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!
Here on this blog, I don’t like to get into those kinds of arguments. When I talk about public understanding of science, I share the same concerns as the journalists: we all want to prevent misunderstandings, and to spread a clearer picture. I can argue that some choices hurt the public understanding and some help it, and be reasonably confident that I’m saying something meaningful, something that would resonate with their stated values.
For the bigger questions, what goals science should have and what we should praise, I have much less of a foundation. We don’t all have a clear shared standard for which science is most important. There isn’t some premise I can posit, a fundamental principle I can use to ground a logical argument.
That doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion, though. It doesn’t even mean I can’t persuade others of it. But it means the persuasion has to be a bit more loose. For example, I can use analogies.
So let’s say I’m looking at a result like this simulated wormhole. Researchers took advanced technology (Google’s quantum computer), and used it to model a simple system. They didn’t learn anything especially new about that system (since in this case, a normal computer can simulate it better). I get the impression they didn’t learn all that much about the advanced technology: the methods used, at this point, are pretty well-known, at least to Google. I also get the impression that it wasn’t absurdly expensive: I’ve seen other people do things of a similar scale with Google’s machine, and didn’t get the impression they had to pay through the nose for the privilege. Finally, the simple system simulated happens to be “cool”: it’s a toy model studied by quantum gravity researchers, a simple version of that sci-fi standard, the traversible wormhole.
What results are like that?
Occasionally, scientists build tiny things. If the tiny things are cute enough, or cool enough, they tend to get media attention. The most recent example I can remember was a tiny snowman, three microns tall. These tiny things tend to use very advanced technology, and it’s hard to imagine the scientists learn much from making them, but it’s also hard to imagine they cost all that much to make. They’re amusing, and they absolutely get press coverage, spreading wildly over the web. I don’t think they tend to get published in Nature unless they are a bit more advanced, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if I heard of a case that did, scientific journals can be suckers for cute stories too. They don’t tend to get discussed in glowing terms linking them to historical breakthroughs.
That seems like a pretty close analogy. Taken seriously, it would suggest the wormhole simulation was probably worth doing, probably worth a press release and some media coverage, likely not worth publication in Nature, and definitely not worth being heralded as a major breakthrough.
Ok, but proponents of the experiment might argue I’m leaving something out here. This experiment isn’t just a cute simulation. It’s supposed to be a proof of principle, an early version of an experiment that will be an actually useful simulation.
As an analogy for that…did you know LIGO started taking data in 2002?
Most people first heard of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory in 2016, when they reported their first detection of gravitational waves. But that was actually “advanced LIGO”. The original LIGO ran from 2002 to 2010, and didn’t detect anything. It just wasn’t sensitive enough. Instead, it was a prototype, an early version designed to test the basic concept.
Similarly, while this wormhole situation didn’t teach anything new, future ones might. If the quantum simulation was made larger, it might be possible to simulate more complicated toy models, ones that are too complicated to simulate on a normal computer. These aren’t feasible now, but may be feasible with somewhat bigger quantum computers: still much smaller than the computers that would be needed to break encryption, or even to do simulations that are useful for chemists and materials scientists. Proponents argue that some of these quantum toy models might teach them something interesting about the mathematics of quantum gravity.
Here, though, a number of things weaken the analogy.
LIGO’s first run taught them important things about the noise they would have to deal with, things that they used to build the advanced version. The wormhole simulation didn’t show anything novel about how to use a quantum computer: the type of thing they were doing was well-understood, even if it hadn’t been used to do that yet.
Detecting gravitational waves opened up a new type of astronomy, letting us observe things we could never have observed before. For these toy models, it isn’t obvious to me that the benefit is so unique. Future versions may be difficult to classically simulate, but it wouldn’t surprise me if theorists figured out how to understand them in other ways, or gained the same insight from other toy models and moved on to new questions. They’ll have a while to figure it out, because quantum computers aren’t getting bigger all that fast. I’m very much not an expert in this type of research, so maybe I’m wrong about this…but just comparing to similar research programs, I would be surprised if the quantum simulations end up crucial here.
Finally, even if the analogy held, I don’t think it proves very much. In particular, as far as I can tell, the original LIGO didn’t get much press. At the time, I remember meeting some members of the collaboration, and they clearly didn’t have the fame the project has now. Looking through google news and the archives of the New York times, I can’t find all that much about the experiment: a few articles discussing its progress and prospects, but no grand unveiling, no big press releases.
If anything, I think the wormhole-simulators would be on a firmer footing if they thought of their work like the tiny snowmen. It’s cute, a fun side benefit of advanced technology, and as such something worth chatting about and celebrating a bit. But it’s not the start of a new era.
