Tag Archives: quantum gravity

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.

Why I Wasn’t Bothered by the “Science” in Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame has been out for a while, so I don’t have to worry about spoilers right? Right?

Right?

Anyway, time travel. The spoiler is time travel. They bring back everyone who was eliminated in the previous movie, using time travel.

They also attempt to justify the time travel, using Ant Man-flavored quantum mechanics. This works about as plausibly as you’d expect for a superhero whose shrinking powers not only let him talk to ants, but also go to a “place” called “The Quantum Realm”. Along the way, they manage to throw in splintered references to a half-dozen almost-relevant scientific concepts. It’s the kind of thing that makes some physicists squirm.

And I enjoyed it.

Movies tend to treat time travel in one of two ways. The most reckless, and most common, let their characters rewrite history as they go, like Marty McFly almost erasing himself from existence in Back to the Future. This never makes much sense, and the characters in Avengers: Endgame make fun of it, listing a series of movies that do time travel this way (inexplicably including Wrinkle In Time, which has no time travel at all).

In the other common model, time travel has to happen in self-consistent loops: you can’t change the past, but you can go back and be part of it. This is the model used, for example, in Harry Potter, where Potter is saved by a mysterious spell only to travel back in time and cast it himself. This at least makes logical sense, whether it’s possible physically is an open question.

Avengers: Endgame uses the model of self-consistent loops, but with a twist: if you don’t manage to make your loop self-consistent you instead spawn a parallel universe, doomed to suffer the consequences of your mistakes. This is a rarer setup, but not a unique one, though the only other example I can think of at the moment is Homestuck.

Is there any physics justification for the Avengers: Endgame model? Maybe not. But you can at least guess what they were thinking.

The key clue is a quote from Tony Stark, rattling off a stream of movie-grade scientific gibberish:

“ Quantum fluctuation messes with the Planck scale, which then triggers the Deutsch Proposition. Can we agree on that? ”

From this quote, one can guess not only what scientific results inspired the writers of Avengers: Endgame, but possibly also which Wikipedia entry. David Deutsch is a physicist, and an advocate for the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. In 1991 he wrote a paper discussing what happens to quantum mechanics in the environment of a wormhole. In it he pointed out that you can make a self-consistent time travel loop, not just in classical physics, but out of a quantum superposition. This offers a weird solution to the classic grandfather paradox of time travel: instead of causing a paradox, you can form a superposition. As Scott Aaronson explains here, “you’re born with probability 1/2, therefore you kill your grandfather with probability 1/2, therefore you’re born with probability 1/2, and so on—everything is consistent.” If you believe in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, a time traveler in this picture is traveling between two different branches of the wave-function of the universe: you start out in the branch where you were born, kill your grandfather, and end up in the branch where you weren’t born. This isn’t exactly how Avengers: Endgame handles time travel, but it’s close enough that it seems like a likely explanation.

David Deutsch’s argument uses a wormhole, but how do the Avengers make a wormhole in the first place? There we have less information, just vague references to quantum fluctuations at the Planck scale, the scale at which quantum gravity becomes important. There are a few things they could have had in mind, but one of them might have been physicists Leonard Susskind and Juan Maldacena’s conjecture that quantum entanglement is related to wormholes, a conjecture known as ER=EPR.

Long-time readers of the blog might remember I got annoyed a while back, when Caltech promoted ER=EPR using a different Disney franchise. The key difference here is that Avengers: Endgame isn’t pretending to be educational. Unlike Caltech’s ER=EPR piece, or even the movie Interstellar, Avengers: Endgame isn’t really about physics. It’s a superhero story, one that pairs the occasional scientific term with a character goofily bouncing around from childhood to old age while another character exclaims “you’re supposed to send him through time, not time through him!” The audience isn’t there to learn science, so they won’t come away with any incorrect assumptions.

The a movie like Avengers: Endgame doesn’t teach science, or even advertise it. It does celebrate it though.

