Textbook Review: Exploring Black Holes

I’m bringing a box of textbooks with me to Denmark. Most of them are for work: a few Quantum Field Theory texts I might use, a Complex Analysis book for when I inevitably forget how to do contour integration.

One of the books, though, is just for fun.


Exploring Black Holes is an introduction to general relativity for undergraduates. The book came out of a collaboration between Edwin F. Taylor, known for his contributions to physics teaching, and John Archibald Wheeler, who among a long list of achievements was responsible for popularizing the term “black hole”. The result is something quite unique: a general relativity course that requires no math more advanced than calculus, and no physics more advanced than special relativity.

It does this by starting, not with the full tensor-riddled glory of Einstein’s equations, but with specialized solutions to those equations, mostly the Schwarzschild solution that describes space around spherical objects (including planets, stars, and black holes). From there, it manages to introduce curved space in a way that is both intuitive and naturally grows out of what students learn about special relativity. It really is the kind of course a student can take right after their first physics course, and indeed as an undergrad that’s exactly what I did.

With just the Schwarzchild solution and its close relatives, you can already answer most of the questions young students have about general relativity. In a series of “projects”, the book explores the corrections GR demands of GPS satellites, the process of falling into a black hole, the famous measurement of the advance of the perihelion of mercury, the behavior of light in a strong gravitational field, and even a bit of cosmology. In the end the students won’t know the full power of the theory, but they’ll get a taste while building valuable physical intuition.

Still, I wouldn’t bring this book with me if it was just an excellent undergraduate textbook. Exploring Black Holes is a great introduction to general relativity, but it also has a hilarious not-so-hidden agenda: inspiring future astronauts to jump into black holes.

“Nowhere could life be simpler or more relaxed than in a free-float frame, such as an unpowered spaceship falling toward a black hole.” – pg. 2-31

The book is full of quotes like this. One of the book’s “projects” involves computing what happens to an astronaut who falls into a black hole. The book takes special care to have students calculate that “spaghettification”, the process by which the tidal forces of a black hole stretch infalling observers into spaghetti, is surprisingly completely painless: the amount of time you experience it is always less than the amount of time it takes light (and thus also pain) to go from your feet to your head, for any (sufficiently calm) black hole.

Why might Taylor and Wheeler want people of the future to jump into black holes? As the discussion on page B-3 of the book describes, the reason is on one level an epistemic one. As theorists, we’d like to reason about what lies inside the event horizon of black holes, but we face a problem: any direct test would be trapped inside, and we would never know the result, which some would argue makes such speculation unscientific. What Taylor and Wheeler point out is that it’s not quite true that no-one would know the results of such a test: if someone jumped into a black hole, they would be able to test our reasoning. If a whole scientific community jumped in, then the question of what is inside a black hole is from their perspective completely scientific.

Of course, I don’t think Taylor and Wheeler seriously thought their book would convince its readers to jump into black holes. For one, it’s unlikely anyone reading the book will get a chance. Still, I suspect that the idea that future generations might explore black holes gave Taylor and Wheeler some satisfaction, and a nice clean refutation of those who think physics inside the horizon is unscientific. Seeing as the result was an excellent textbook full of hilarious prose, I can’t complain.

We’re Weird

Preparing to move to Denmark, it strikes me just how strange what I’m doing would seem to most people. I’m moving across the ocean to a place where I don’t know the language. (Or at least, don’t know more than half a duolingo lesson.) I’m doing this just three years after another international move. And while I’m definitely nervous, this isn’t the big life changing shift it would be for many people. It’s just how academic careers are expected to work.

At borders, I’m often asked why I am where I am. Why be an American working in Canada? Why move to Denmark? And in general, the answer is just that it’s where I need to be to do what I want to do, because it’s where the other people who do what I want to do are. A few people seed this process by managing to find faculty jobs in their home countries, and others sort themselves out by their interests. In the end, we end up with places like Perimeter, an institute in the middle of Canada with barely any Canadians.

This is more pronounced for smaller fields than for larger ones. A chemist or biologist might just manage to have their whole career in the same state of the US, or the same country in Europe. For a theoretical physicist, this is much less likely. I also suspect it’s more true of more “universal” fields: that most professors of Portuguese literature are in Portugal or Brazil, for example.

