models we’ve got, a theory that makes gravity simple enough that we can start to make progress. Right now, colleagues of mine are developing new techniques for calculations at LIGO, the gravitational wave telescope. If they hadn’t worked with supergravity first, they would never have discovered these techniques.

The discovery of supergravity by Ferrara, Freedman, and van Nieuwenhuizen is exactly the kind of work the Breakthrough Prize was created to reward. Supergravity is a theory with deep mathematics, rich structure, and wide applicability. There is of course no guarantee that such a theory describes the real world. What is guaranteed, though, is that someone will find it useful.

Amplitudes 2019 Retrospective

I’m back from Amplitudes 2019, and since I have more time I figured I’d write down a few more impressions.

Amplitudes runs all the way from practical LHC calculations to almost pure mathematics, and this conference had plenty of both as well as everything in between. On the more practical side a standard “pipeline” has developed: get a large number of integrals from generalized unitarity, reduce them to a more manageable number with integration-by-parts, and then compute them with differential equations. Vladimir Smirnov and Johannes Henn presented the state of the art in this pipeline, challenging QCD calculations that required powerful methods. Others aimed to replace various parts of the pipeline. Integration-by-parts could be avoided in the numerical unitarity approach discussed by Ben Page, or alternatively with the intersection theory techniques showcased by Pierpaolo Mastrolia. More radical departures included Stefan Weinzierl’s refinement of loop-tree duality, and Jacob Bourjaily’s advocacy of prescriptive unitarity. Robert Schabinger even brought up direct integration, though I mostly viewed his talk as an independent confirmation of the usefulness of Erik Panzer’s thesis. It also showcased an interesting integral that had previously been represented by Lorenzo Tancredi and collaborators as elliptic, but turned out to be writable in terms of more familiar functions. It’s going to be interesting to see whether other such integrals arise, and whether they can be spotted in advance.

On the other end of the scale, Francis Brown was the only speaker deep enough in the culture of mathematics to insist on doing a blackboard talk. Since the conference hall didn’t actually have a blackboard, this was accomplished by projecting video of a piece of paper that he wrote on as the talk progressed. Despite the awkward setup, the talk was impressively clear, though there were enough questions that he ran out of time at the end and had to “cheat” by just projecting his notes instead. He presented a few theorems about the sort of integrals that show up in string theory. Federico Zerbini and Eduardo Casali’s talks covered similar topics, with the latter also involving intersection theory. Intersection theory also appeared in a poster from grad student Andrzej Pokraka, which overall is a pretty impressively broad showing for a part of mathematics that Sebastian Mizera first introduced to the amplitudes community less than two years ago.

Nima Arkani-Hamed’s talk on Wednesday fell somewhere in between. A series of airline mishaps brought him there only a few hours before his talk, and his own busy schedule sent him back to the airport right after the last question. The talk itself covered several topics, tied together a bit better than usual by a nice account in the beginning of what might motivate a “polytope picture” of quantum field theory. One particularly interesting aspect was a suggestion of a space, smaller than the amplituhedron, that might more accuractly the describe the “alphabet” that appears in N=4 super Yang-Mills amplitudes. If his proposal works, it may be that the infinite alphabet we were worried about for eight-particle amplitudes is actually finite. Ömer Gürdoğan’s talk mentioned this, and drew out some implications. Overall, I’m still unclear as to what this story says about whether the alphabet contains square roots, but that’s a topic for another day. My talk was right after Nima’s, and while he went over-time as always I compensated by accidentally going under-time. Overall, I think folks had fun regardless.

Though I don’t know how many people recognized this guy

Amplitudes 2019

It’s that time of year again, and I’m at Amplitudes, my field’s big yearly conference. This year we’re in Dublin, hosted by Trinity.

Which also hosts the Book of Kells, and the occasional conference reception just down the hall from the Book of Kells

Increasingly, the organizers of Amplitudes have been setting aside a few slots for talks from people in other fields. This year the “closest” such speaker was Kirill Melnikov, who pointed out some of the hurdles that make it difficult to have useful calculations to compare to the LHC. Many of these hurdles aren’t things that amplitudes-people have traditionally worked on, but are still things that might benefit from our particular expertise. Another such speaker, Maxwell Hansen, is from a field called Lattice QCD. While amplitudeologists typically compute with approximations, order by order in more and more complicated diagrams, Lattice QCD instead simulates particle physics on supercomputers, chopping up their calculations on a grid. This allows them to study much stronger forces, including the messy interactions of quarks inside protons, but they have a harder time with the situations we’re best at, where two particles collide from far away. Apparently, though, they are making progress on that kind of calculation, with some clever tricks to connect it to calculations they know how to do. While I was a bit worried that this would let them fire all the amplitudeologists and replace us with supercomputers, they’re not quite there yet, nonetheless they are doing better than I would have expected. Other speakers from other fields included Leron Borsten, who has been applying the amplitudes concept of the “double copy” to M theory and Andrew Tolley, who uses the kind of “positivity” properties that amplitudeologists find interesting to restrict the kinds of theories used in cosmology.

