The Parable of the Entanglers and the Bootstrappers

There’s been some buzz around a recent Quanta article by K. C. Cole, The Strange Second Life of String Theory. I found it a bit simplistic of a take on the topic, so I thought I’d offer a different one.

String theory has been called the particle physicist’s approach to quantum gravity. Other approaches use the discovery of general relativity as a model: they’re looking for a big conceptual break from older theories. String theory, in contrast, starts out with a technical problem (naive quantum gravity calculations that give infinity) proposes physical objects that could solve the problem (strings, branes), and figures out which theories of these objects are consistent with existing data (originally the five superstring theories, now all understood as parts of M theory).

That approach worked. It didn’t work all the way, because regardless of whether there are indirect tests that can shed light on quantum gravity, particle physics-style tests are far beyond our capabilities. But in some sense, it went as far as it can: we’ve got a potential solution to the problem, and (apart from some controversy about the cosmological constant) it looks consistent with observations. Until actual evidence surfaces, that’s the end of that particular story.

When people talk about the failure of string theory, they’re usually talking about its aspirations as a “theory of everything”. String theory requires the world to have eleven dimensions, with seven curled up small enough that we can’t observe them. Different arrangements of those dimensions lead to different four-dimensional particles. For a time, it was thought that there would be only a few possible arrangements: few enough that people could find the one that describes the world and use it to predict undiscovered particles.

That particular dream didn’t work out. Instead, it became apparent that there were a truly vast number of different arrangements of dimensions, with no unique prediction likely to surface.

By the time I took my first string theory course in grad school, all of this was well established. I was entering a field shaped by these two facts: string theory’s success as a particle-physics style solution to quantum gravity, and its failure as a uniquely predictive theory of everything.

The quirky thing about science: sociologically, success and failure look pretty similar. Either way, it’s time to find a new project.

A colleague of mine recently said that we’re all either entanglers or bootstrappers. It was a joke, based on two massive grants from the Simons Foundation. But it’s also a good way to summarize two different ways string theory has moved on, from its success and from its failure.

The entanglers start from string theory’s success and say, what’s next?

As it turns out, a particle-physics style understanding of quantum gravity doesn’t tell you everything you need to know. Some of the big conceptual questions the more general relativity-esque approaches were interested in are still worth asking. Luckily, string theory provides tools to answer them.

Many of those answers come from AdS/CFT, the discovery that string theory in a particular warped space-time is dual (secretly the same theory) to a more particle-physics style theory on the edge of that space-time. With that discovery, people could start understanding properties of gravity in terms of properties of particle-physics style theories. They could use concepts like information, complexity, and quantum entanglement (hence “entanglers”) to ask deeper questions about the structure of space-time and the nature of black holes.

The bootstrappers, meanwhile, start from string theory’s failure and ask, what can we do with it?

Twisting up the dimensions of string theory yields a vast number of different arrangements of particles. Rather than viewing this as a problem, why not draw on it as a resource?

“Bootstrappers” explore this space of particle-physics style theories, using ones with interesting properties to find powerful calculation tricks. The name comes from the conformal bootstrap, a technique that finds conformal theories (roughly: theories that are the same at every scale) by “pulling itself by its own boostraps”, using nothing but a kind of self-consistency.

Many accounts, including Cole’s, attribute people like the boostrappers to AdS/CFT as well, crediting it with inspiring string theorists to take a closer look at particle physics-style theories. That may be true in some cases, but I don’t think it’s the whole story: my subfield is bootstrappy, and while it has drawn on AdS/CFT that wasn’t what got it started. Overall, I think it’s more the case that the tools of string theory’s “particle physics-esque approach”, like conformal theories and supersymmetry, ended up (perhaps unsurprisingly) useful for understanding particle physics-style theories.

Not everyone is a “boostrapper” or an “entangler”, even in the broad sense I’m using the words. The two groups also sometimes overlap. Nevertheless, it’s a good way to think about what string theorists are doing these days. Both of these groups start out learning string theory: it’s the only way to learn about AdS/CFT, and it introduces the bootstrappers to a bunch of powerful particle physics tools all in one course. Where they go from there varies, and can be more or less “stringy”. But it’s research that wouldn’t have existed without string theory to get it started.

So You Want to Prove String Theory, Part II: How Can QCD Be a String Theory?

A couple weeks back, I had a post about Nima Arkani-Hamed’s talk at Strings 2016. Nima and his collaborators were trying to find what sorts of scattering amplitudes (formulas that calculate the chance that particles scatter off each other) are allowed in a theory of quantum gravity. Their goal was to show that, with certain assumptions, string theory gives the only consistent answer.