For theoretical physics, the result is an essentially random mix of people around the world. This works, in part, because essentially everyone does science in English. Occasionally, a group of collaborators happens to speak the same non-English language, so you sometimes hear people talking science in Russian or Spanish or French. But even then there are times people will default to English anyway, because they’re used to it. We publish in English, we chat in English. And as a result, wherever we end up we can at least talk to our colleagues, even if the surrounding world is trickier.

Communities this international, with four different accents in every conversation, are rare, and I occasionally forget that. Before grad school, the closest I came to this was on the internet. On Dungeons and Dragons forums, much like in academia, everyone was drawn together by shared interests and expertise. We had Australians logging on in the middle of everyone else’s night to argue with the Germans, and Brazilians pointing out how the game’s errata was implemented differently in Portuguese.

It’s fun to be in that sort of community in the real world. There’s always something to learn from each other, even on completely mundane topics. Lunch often turns into a discussion of different countries’ cuisines. As someone who became an academic because I enjoy learning, it’s great to have the wheels constantly spinning like that. I should remember, though, that most of the world doesn’t live like this: we’re currently a pretty weird bunch.

Join the Dark Side: Become a Seminar Organizer

Attending talks is the bane of many a physicist’s existence. Taking an hour out of your busy schedule to listen to someone you know you’ll only understand for fifteen minutes, hoping that they’ll at least give you a vague idea of why you should care but expecting that they won’t…who would willingly subject people to that?

Well, I would.

I’ve signed up to be the High Energy Theory Seminar organizer for the Niels Bohr Institute this year. Most physics institutes hold regular seminars, usually once or twice a week, where they invite speakers from the surrounding region and all over the world. Organizing these seminars is a job often handed to one of the local postdocs: in this case, me.

In the past I’ve put some thought into the purpose of seminars, but mostly from the perspective of someone attending and occasionally giving them. Now that I’m involved in organizing them, entirely new questions present themselves.

Are seminars for work, or for fun? On the one hand, seminars can be a way to keep up with your own field and pick up useful techniques from others. Looked at in that way, I should invite speakers whose interests line up with the researchers at NBI. On the other hand, seminars can be a good way to find out what’s going on outside of your own field, to satisfy your curiosity about the “next big thing”. Sometimes you see a paper and wish you could ask the author what they were thinking, seminars let you ask face to face.

Is it better to invite big names, or grad students? The big-name people might give better talks on more interesting topics, and they enhance the prestige of the seminar series. They also tend to be busy, and don’t need the talks as much as the grad students do.

People from nearby, or far away? It’s cheaper to invite people from nearby, but you want at least a few big names from farther away.

For most of these, the right approach is a balanced one. You want to invite people whose interests line up with your colleagues, but also a few more distant people for breadth. You want a mix of established big-name people and younger researchers, nearby people and far away ones.

The Niels Bohr Institute does a lot of seminars, typically two per week. Even with a co-organizer filling half of them, that’s a lot of ground to cover, a lot of room to balance all of these goals.

Seminar organizers get exposed to a wide range of researchers working on a wide range of topics. It’s supposed to be good for the career, the ultimate networking experience. For myself, I’m still quite specialized, so I’m hoping this will be a good opportunity to broaden my interests and learn about what others are doing. Along the way, perhaps I’ll get a better idea of what seminars are really for.

More Travel

I’m visiting the Niels Bohr Institute this week, on my way back from Amplitudes.


You might recognize the place from old conference photos.

Amplitudes itself was nice. There weren’t any surprising new developments, but a lot of little “aha” moments when one of the speakers explained something I’d heard vague rumors about. I figured I’d mention a few of the things that stood out. Be warned, this is going to be long and comparatively jargon-heavy.

The conference organizers were rather daring in scheduling Nima Arkani-Hamed for the first talk, as Nima has a tendency to arrive at the last minute and talk for twice as long as you ask him to. Miraculously, though, things worked out, if only barely: Nima arrived at the wrong campus and ran most of the way back, showing up within five minutes of the start of the conference. He also stuck to his allotted time, possibly out of courtesy to his student, Yuntao Bai, who was speaking next.