The biggest set of “non-traditional-amplitudes” talks focused on using amplitudes techniques to calculate the behavior not of particles but of black holes, to predict the gravitational wave patterns detected by LIGO. This year featured a record six talks on the topic, a sixth of the conference. Last year I commented that the research ideas from amplitudeologists on gravitational waves had gotten more robust, with clearer proposals for how to move forward. This year things have developed even further, with several initial results. Even more encouragingly, while there are several groups doing different things they appear to be genuinely listening to each other: there were plenty of references in the talks both to other amplitudes groups and to work by more traditional gravitational physicists. There’s definitely still plenty of lingering confusion that needs to be cleared up, but it looks like the community is robust enough to work through it.

I’m still busy with the conference, but I’ll say more when I’m back next week. Stay tuned for square roots, clusters, and Nima’s travel schedule. And if you’re a regular reader, please fill out last week’s poll if you haven’t already!

Hexagon Functions VI: The Power Cosmic

I have a new paper out this week. It’s the long-awaited companion to a paper I blogged about a few months back, itself the latest step in a program that has made up a major chunk of my research.

The title is a bit of a mouthful, but I’ll walk you through it:

The Cosmic Galois Group and Extended Steinmann Relations for Planar N = 4 SYM Amplitudes

I calculate scattering amplitudes (roughly, probabilities that elementary particles bounce off each other) in a (not realistic, and not meant to be) theory called planar N=4 super-Yang-Mills (SYM for short). I can’t summarize everything we’ve been doing here, but if you read the blog posts I linked above and some of the Handy Handbooks linked at the top of the page you’ll hopefully get a clearer picture.

We started using the Steinmann Relations a few years ago. Discovered in the 60’s, the Steinmann relations restrict the kind of equations we can use to describe particle physics. Essentially, they mean that particles can’t travel two ways at once. In this paper, we extend the Steinmann relations beyond Steinmann’s original idea. We don’t yet know if we can prove this extension works, but it seems to be true for the amplitudes we’re calculating. While we’ve presented this in talks before, this is the first time we’ve published it, and it’s one of the big results of this paper.

The other, more exotic-sounding result, has to do with something called the Cosmic Galois Group.

Évariste Galois, the famously duel-prone mathematician, figured out relations between algebraic numbers (that is, numbers you can get out of algebraic equations) in terms of a mathematical structure called a group. Today, mathematicians are interested not just in algebraic numbers, but in relations between transcendental numbers as well, specifically a kind of transcendental number called a period. These numbers show up a lot in physics, so mathematicians have been thinking about a Galois group for transcendental numbers that show up in physics, a so-called Cosmic Galois Group.

(Cosmic here doesn’t mean it has to do with cosmology. As far as I can tell, mathematicians just thought it sounded cool and physics-y. They also started out with rather ambitious ideas about it, if you want a laugh check out the last few paragraphs of this talk by Cartier.)

For us, Cosmic Galois Theory lets us study the unusual numbers that show up in our calculations. Doing this, we’ve noticed that certain numbers simply don’t show up. For example, the Riemann zeta function shows up often in our results, evaluated at many different numbers…but never evaluated at the number three. Nor does any number related to that one through the Cosmic Galois Group show up. It’s as if the theory only likes some numbers, and not others.

This weird behavior has been observed before. Mathematicians can prove it happens for some simple theories, but it even applies to the theories that describe the real world, for example to calculations of the way an electron’s path is bent by a magnetic field. Each theory seems to have its own preferred family of numbers.

For us, this has been enormously useful. We calculate our amplitudes by guesswork, starting with the right “alphabet” and then filling in different combinations, as if we’re trying all possible answers to a word jumble. Cosmic Galois Theory and Extended Steinmann have enabled us to narrow down our guess dramatically, making it much easier and faster to get to the right answer.

More generally though, we hope to contribute to mathematicians’ investigations of Cosmic Galois Theory. Our examples are more complicated than the simple theories where they currently prove things, and contain more data than the more limited results from electrons. Hopefully together we can figure out why certain numbers show up and others don’t, and find interesting mathematical principles behind the theories that govern fundamental physics.

For now, I’ll leave you with a preview of a talk I’m giving in a couple weeks’ time:

The font, of course, is Cosmic Sans