At the time, my old advisor Michael Douglas suggested that I might find Zohar Komargodski’s talk more interesting. Now that I’ve finally gotten around to watching it, I agree. The story is cleaner, more conclusive…and it gives me an excuse to say something else I’ve been meaning to talk about.

Zohar Komargodski has a track record of deriving interesting results that are true not just for the sorts of toy models we like to work with but for realistic theories as well. He’s collaborating with amplitudes miracle-worker Simon Caron-Huot (who I’ve collaborated with recently), Amit Sever (one of the integrability wizards who came up with the POPE program) and Alexander Zhiboedov, whose name seems to show up all over the place. Overall, the team is 100% hot young talent, which tends to be a recipe for success.

While Nima’s calculation focuses on gravity, Zohar and company are asking a broader question. They’re looking at any theory with particles of high spin and nonzero mass. Like Nima, they’re looking at scattering amplitudes, in the limit that the forces involved are weak. Unlike Nima, they’re focusing on a particular limit: rather than trying to fix the full form of the amplitude, they’re interested in how it behaves for extreme, unphysical values for the particles’ momenta. Despite being unphysical, this limit can reveal something about how the theory works.

What they figured out is that, for the sorts of theories they’re looking at, the amplitude has to take a particular form in their unphysical limit. In particular, it takes a form that indicates the presence of strings.

What sort of theories are they looking at? What theories have “particles of high spin and nonzero mass”? Well, some are string theories. Others are Yang-Mills theories … theories similar to QCD.

For the experts, I encourage you to watch Zohar’s talk or read the paper for more detail. It’s a fun story that showcases how very general constraints on scattering amplitudes can translate into quite specific statements.

For the non-experts, though, there’s something that may already be confusing. When I’ve talked about Yang-Mills theories before, I’ve talked about them in terms of particles of spin 1. Where did these “higher spin” particles come from? And where are the strings? How can there be strings in a theory that I’ve described as “similar to QCD”?

If I just stuck to the higher spin particles, things could almost stay familiar. The fundamental particles of Yang-Mills theories have spin 1, but these particles can combine into composite particles, which can have higher spin and higher mass. That should be intuitive: in some sense, it’s just like protons, neutrons, and electrons combining to form atoms.

What about the strings? I’ve actually talked about that before, but I’d like to try out a new analogy. Have you ever heard of Conway’s Game of Life?

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Not this one!

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This one!

Conway’s Game of Life starts with a grid of black and white squares, and evolves in steps, with each square’s color determined by the color of adjacent squares in the last step. “Fundamentally”, the game is just those rules. In practice, though, structure can emerge: a zoo of self-propagating creatures that dance across the screen.

The strings that can show up in Yang-Mills theories are like this. They aren’t introduced directly in the definition of the theory. Instead, they’re consequences: structures that form when you let the rules evolve and see what they create. They’re another description of the theory, one with its own advantages.

When I tell people I’m a theoretical physicist, they inevitably ask me “Have any of your theories been tested?” They’re operating from one idea of what a theoretical physicist does: propose new theories to describe the world, based on available evidence. Lots of theorists do that, they’re called phenomenologists, but it’s not what I do, or what most theorists I interact with day-to-day do.

So I describe what I do, how I test new mathematical techniques to make particle physics calculations faster. And in general, that’s pretty easy for people to understand. Just as they can imagine people out there testing theories, they can imagine people who work to support the others, making tools to make their work easier. But while that’s what I do, it’s not the best description of what most of my colleagues do.

What most theorists I know do is like finding new animals in Conway’s game of life. They start with theories for which we know the rules: well-tested theories like QCD, or well-studied proposals like string theory. They ask themselves, not how they can change the rules, but what results the rules have. They look for structures, and in doing so find new perspectives, learning to see the animals that live on Conway’s black and white grid. (This is something I’ve gestured at before, but this seems like a cleaner framing.)

Doing that, theorists have seen strings in the structure of QCD-like theories. And now Zohar and collaborators have a clean argument that the structures others have seen should show up, not only there, but in a broader class of theories.

This isn’t about whether the world is fundamentally described by string theory, ten dimensions and all. That’s an entirely different topic. What it is is a question about what sorts of structures emerge when we try to describe the world. What it does is show that strings are, in some sense (and, as for Nima, [with some conditions]) inevitable, that they come out of our rules even if we don’t expect them to.

Hexagon Functions IV: Steinmann Harder

It’s paper season! I’ve got another paper out this week, this one a continuation of the hexagon function story.