Actually, I’m more worried that you saw that headline before it was edited, when it looked like this:
If you’ve seen either headline, and haven’t read anything else about it, then please at least read this:
Physicists have not created an actual wormhole. They have simulated a wormhole on a quantum computer.
If you’re willing to read more, then read the rest of this post. There’s a more subtle story going on here, both about physics and about how we communicate it. And for the experts, hold on, because when I say the wormhole was a simulation I’m not making the same argument everyone else is.
[And for the mega-experts, there’s an edit later in the post where I soften that claim a bit.]
The headlines at the top of this post come from an article in Quanta Magazine. Quanta is a web-based magazine covering many fields of science. They’re read by the general public, but they aim for a higher standard than many science journalists, with stricter fact-checking and a goal of covering more challenging and obscure topics. Scientists in turn have tended to be quite happy with them: often, they cover things we feel are important but that the ordinary media isn’t able to cover. (I even wrote something for them recently.)
This pissed off a lot of physicists. After push-back, Quanta’s twitter account published this statement, and they added the word “Holographic” to the title.
Why were physicists pissed off?
It wasn’t because the Quanta article was wrong, per se. As far as I’m aware, all the technical claims they made are correct. Instead, it was about two things. One was the title, and the implication that physicists “really made a wormhole”. The other was the tone, the excited “breaking news” framing complete with a video comparing the experiment with the discovery of the Higgs boson. I’ll discuss each in turn:
Did physicists really create a wormhole, or did they simulate one? And why would that be at all confusing?
The best-studied version of holography is something called AdS/CFT duality. AdS/CFT duality is a relationship between two different theories. One of them is a CFT, or “conformal field theory”, a type of particle physics theory with no gravity and no mass. (The first example of the duality used my favorite toy theory, N=4 super Yang-Mills.) The other one is a version of string theory in an AdS, or anti-de Sitter space, a version of space-time curved so that objects shrink as they move outward, approaching a boundary. (In the first example, this space-time had five dimensions curled up in a sphere and the rest in the anti-de Sitter shape.)
Many physicists would claim that if two theories are dual, then they are both “equally real”. Even if one description is more familiar to us, both descriptions are equally valid. Many philosophers are skeptical, but honestly I think the physicists are right about this one. Philosophers try to figure out which things are real or not real, to make a list of real things and explain everything else as made up of those in some way. I think that whole project is misguided, that it’s clarifying how we happen to talk rather than the nature of reality. In my mind, dualities are some of the clearest evidence that this project doesn’t make any sense: two descriptions can look very different, but in a quite meaningful sense be totally indistinguishable.
That’s the sense in which Quanta and Google and the string theorists they’re collaborating with claim that physicists have created a wormhole. They haven’t created a wormhole in our own space-time, one that, were it bigger and more stable, we could travel through. It isn’t progress towards some future where we actually travel the galaxy with wormholes. Rather, they created some quantum system, and that system’s dual description is a wormhole. That’s a crucial point to remember: even if they created a wormhole, it isn’t a wormhole for you.
If that were the end of the story, this post would still be full of warnings, but the title would be a bit different. It was going to be “Dual Wormholes for My Real Friends, Real Wormholes for My Dual Friends”. But there’s a list of caveats. Most of them arguably don’t matter, but the last was what got me to change the word “dual” to “simulated”.
The real world is not described by N=4 super Yang-Mills theory. N=4 super Yang-Mills theory was never intended to describe the real world. And while the real world may well be described by string theory, those strings are not curled up around a five-dimensional sphere with the remaining dimensions in anti-de Sitter space. We can’t create either theory in a lab either.
The Standard Model probably has a quantum gravity dual too, see this cute post by Matt Strassler. But they still wouldn’t have been able to use that to make a holographic wormhole in a lab.
Instead, they used a version of AdS/CFT with fewer dimensions. It relates a weird form of gravity in one space and one time dimension (called JT gravity), to a weird quantum mechanics theory called SYK, with an infinite number of quantum particles or qubits. This duality is a bit more conjectural than the original one, but still reasonably well-established.
Quantum computers don’t have an infinite number of qubits, so they had to use a version with a finite number: seven, to be specific. They trimmed the model down so that it would still show the wormhole-dual behavior they wanted. At this point, you might say that they’re definitely just simulating the SYK theory, using a small number of qubits to simulate the infinite number. But I think they could argue that this system, too, has a quantum gravity dual. The dual would have to be even weirder than JT gravity, and even more conjectural, but the signs of wormhole-like behavior they observed (mostly through simulations on an ordinary computer, which is still better at this kind of thing than a quantum computer) could be seen as evidence that this limited theory has its own gravity partner, with its own “real dual” wormhole.
But those seven qubits don’t just have the interactions they were programmed to have, the ones with the dual. They are physical objects in the real world, so they interact with all of the forces of the real world. That includes, though very weakly, the force of gravity.