That’s why, despite the silly half-correct science, I enjoyed Avengers: Endgame. It’s also why I don’t think it’s inappropriate, as some people do, to classify movies like Star Wars as science fiction. Star Wars and Avengers aren’t really about exploring the consequences of science or technology, they aren’t science fiction in that sense. But they do build off science’s role in the wider culture. They take our world and look at the advances on the horizon, robots and space travel and quantum speculations, and they let their optimism inform their storytelling. That’s not going to be scientifically accurate, and it doesn’t need to be, any more than the comic Abstruse Goose really believes Witten is from Mars. It’s about noticing we live in a scientific world, and having fun with it.

Things I’d Like to Know More About

This is an accountability post, of sorts.

As a kid, I wanted to know everything. Eventually, I realized this was a little unrealistic. Doomed to know some things and not others, I picked physics as a kind of triage. Other fields I could learn as an outsider: not well enough to compete with the experts, but enough to at least appreciate what they were doing. After watching a few string theory documentaries, I realized this wasn’t the case for physics: if I was going to ever understand what those string theorists were up to, I would have to go to grad school in string theory.

Over time, this goal lost focus. I’ve become a very specialized creature, an “amplitudeologist”. I didn’t have time or energy for my old questions. In an irony that will surprise no-one, a career as a physicist doesn’t leave much time for curiosity about physics.

One of the great things about this blog is how you guys remind me of those old questions, bringing me out of my overspecialized comfort zone. In that spirit, in this post I’m going to list a few things in physics that I really want to understand better. The idea is to make a public commitment: within a year, I want to understand one of these topics at least well enough to write a decent blog post on it.

Wilsonian Quantum Field Theory:

When you first learn quantum field theory as a physicist, you learn how unsightly infinite results get covered up via an ad-hoc-looking process called renormalization. Eventually you learn a more modern perspective, that these infinite results show up because we’re ignorant of the complete theory at high energies. You learn that you can think of theories at a particular scale, and characterize them by what happens when you “zoom” in and out, in an approach codified by the physicist Kenneth Wilson.

While I understand the basics of Wilson’s approach, the courses I took in grad school skipped the deeper implications. This includes the idea of theories that are defined at all energies, “flowing” from an otherwise scale-invariant theory perturbed with extra pieces. Other physicists are much more comfortable thinking in these terms, and the topic is important for quite a few deep questions, including what it means to properly define a theory and where laws of nature “live”. If I’m going to have an informed opinion on any of those topics, I’ll need to go back and learn the Wilsonian approach properly.

Wormholes:

If you’re a fan of science fiction, you probably know that wormholes are the most realistic option for faster-than-light travel, something that is at least allowed by the equations of general relativity. “Most realistic” isn’t the same as “realistic”, though. Opening a wormhole and keeping it stable requires some kind of “exotic matter”, and that matter needs to violate a set of restrictions, called “energy conditions”, that normal matter obeys. Some of these energy conditions are just conjectures, some we even know how to violate, while others are proven to hold for certain types of theories. Some energy conditions don’t rule out wormholes, but instead restrict their usefulness: you can have non-traversable wormholes (basically, two inescapable black holes that happen to meet in the middle), or traversable wormholes where the distance through the wormhole is always longer than the distance outside.

I’ve seen a few talks on this topic, but I’m still confused about the big picture: which conditions have been proven, what assumptions were needed, and what do they all imply? I haven’t found a publicly-accessible account that covers everything. I owe it to myself as a kid, not to mention everyone who’s a kid now, to get a satisfactory answer.

Quantum Foundations:

Quantum Foundations is a field that many physicists think is a waste of time. It deals with the questions that troubled Einstein and Bohr, questions about what quantum mechanics really means, or why the rules of quantum mechanics are the way they are. These tend to be quite philosophical questions, where it’s hard to tell if people are making progress or just arguing in circles.

I’m more optimistic about philosophy than most physicists, at least when it’s pursued with enough analytic rigor. I’d like to at least understand the leading arguments for different interpretations, what the constraints on interpretations are and the main loopholes. That way, if I end up concluding the field is a waste of time at least I’d be making an informed decision.