The story so far:

My collaborators and I have been calculating “six-particle” (two particles collide, four come out, or three collide, three come out…) scattering amplitudes (probabilities that particles scatter) in N=4 super Yang-Mills. We calculate them starting with an ansatz (a guess, basically) made up of a type of functions called hexagon functions: “hexagon” because they’re the right functions for six-particle scattering. We then narrow down our guess by bringing in other information: for example, if two particles are close to lining up, our answer needs to match the one calculated with something called the POPE, so we can throw out guesses that don’t match that. In the end, only one guess survives, and we can check that it’s the right answer.

So what’s new this time?

More loops:

In quantum field theory, most of our calculations are approximate, and we measure the precision in something called loops. The more loops, the closer we are to the exact result, and the more complicated the calculation becomes.

This time, we’re at five loops of precision. To give you an idea of how complicated that is: I store these functions in text files. We’ve got a new, more efficient notation for them. With that, the two-loop functions fit into files around 20KB. Three loops, 500KB. Four, 15MB. And five? 300MB.

So if you want to imagine five loops, think about something that needs to be stored in a 300MB text file.

More insight:

We started out having noticed some weird new symmetries of our old results, so we brought in Simon Caron-Huot, expert on weird new symmetries. He couldn’t figure out that one…but he did notice an entirely different symmetry, one that turned out to have been first noticed in the 60’s, called the Steinmann relations.

The core idea of the Steinmann relations goes back to the old method of calculating amplitudes, with Feynman diagrams. In Feynman diagrams, lines represent particles traveling from one part of the diagram to the other. In a simplified form, the Steinmann conditions are telling us that diagrams can’t take two mutually exclusive shapes at the same time. If three particles are going one way, they can’t also be going another way.

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With the Steinmann relations, things suddenly became a whole lot easier. Calculations that we had taken months to do, Simon was now doing in a week. Finally we could narrow things down and get the full answer, and we could do it with clear, physics-based rules.

More bootstrap:

In physics, when we call something a “bootstrap” it’s in reference to the phrase “pull yourself up by your own boostraps”. That impossible task, lifting yourself  with no outside support, is essentially what we do when we “bootstrap”: we do a calculation with no external input, simply by applying general rules.

In the past, our hexagon function calculations always had some sort of external data. For the first time, with the Steinmann conditions, we don’t need that. Every constraint, everything we do to narrow down our guess, is either a general rule or comes out of our lower-loop results. We never need detailed information from anywhere else.

This is big, because it might allow us to avoid loops altogether. Normally, each loop is an approximation, narrowed down using similar approximations from others. If we don’t need the approximations from others, though, then we might not need any approximations at all. For this particular theory, for this toy model, we might be able to actually calculate scattering amplitudes exactly, for any strength of forces and any energy. Nobody’s been able to do that for this kind of theory before.

We’re already making progress. We’ve got some test cases, simpler quantities that we can understand with no approximations. We’re starting to understand the tools we need, the pieces of our bootstrap. We’ve got a real chance, now, of doing something really fundamentally new.

So keep watching this blog, keep your eyes on arXiv: big things are coming.

A Papal Resummation

I’ve got a new paper up this week. This one is a collaboration with Ho Tat Lam, who just finished a Master’s degree at Perimeter and will be at Princeton in the fall.

A while back, I mentioned that Perimeter’s Master’s program was holding a Winter School up in the wilderness of Ontario. In between skiing and ice skating, I worked with a group of students attempting to sum up something called the Pentagon Operator Product Expansion, or POPE.

SpacePope

The (Rapidity) Space Pope, for a joke only three people will get

While we didn’t finish the job there, we made a lot of progress, and Ho Tat and I kept working on it.

This is the first time I’ve been the senior member of a collaboration, and it was an interesting experience. There’s a lot that you feel like you know perfectly well until you sit down and try to teach it. Getting things out of my head and into someone else’s is a challenge, but it’s one I’m getting better at.

The POPE is an alternate way of calculating scattering amplitudes in N=4 super Yang-Mills. Rather than going loop by loop (and approximating the forces involved as small), it’s a sum of terms that approximate the energy as small. If all of those terms could be added up, we could calculate amplitudes in this theory for any energy and any strength of force.

We can’t do that in general (yet). What we can do is bring back the loop by loop approximation, but keep the sum in energy. If we add up that sum, we can check it against the known loop by loop results, and see if our calculation is faster. Along the way, we learn a bit about how these sums add up to give us polylogarithms.

Ho Tat and I have done the first loop. Going further isn’t just a bigger calculation, there are new challenges we’ll have to face. But I think we’ve got a shot at it.

So You Want to Prove String Theory (Or: Nima Did Something Cool Again)

Nima Arkani-Hamed, of Amplituhedron fame, has been making noises recently about proving string theory.