Between the two of them, Nima and Yuntao covered an interesting development, tying the Amplituhedron together with the string theory-esque picture of scattering amplitudes pioneered by Freddy Cachazo, Song He, and Ellis Ye Yuan (or CHY). There’s a simpler (and older) Amplituhedron-like object called the associahedron that can be thought of as what the Amplituhedron looks like on the surface of a string, and CHY’s setup can be thought of as a sophisticated map that takes this object and turns it into the Amplituhedron. It was nice to hear from both Nima and his student on this topic, because Nima’s talks are often high on motivation but low on detail, so it was great that Yuntao was up next to fill in the blanks.

Anastasia Volovich talked about Landau singularities, a topic I’ve mentioned before. What I hadn’t appreciated was how much they can do with them at this point. Originally, Juan Maldacena had suggested that these singularities, mathematical points that determine the behavior of amplitudes first investigated by Landau in the 60’s, might explain some of the simplicity we’ve observed in N=4 super Yang-Mills. They ended up not being enough by themselves, but what Volovich and collaborators are discovering is that with a bit of help from the Amplithedron they explain quite a lot. In particular, if they start with the Amplituhedron and do a procedure similar to Landau’s, they can find the simpler set of singularities allowed by N=4 super Yang-Mills, at least for the examples they’ve calculated. It’s still a bit unclear how this links to their previous investigations of these things in terms of cluster algebras, but it sounds like they’re making progress.

Dmitry Chicherin gave me one of those minor “aha” moments. One big useful fact about scattering amplitudes in N=4 super Yang-Mills is that they’re “dual” to different mathematical objects called Wilson loops, a fact which allows us to compare to the “POPE” approach of Basso, Sever, and Vieira. Chicherin asks the question: “What if you’re not calculating a scattering amplitude or a Wilson loop, but something halfway in between?” Interestingly, this has an answer, with the “halfway between” objects having a similar duality among themselves.

Yorgos Papathansiou talked about work I’ve been involved with. I’ll probably cover it in detail in another post, so now I’ll just mention that we’re up to six loops!

Andy Strominger talked about soft theorems. It’s always interesting seeing people who don’t traditionally work on amplitudes giving talks at Amplitudes. There’s a range of responses, from integrability people (who are basically welcomed like family) to work on fairly unrelated areas that have some “amplitudes” connection (met with yawns except from the few people interested in the connection). The response to Strominger was neither welcome nor boredom, but lively debate. He’s clearly doing something interesting, but many specialists worried he was ignorant of important no-go results in the field that could hamstring some of his bolder conjectures.

The second day focused on methods for more practical calculations, and had the overall effect of making me really want to clean up my code. Tiziano Peraro’s finite field methods in particular look like they could be quite useful. There were two competing bases of integrals on display, Von Manteuffel’s finite integrals and Rutger Boels’s uniform transcendental integrals later in the conference. Both seem to have their own virtues, and I ended up asking Rob Schabinger if it was possible to combine the two, with the result that he’s apparently now looking into it.

The more practical talks that day had a clear focus on calculations with two loops, which are becoming increasingly viable for LHC-relevant calculations. From talking to people who work on this, I get the impression that the goal of these calculations isn’t so much to find new physics as to confirm and investigate new physics found via other methods. Things are complicated enough at two loops that for the moment it isn’t feasible to describe what all the possible new particles might do at that order, and instead the goal is to understand the standard model well enough that if new physics is noticed (likely based on one-loop calculations) then the details can be pinned down by two-loop data. But this picture could conceivably change as methods improve.

Wednesday was math-focused. We had a talk by Francis Brown on his conjecture of a cosmic Galois group. This is a topic I knew a bit about already, since it’s involved in something I’ve been working on. Brown’s talk cleared up some things, but also shed light on the vagueness of the proposal. As with Yorgos’s talk, I’ll probably cover more about this in a future post, so I’ll skip the details for now.

There was also a talk by Samuel Abreu on a much more physical picture of the “symbols” we calculate with. This is something I’ve seen presented before by Ruth Britto, and it’s a setup I haven’t looked into as much as I ought to. It does seem at the moment that they’re limited to one loop, which is a definite downside. Other talks discussed elliptic integrals, the bogeyman that we still can’t deal with by our favored means but that people are at least understanding better.