Amplitudes in String and Field Theory at NBI

There’s a conference at the Niels Bohr Institute this week, on Amplitudes in String and Field Theory. Like the conference a few weeks back, this one was funded by the Simons Foundation, as part of Michael Green’s visit here.

The first day featured a two-part talk by Michael Green and Congkao Wen. They are looking at the corrections that string theory adds on top of theories of supergravity. These corrections are difficult to calculate directly from string theory, but one can figure out a lot about them from the kinds of symmetry and duality properties they need to have, using the mathematics of modular forms. While Michael’s talk introduced the topic with a discussion of older work, Congkao talked about their recent progress looking at this from an amplitudes perspective.

Francesca Ferrari’s talk on Tuesday also related to modular forms, while Oliver Schlotterer and Pierre Vanhove talked about a different corner of mathematics, single-valued polylogarithms. These single-valued polylogarithms are of interest to string theorists because they seem to connect two parts of string theory: the open strings that describe Yang-Mills forces and the closed strings that describe gravity. In particular, it looks like you can take a calculation in open string theory and just replace numbers and polylogarithms with their “single-valued counterparts” to get the same calculation in closed string theory. Interestingly, there is more than one way that mathematicians can define “single-valued counterparts”, but only one such definition, the one due to Francis Brown, seems to make this trick work. When I asked Pierre about this he quipped it was because “Francis Brown has good taste…either that, or String Theory has good taste.”

Wednesday saw several talks exploring interesting features of string theory. Nathan Berkovitz discussed his new paper, which makes a certain context of AdS/CFT (a duality between string theory in certain curved spaces and field theory on the boundary of those spaces) manifest particularly nicely. By writing string theory in five-dimensional AdS space in the right way, he can show that if the AdS space is small it will generate the same Feynman diagrams that one would use to do calculations in N=4 super Yang-Mills. In the afternoon, Sameer Murthy showed how localization techniques can be used in gravity theories, including to calculate the entropy of black holes in string theory, while Yvonne Geyer talked about how to combine the string theory-like CHY method for calculating amplitudes with supersymmetry, especially in higher dimensions where the relevant mathematics gets tricky.

Thursday ended up focused on field theory. Carlos Mafra was originally going to speak but he wasn’t feeling well, so instead I gave a talk about the “tardigrade” integrals I’ve been looking at. Zvi Bern talked about his work applying amplitudes techniques to make predictions for LIGO. This subject has advanced a lot in the last few years, and now Zvi and collaborators have finally done a calculation beyond what others had been able to do with older methods. They still have a way to go before they beat the traditional methods overall, but they’re off to a great start. Lance Dixon talked about two-loop five-particle non-planar amplitudes in N=4 super Yang-Mills and N=8 supergravity. These are quite a bit trickier than the planar amplitudes I’ve worked on with him in the past, in particular it’s not yet possible to do this just by guessing the answer without considering Feynman diagrams.

Today was the last day of the conference, and the emphasis was on number theory. David Broadhurst described some interesting contributions from physics to mathematics, in particular emphasizing information that the Weierstrass formulation of elliptic curves omits. Eric D’Hoker discussed how the concept of transcendentality, previously used in field theory, could be applied to string theory. A few of his speculations seemed a bit farfetched (in particular, his setup needs to treat certain rational numbers as if they were transcendental), but after his talk I’m a bit more optimistic that there could be something useful there.

How to Get a “Minimum Scale” Without Pixels

Zoom in, and the world gets stranger. Down past atoms, past protons and neutrons, far past the smallest scales we can probe at the Large Hadron Collider, we get to the scale at which quantum gravity matters: the Planck scale.

Weird things happen at the Planck scale. Space and time stop making sense. Read certain pop science articles, and they’ll tell you the Planck scale is the smallest scale, the scale where space and time are quantized, the “pixels of the universe”.

That last sentence, by the way, is not actually how the Planck scale works. In fact, there’s pretty good evidence that the universe doesn’t have “pixels”, that space and time are not quantized in that way. Even very tiny pixels would change the speed of light, making it different for different colors. Tiny effects like that add up, and astronomers would almost certainly have noticed an effect from even Planck-scale pixels. Unless your idea of “pixels” is fairly unusual, it’s already been ruled out.