Now, I can already hear the smartarses in the comments correcting me here. You can’t prove a scientific theory, you can only provide evidence for it.

Well, in this case I don’t mean “provide evidence”. (Direct evidence for string theory is quite unlikely at the moment given the high energies at which it becomes relevant and large number of consistent solutions, but an indirect approach might yet work.) I actually mean “prove”.

See, there are two ways to think about the problem of quantum gravity. One is as an experimental problem: at high enough energies for quantum gravity to be relevant, what actually happens? Since it’s going to be a very long time before we can probe those energies, though, in practice we instead have a technical problem: can we write down a theory that looks like gravity in familiar situations, while avoiding the pesky infinities that come with naive attempts at quantum gravity?

If you can prove that string theory is the only theory that does that, then you’ve proven string theory. If you can prove that string theory is the only theory that does that [with certain conditions] then you’ve proven string theory [with certain conditions].

That, in broad terms, is what Nima has been edging towards. At this year’s Strings conference, he unveiled some progress towards that goal. And since I just recently got around to watching his talk, you get to hear my take on it.

 Nima has been working with Yu-tin Huang, an amplitudeologist who tends to show up everywhere, and one of his students. Working in parallel, an all-star cast has been doing a similar calculation for Yang-Mills theory. The Yang-Mills story is cool, and probably worth a post in its own right, but I think you guys are more interested in the quantum gravity one.

What is Nima doing here?

Nima is looking at scattering amplitudes, probabilities for particles to scatter off of each other. In this case, the particles are gravitons, the particle form of gravitational waves.

Normally, the problems with quantum gravity show up when your scattering amplitudes have loops. Here, Nima is looking at amplitudes without loops, the most important contributions when the force in question is weak (the “weakly coupled” in Nima’s title).

Even for these amplitudes you can gain insight into quantum gravity by seeing what happens at high energies (the “UV” in the title). String amplitudes have nice behavior at high energies, naive gravity amplitudes do not. The question then becomes, are there other amplitudes that preserve this nice behavior, while still obeying the rules of physics? Or is string theory truly unique, the only theory that can do this?

The team that asked a similar question about Yang-Mills theory found that string theory was unique, that every theory that obeyed their conditions was in some sense “stringy”. That makes it even more surprising that, for quantum gravity, the answer was no: the string theory amplitude is not unique. In fact, Nima and his collaborators found an infinite set of amplitudes that met their conditions, related by a parameter they could vary freely.

What are these other amplitudes, then?

Nima thinks they can’t be part of a consistent theory, and he’s probably right. They have a number of tests they haven’t done: in particular, they’ve only been looking at amplitudes involving two gravitons scattering off each other, but a real theory should have consistent answers for any number of gravitons interacting, and it’s doesn’t look like these “alternate” amplitudes can be generalized to work for that.

That said, at this point it’s still possible that these other amplitudes are part of some sort of sensible theory. And that would be incredibly interesting, because we’ve never seen anything like that before.

There are approaches to quantum gravity besides string theory, sure. But common to all of them is an inability to actually calculate scattering amplitudes. If there really were a theory that generated these “alternate” amplitudes, it wouldn’t correspond to any existing quantum gravity proposal.

(Incidentally, this is also why this sort of “proof” of string theory might not convince everyone. Non-string quantum gravity approaches tend to talk about things fairly far removed from scattering amplitudes, so some would see this kind of thing as apples and oranges.)

I’d be fascinated to see where this goes. Either we have a new set of gravity scattering amplitudes to work with, or string theory turns out to be unique in a more rigorous and specific way than we’ve previously known. No matter what, something interesting is going to happen.

After the talk David Gross drew on his experience of the origin of string theory to question whether this work is just retreading the path to an old dead end. String theory arose from an attempt to find a scattering amplitude with nice properties, but it was only by understanding this amplitude physically in terms of vibrating strings that it was able to make real progress.

I generally agree with Nima’s answer, but to re-frame it in my own words: in the amplitudes sub-field, there’s something of a cycle. We try to impose general rules, until by using those rules we have a new calculation technique. We then do a bunch of calculations with the new technique. Finally, we look at the results of those calculations, try to find new general rules, and start the cycle again.

String theory is the result of people applying general rules to scattering amplitudes and learning enough to discover not just a new calculation technique, but a new physical theory. Now, we’ve done quite a lot of string theory calculations, and quite a lot more quantum field theory calculations as well. We have a lot of “data”.