The last talk on Wednesday before the hike was by David Broadhurst, who’s quite a character in his own right. Broadhurst sat in the front row and asked a question after nearly every talk, usually bringing up papers at least fifty years old, if not one hundred and fifty. At the conference dinner he was exactly the right person to read the Address to the Haggis, resurrecting a thick Scottish accent from his youth. Broadhurst’s techniques for handling high-loop elliptic integrals are quite impressively powerful, leaving me wondering if the approach can be generalized.

Thursday focused on gravity. Radu Roiban gave a better idea of where he and his collaborators are on the road to seven-loop supergravity and what the next bottlenecks are along the way. Oliver Schlotterer’s talk was another one of those “aha” moments, helping me understand a key difference between two senses in which gravity is Yang-Mills squared ( the Kawai-Lewellen-Tye relations and BCJ). In particular, the latter is much more dependent on specifics of how you write the scattering amplitude, so to the extent that you can prove something more like the former at higher loops (the original was only for trees, unlike BCJ) it’s quite valuable. Schlotterer has managed to do this at one loop, using the “Q-cut” method I’ve (briefly) mentioned before. The next day’s talk by Emil Bjerrum-Bohr focused more heavily on these Q-cuts, including a more detailed example at two loops than I’d seen that group present before.

There was also a talk by Walter Goldberger about using amplitudes methods for classical gravity, a subject I’ve looked into before. It was nice to see a more thorough presentation of those ideas, including a more honest appraisal of which amplitudes techniques are really helpful there.

There were other interesting topics, but I’m already way over my usual post length, so I’ll sign off for now. Videos from all but a few of the talks are now online, so if you’re interested you should watch them on the conference page.

Amplitudes 2017

I’ve been at Amplitudes this week, in Edinburgh. There have been a lot of great talks, most of which should already have slides online. (They’ve been surprisingly quick about getting slides up this year, with many uploaded before the corresponding talks!) Recordings of the talks should also be up soon.


We also hiked up local hill Arthur’s Seat on Wednesday, which was a nice change of pace.

I’ll have more time to write about the talks later, a few of them were quite interesting. For now, take a look at some of the slides if you’re curious.

Bootstrapping in the Real World

I’ll be at Amplitudes, my subfield’s big yearly conference, next week, so I don’t have a lot to talk about. That said, I wanted to give a shout-out to my collaborator and future colleague Andrew McLeod, who is a co-author (along with Øyvind Almelid, Claude Duhr, Einan Gardi, and Chris White) on a rather cool paper that went up on arXiv this week.

Andrew and I work on “bootstrapping” calculations in quantum field theory. In particular, we start with a guess for what the result will be based on a specific set of mathematical functions (in my case, “hexagon functions” involving interactions of six particles). We then narrow things down, using other calculations that by themselves only predict part of the result, until we know the right answer. The metaphor here is that we’re “pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps”, skipping a long calculation by essentially just guessing the answer.

This method has worked pretty well…in a toy model anyway. The calculations I’ve done with it use N=4 super Yang-Mills, a simpler cousin of the theories that describe the real world. There, fewer functions can show up, so our guess is much less unwieldy than it would be otherwise.

What’s impressive about Andrew and co.’s new paper is that they apply this method, not to N=4 super Yang-Mills, but to QCD, the theory that describes quarks and gluons in the real world. This is exactly the sort of thing I’ve been hoping to see more of, these methods built into something that can help with real, useful calculations.

Currently, what they can do is still fairly limited. For the particular problem they’re looking at, the functions required ended up being relatively simple, involving interactions between at most four particles. So far, they’ve just reproduced a calculation done by other means. Going further (more “loops”) would involve interactions between more particles, as well as mixing different types of functions (different “transcendental weight”), either of which make the problem much more complicated.

That said, the simplicity of their current calculation is also a reason to be optimistic.  Their starting “guess” had just thirteen parameters, while the one Andrew and I are working on right now (in N=4 super Yang-Mills) has over a thousand. Even if things get a lot more complicated for them at the next loop, we’ve shown that “a lot more complicated” can still be quite doable.

So overall, I’m excited. It looks like there are contexts in which one really can “bootstrap” up calculations in a realistic theory, and that’s a method that could end up really useful.