If the Planck scale isn’t the scale of the “pixels of the universe”, why do people keep saying it is?

Part of the problem is that the real story is vaguer. We don’t know what happens at the Planck scale. It’s not just that we don’t know which theory of quantum gravity is right: we don’t even know what different quantum gravity proposals predict. People are trying to figure it out, and there are some more or less viable ideas, but ultimately all we know is that at the Planck scale our description of space-time should break down.

“Our description breaks down” is unfortunately not very catchy. Certainly, it’s less catchy than “pixels of the universe”. Part of the problem is that most people don’t know what “our description breaks down” actually means.

So if that’s the part that’s puzzling you, maybe an example would help. This won’t be the full answer, though it could be part of the story. What it will be is an example of what “our description breaks down” can actually mean, how there can be a scale beyond which space-time stops making sense without there being “pixels”.

The example comes from string theory, from a concept called “T duality”. In string theory, “extra” dimensions beyond our usual three space and one time are curled up small, so that traveling along them just gets you back where you started. Instead of particles, there are strings, with length close to the Planck length.

Picture a loop of string in a small extra dimension. What can it do?

Image credit: someone who’s done a lot more work explaining string theory than I have

One thing it can do is move along the extra dimension. Since it has to end up back where it started, it can’t just move at any speed it wants. It turns out that the smaller the extra dimension, the more energy the string has when it spins around it.

The other thing it can do is wrap around the extra dimension. If it wraps around, the string has more energy if the dimension is larger, like a rubber band stretched around a pipe.

The string can do either or both of these multiple times. It can wrap many times around the extra dimension, or move in a quicker circle around it, or both at once. And if you calculate the energy of these combinations, you notice something: a string wound around a big circle has the same energy as a string moving around a small circle. In particular, you get the same energy on a circle of radius R, and a circle of radius l^2/R, where l is the length of the string.

It turns out it’s not just the energy that’s the same: for everything that happens on a circle of radius R, there’s a matching description with a circle of radius l^2/R, with wrapping and moving swapped. We say that the two descriptions are dual: two seemingly different pictures that turn out to be completely physically indistinguishable.

Since the two pictures are indistinguishable, it doesn’t actually make sense to talk about dimensions smaller than the length of the string. It’s not that they can’t exist, or that they’re smaller than the “pixels of the universe”: it’s just that any description you write down of such a small dimension could just as easily have been of a larger, dual dimension. It’s that your picture, of one obvious size of the curled up dimension, broke down and stopped making sense.

As I mentioned, this isn’t the whole picture of what happens at the Planck scale, even in string theory. It is an example of a broader idea that string theorists are investigating, that in order to understand space-time at the smallest scales you need to understand many different dual descriptions. And hopefully, it’s something you can hold in your mind, a specific example of what “our description breaks down” can actually mean in practice, without pixels.

Current Themes 2018

I’m at Current Themes in High Energy Physics and Cosmology this week, the yearly conference of the Niels Bohr International Academy. (I talked about their trademark eclectic mix of topics last year.)

This year, the “current theme” was broadly gravitational (though with plenty of exceptions!).

IMG_20180815_180435532

For example, almost getting kicked out of the Botanical Garden

There were talks on phenomena we observe gravitationally, like dark matter. There were talks on calculating amplitudes in gravity theories, both classical and quantum. There were talks about black holes, and the overall shape of the universe. Subir Sarkar talked about his suspicion that the expansion of the universe isn’t actually accelerating, and while I still think the news coverage of it was overblown I sympathize a bit more with his point. He’s got a fairly specific worry, that we’re in a region that’s moving unusually with respect to the surrounding universe, that hasn’t really been investigated in much detail before. I don’t think he’s found anything definitive yet, but it will be interesting as more data accumulates to see what happens.