And when you have a lot of data, it becomes much more productive to look for patterns. Now, if we start trying to apply general rules, we have a much better idea of what we’re looking for. This lets us get a lot further than people did the first time through the cycle. It’s what let Nima find the Amplituhedron, and it’s something Yu-tin has a pretty good track record of as well.

So in general, I’m optimistic. As a community, we’re poised to find out some very interesting things about what gravity scattering amplitudes can look like. Maybe, we’ll even prove string theory. [With certain conditions, of course.😉 ]

Science Is a Collection of Projects, Not a Collection of Beliefs

Read a textbook, and you’ll be confronted by a set of beliefs about the world.

(If it’s a half-decent textbook, it will give justifications for those beliefs, and they will be true, putting you well on the way to knowledge.)

The same is true of most science popularization. In either case, you’ll be instructed that a certain set of statements about the world (or about math, or anything else) are true.

If most of your experience with science comes from popularizations and textbooks, you might think that all of science is like this. In particular, you might think of scientific controversies as matters of contrasting beliefs. Some scientists “believe in” supersymmetry, some don’t. Some “believe in” string theory, some don’t. Some “believe in” a multiverse, some don’t.

In practice, though, only settled science takes the form of beliefs. The rest, science as it is actually practiced, is better understood as a collection of projects.

Scientists spend most of their time working on projects. (Well, or procrastinating in my case.) Those projects, not our beliefs about the world, are how we influence other scientists, because projects build off each other. Any time we successfully do a calculation or make a measurement, we’re opening up new calculations and measurements for others to do. We all need to keep working and publishing, so anything that gives people something concrete to do is going to be influential.

The beliefs that matter come later. They come once projects have been so successful, and so widespread, that their success itself is evidence for beliefs. They’re the beliefs that serve as foundational assumptions for future projects. If you’re going to worry that some scientists are behaving unscientifically, these are the sorts of beliefs you want to worry about. Even then, things are often constrained by viable projects: in many fields, you can’t have a textbook without problem sets.

Far too many people seem to miss this distinction. I’ve seen philosophers focus on scientists’ public statements instead of their projects when trying to understand the implications of their science. I’ve seen bloggers and journalists who mostly describe conflicts of beliefs, what scientists expect and hope to be true rather than what they actually work on.

Do scientists have beliefs about controversial topics? Absolutely. Do those beliefs influence what they work on? Sure. But only so far as there’s actually something there to work on.

That’s why you see quite a few high-profile physicists endorsing some form of multiverse, but barely any actual journal articles about it. The belief in a multiverse may or may not be true, but regardless, there just isn’t much that one can do with the idea right now, and it’s what scientists are doing, not what they believe, that constitutes the health of science.

Different fields seem to understand this to different extents. I’m reminded of a story I heard in grad school, of two dueling psychologists. One of them believed that conversation was inherently cooperative, and showed that, unless unusually stressed or busy, people would put in the effort to understand the other person’s perspective. The other believed that conversation was inherently egocentric, and showed that, the more you stressed or busy people are, the more they assume that everyone else has the same perspective they do.

Strip off the “beliefs”, and these two worked on the exact same thing, with the same results. With their beliefs included, though, they were bitter rivals who bristled if their grad students so much as mentioned the other scientist.

We need to avoid this kind of mistake. The skills we have, the kind of work we do, these are important, these are part of science. The way we talk about it to reporters, the ideas we champion when we debate, those are sidelines. They have some influence, dragging people one way or another. But they’re not what science is, because on the front lines, science is about projects, not beliefs.

Physics Is about Legos

There’s a summer camp going on at Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing called QCSYS, the Quantum Cryptography School for Young Students. A lot of these kids are interested in physics in general, not just quantum computing, so they give them a tour of Perimeter. While they’re here, they get a talk from a local postdoc, and this year that postdoc was me.

There’s an image that Perimeter has tossed around a lot recently, All Known Physics in One Equation. This article has an example from a talk given by Neil Turok. I thought it would be fun to explain that equation in terms a (bright, recently taught about quantum mechanics) high school student could understand. To do that, I’d have to explain what the equation is made of: spinors and vectors and tensors and the like.

The last time I had to explain that kind of thing here, I used a video game metaphor. For this talk, I came up with a better metaphor: legos.

Vectors are legos. Spinors are legos. Tensors are legos. They’re legos because they can be connected up together, but only in certain ways. Their “bumps” have to line up properly. And their nature as legos determines what you can build with them.

If you’re interested, here’s my presentation. Experts be warned: there’s a handwaving warning early in this talk, and it applies to a lot of it. In particular, the discussion of gauge group indices leaves out a lot. My goal in this talk was to give a vague idea of what the Standard Model Lagrangian is “made of”, and from the questions I got I think I succeeded.