And that’s where I think things break, and you have to call the experiment a simulation. You can argue, if you really want to, that the seven-qubit SYK theory has its own gravity dual, with its own wormhole. There are people who expect duality to be broad enough to include things like that.
But you can’t argue that the seven-qubit SYK theory, plus gravity, has its own gravity dual. Theories that already have gravity are not supposed to have gravity duals. If you pushed hard enough on any of the string theorists on that team, I’m pretty sure they’d admit that.
That is what decisively makes the experiment a simulation. It approximately behaves like a system with a dual wormhole, because you can approximately ignore gravity. But if you’re making some kind of philosophical claim, that you “really made a wormhole”, then “approximately” doesn’t cut it: if you don’t exactly have a system with a dual, then you don’t “really” have a dual wormhole: you’ve just simulated one.
Edit: mitchellporter in the comments points out something I didn’t know: that there are in fact proposals for gravity theories with gravity duals. They are in some sense even more conjectural than the series of caveats above, but at minimum my claim above, that any of the string theorists on the team would agree that the system’s gravity means it can’t have a dual, is probably false.
I think at this point, I’d soften my objection to the following:
Describing the system of qubits in the experiment as a limited version of the SYK theory is in one way or another an approximation. It approximates them as not having any interactions beyond those they programmed, it approximates them as not affected by gravity, and because it’s a quantum mechanical description it even approximates the speed of light as small. Those approximations don’t guarantee that the system doesn’t have a gravity dual. But in order for them to, then our reality, overall, would have to have a gravity dual. There would have to be a dual gravity interpretation of everything, not just the inside of Google’s quantum computer, and it would have to be exact, not just an approximation. Then the approximate SYK would be dual to an approximate wormhole, but that approximate wormhole would be an approximation of some “real” wormhole in the dual space-time.
That’s not impossible, as far as I can tell. But it piles conjecture upon conjecture upon conjecture, to the point that I don’t think anyone has explicitly committed to the whole tower of claims. If you want to believe that this experiment literally created a wormhole, you thus can, but keep in mind the largest asterisk known to mankind.
If it weren’t for that caveat, then I would be happy to say that the physicists really created a wormhole. It would annoy some philosophers, but that’s a bonus.
But even if that were true, I wouldn’t say that in the title of the article.
The Title, Again
These days, people get news in two main ways.
Sometimes, people read full news articles. Reading that Quanta article is a good way to understand the background of the experiment, what was done and why people care about it. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think anything said there was wrong, and they cover essentially all of the caveats you’d care about (except for that last one 😉 ).
Sometimes, though, people just see headlines. They get forwarded on social media, observed at a glance passed between friends. If you’re popular enough, then many more people will see your headline than will actually read the article. For many people, their whole understanding of certain scientific fields is formed by these glancing impressions.
Because of that, if you’re popular and news-y enough, you have to be especially careful with what you put in your headlines, especially when it implies a cool science fiction story. People will almost inevitably see them out of context, and it will impact their view of where science is headed. In this case, the headline may have given many people the impression that we’re actually making progress towards travel via wormholes.
Some of my readers might think this is ridiculous, that no-one would believe something like that. But as a kid, I did. I remember reading popular articles about wormholes, describing how you’d need energy moving in a circle, and other articles about optical physicists finding ways to bend light and make it stand still. Putting two and two together, I assumed these ideas would one day merge, allowing us to travel to distant galaxies faster than light.
If I had seen Quanta’s headline at that age, I would have taken it as confirmation. I would have believed we were well on the way to making wormholes, step by step. Even the New York Times headline, “the Smallest, Crummiest Wormhole You Can Imagine”, wouldn’t have fazed me.
(I’m not sure even the extra word “holographic” would have. People don’t know what “holographic” means in this context, and while some of them would assume it meant “fake”, others would think about the many works of science fiction, like Star Trek, where holograms can interact physically with human beings.)
Quanta has a high-brow audience, many of whom wouldn’t make this mistake. Nevertheless, I think Quanta is popular enough, and respectable enough, that they should have done better here.
At minimum, they could have used the word “simulated”. Even if they go on to argue in the article that the wormhole is real, and not just a simulation, the word in the title does no real harm. It would be a lie, but a beneficial “lie to children”, the basic stock-in-trade of science communication. I think they could have defended it to the string theorists they interviewed on those grounds.
Honestly, I don’t think people would have been nearly so pissed off were it not for the tone of the article. There are a lot of physics bloggers who view themselves as serious-minded people, opposed to hype and publicity stunts. They view the research program aimed at simulating quantum gravity on a quantum computer as just an attempt to link a dying and un-rigorous research topic to an over-hyped and over-funded one, pompous storytelling aimed at promoting the careers of people who are already extremely successful.