Of course, current themes can’t stick to just one theme, so there were non-gravitational talks as well. Nima Arkani-Hamed’s talk covered some results he’s talked about in the past, a geometric picture for constraining various theories, but with an interesting new development: while most of the constraints he found restrict things to be positive, one type of constraint he investigated allowed for a very small negative region, around thirty orders of magnitude smaller than the positive part. The extremely small size of the negative region was the most surprising part of the story, as it’s quite hard to get that kind of extremely small scale out of the math we typically invoke in physics (a similar sense of surprise motivates the idea of “naturalness” in particle physics).

There were other interesting talks, which I might talk about later. They should have slides up online soon in case any of you want to have a look.

The Amplitudes Long View

Occasionally, other physicists ask me what the goal of amplitudes research is. What’s it all about?

I want to give my usual answer: we’re calculating scattering amplitudes! We’re trying to compute them more efficiently, taking advantage of simplifications and using a big toolbox of different approaches, and…

Usually by this point in the conversation, it’s clear that this isn’t what they were asking.

When physicists ask me about the goal of amplitudes research, they’ve got a longer view in mind. Maybe they’ve seen a talk by Nima Arkani-Hamed, declaring that spacetime is doomed. Maybe they’ve seen papers arguing that everything we know about quantum field theory can be derived from a few simple rules. Maybe they’ve heard slogans, like “on-shell good, off-shell bad”. Maybe they’ve heard about the conjecture that N=8 supergravity is finite, or maybe they’ve just heard someone praise the field as “demoting the sacred cows like fields, Lagrangians, and gauge symmetry”.

Often, they’ve heard a little bit of all of these. Sometimes they’re excited, sometimes they’re skeptical, but either way, they’re usually more than a little confused. They’re asking how all of these statements fit into a larger story.

The glib answer is that they don’t. Amplitudes has always been a grab-bag of methods: different people with different backgrounds, united by their interest in a particular kind of calculation.

With that said, I think there is a shared philosophy, even if each of us approaches it a little differently. There is an overall principle that unites the amplituhedron and color-kinematics duality, the CHY string and bootstrap methods, BCFW and generalized unitarity.

If I had to describe that principle in one word, I’d call it minimality. Quantum field theory involves hugely complicated mathematical machinery: Lagrangians and path integrals, Feynman diagrams and gauge fixing. At the end of the day, if you want to answer a concrete question, you’re computing a few specific kinds of things: mostly, scattering amplitudes and correlation functions. Amplitudes tries to start from the other end, and ask what outputs of this process are allowed. The idea is to search for something minimal: a few principles that, when applied to a final answer in a particular form, specify it uniquely. The form in question varies: it can be a geometric picture like the amplituhedron, or a string-like worldsheet, or a constructive approach built up from three-particle amplitudes. The goal, in each case, is the same: to skip the usual machinery, and understand the allowed form for the answer.

From this principle, where do the slogans come from? How could minimality replace spacetime, or solve quantum gravity?

It can’t…if we stick to only matching quantum field theory. As long as each calculation matches one someone else could do with known theories, even if we’re more efficient, these minimal descriptions won’t really solve these kinds of big-picture mysteries.

The hope (and for the most part, it’s a long-term hope) is that we can go beyond that. By exploring minimal descriptions, the hope is that we will find not only known theories, but unknown ones as well, theories that weren’t expected in the old understanding of quantum field theory. The amplituhedron doesn’t need space-time, it might lead the way to a theory that doesn’t have space-time. If N=8 supergravity is finite, it could suggest new theories that are finite. The story repeats, with variations, whenever amplitudeologists explore the outlook of our field. If we know the minimal requirements for an amplitude, we could find amplitudes that nobody expected.

I’m not claiming we’re the only field like this: I feel like the conformal bootstrap could tell a similar story. And I’m not saying everyone thinks about our field this way: there’s a lot of deep mathematics in just calculating amplitudes, and it fascinated people long before the field caught on with the Princeton set.

But if you’re asking what the story is for amplitudes, the weird buzz you catch bits and pieces of and can’t quite put together…well, if there’s any unifying story, I think it’s this one.