These people tend to view Quanta favorably, because it covers serious-minded topics in a thorough way. And so many of them likely felt betrayed, seeing this Quanta article as a massive failure of that serious-minded-ness, falling for or even endorsing the hypiest of hype.
To those people, I’d like to politely suggest you get over yourselves.
Quanta’s goal is to cover things accurately, to represent all the facts in a way people can understand. But “how exciting something is” is not a fact.
Excitement is subjective. Just because most of the things Quanta finds exciting you also find exciting, does not mean that Quanta will find the things you find unexciting unexciting. Quanta is not on “your side” in some war against your personal notion of unexciting science, and you should never have expected it to be.
In fact, Quanta tends to find things exciting, in general. They were more excited than I was about the amplituhedron, and I’m an amplitudeologist. Part of what makes them consistently excited about the serious-minded things you appreciate them for is that they listen to scientists and get excited about the things they’re excited about. That is going to include, inevitably, things those scientists are excited about for what you think are dumb groupthinky hype reasons.
I think the way Quanta titled the piece was unfortunate, and probably did real damage. I think the philosophical claim behind the title is wrong, though for subtle and weird enough reasons that I don’t really fault anybody for ignoring them. But I don’t think the tone they took was a failure of journalistic integrity or research or anything like that. It was a matter of taste. It’s not my taste, it’s probably not yours, but we shouldn’t have expected Quanta to share our tastes in absolutely everything. That’s just not how taste works.
As part of the pedagogy course I’ve been taking, I’m doing a few guest lectures in various courses. I’ve got one coming up in a classical mechanics course (“intermediate”-level, so not Newton’s laws, but stuff the general public doesn’t know much about like Hamiltonians). They’ve been speeding through the core content, so I got to cover a “fun” topic, and after thinking back to my grad school days I chose a topic I think they’ll have a lot of fun with: Chaos theory.
Chaos is one of those things everyone has a vague idea about. People have heard stories where a butterfly flaps its wings and causes a hurricane. Maybe they’ve heard of the rough concept, determinism with strong dependence on the initial conditions, so a tiny change (like that butterfly) can have huge consequences. Maybe they’ve seen pictures of fractals, and got the idea these are somehow related.
Its role in physics is a bit more detailed. It’s one of those concepts that “intermediate classical mechanics” is good for, one that can be much better understood once you’ve been introduced to some of the nineteenth century’s mathematical tools. It felt like a good way to show this class that the things they’ve learned aren’t just useful for dusty old problems, but for understanding something the public thinks is sexy and mysterious.
On the one hand, there’s a big fashion right now for something called research-based teaching. That doesn’t mean “using teaching methods that are justified by research” (though you’re supposed to do that too), but rather, “tying your teaching to current scientific research”. This is a fashion that makes sense, because learning about cutting-edge research in an undergraduate classroom feels pretty cool. It lets students feel more connected with the scientific community, it inspires them to get involved, and it gets them more used to what “real research” looks like.
On the other hand, structuring your textbook based on the original research papers feels kind of lazy. There’s a reason we don’t teach Newtonian mechanics the way Newton would have. Pedagogy is supposed to be something we improve at over time: we come up with better examples and better notation, more focused explanations that teach what we want students to learn. If we just summarize a paper, we’re not really providing “added value”: we should hope, at this point, that we can do better.
Thinking about this, I think the distinction boils down to why you’re teaching the material in the first place.
With a lot of research-based teaching, the goal is to show the students how to interact with current literature. You want to show them journal papers, not because the papers are the best way to teach a concept or skill, but because reading those papers is one of the skills you want to teach.
That makes sense for very current topics, but it seems a bit weird for the example I’ve been looking at, an early study of chaos from the 60’s. It’s great if students can read current papers, but they don’t necessarily need to read older ones. (At least, not yet.)
What then, is the textbook trying to teach? Here things get a bit messy. For a relatively old topic, you’d ideally want to teach not just a vague impression of what was discovered, but concrete skills. Here though, those skills are just a bit beyond the students’ reach: chaos is more approachable than you’d think, but still not 100% something the students can work with. Instead they’re learning to appreciate concepts. This can be quite valuable, but it doesn’t give the kind of structure that a concrete skill does. In particular, it makes it hard to know what to emphasize, beyond just summarizing the original article.
In this case, I’ve come up with my own way forward. There are actually concrete skills I’d like to teach. They’re skills that link up with what the textbook is teaching, skills grounded in the concepts it’s trying to convey, and that makes me think I can convey them. It will give some structure to the lesson, a focus on not merely what I’d like the students to think but what I’d like them to do.
I won’t go into too much detail: I suspect some of the students may be reading this, and I don’t want to spoil the surprise! But I’m looking forward to class, and to getting to try another pedagogical experiment.
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.