A LIGO in the Darkness

For the few of you who haven’t yet heard: LIGO has detected gravitational waves from a pair of colliding neutron stars, and that detection has been confirmed by observations of the light from those stars.


They also provide a handy fact sheet.

This is a big deal! On a basic level, it means that we now have confirmation from other instruments and sources that LIGO is really detecting gravitational waves.

The implications go quite a bit further than that, though. You wouldn’t think that just one observation could tell you very much, but this is an observation of an entirely new type, the first time an event has been seen in both gravitational waves and light.

That, it turns out, means that this one observation clears up a whole pile of mysteries in one blow. It shows that at least some gamma ray bursts are caused by colliding neutron stars, that neutron star collisions can give rise to the high-power “kilonovas” capable of forming heavy elements like gold…well, I’m not going to be able to give justice to the full implications in this post. Matt Strassler has a pair of quite detailed posts on the subject, and Quanta magazine’s article has a really great account of the effort that went into the detection, including coordinating the network of telescopes that made it possible.

I’ll focus here on a few aspects that stood out to me.

One fun part of the story behind this detection was how helpful “failed” observations were. VIRGO (the European gravitational wave experiment) was running alongside LIGO at the time, but VIRGO didn’t see the event (or saw it so faintly it couldn’t be sure it saw it). This was actually useful, because VIRGO has a blind spot, and VIRGO’s non-observation told them the event had to have happened in that blind spot. That narrowed things down considerably, and allowed telescopes to close in on the actual merger. IceCube, the neutrino observatory that is literally a cubic kilometer chunk of Antarctica filled with sensors, also failed to detect the event, and this was also useful: along with evidence from other telescopes, it suggests that the “jet” of particles emitted by the merged neutron stars is tilted away from us.

One thing brought up at LIGO’s announcement was that seeing gravitational waves and electromagnetic light at roughly the same time puts limits on any difference between the speed of light and the speed of gravity. At the time I wondered if this was just a throwaway line, but it turns out a variety of proposed modifications of gravity predict that gravitational waves will travel slower than light. This event rules out many of those models, and tightly constrains others.

The announcement from LIGO was screened at NBI, but they didn’t show the full press release. Instead, they cut to a discussion for local news featuring NBI researchers from the various telescope collaborations that observed the event. Some of this discussion was in Danish, so it was only later that I heard about the possibility of using the simultaneous measurement of gravitational waves and light to measure the expansion of the universe. While this event by itself didn’t result in a very precise measurement, as more collisions are observed the statistics will get better, which will hopefully clear up a discrepancy between two previous measures of the expansion rate.

A few news sources made it sound like observing the light from the kilonova has let scientists see directly which heavy elements were produced by the event. That isn’t quite true, as stressed by some of the folks I talked to at NBI. What is true is that the light was consistent with patterns observed in past kilonovas, which are estimated to be powerful enough to produce these heavy elements. However, actually pointing out the lines corresponding to these elements in the spectrum of the event hasn’t been done yet, though it may be possible with further analysis.

A few posts back, I mentioned a group at NBI who had been critical of LIGO’s data analysis and raised doubts of whether they detected gravitational waves at all. There’s not much I can say about this until they’ve commented publicly, but do keep an eye on the arXiv in the next week or two. Despite the optimistic stance I take in the rest of this post, the impression I get from folks here is that things are far from fully resolved.


One, Two, Infinity

Physicists and mathematicians count one, two, infinity.

We start with the simplest case, as a proof of principle. We take a stripped down toy model or simple calculation and show that our idea works. We count “one”, and we publish.

Next, we let things get a bit more complicated. In the next toy model, or the next calculation, new interactions can arise. We figure out how to deal with those new interactions, our count goes from “one” to “two”, and once again we publish.

By this point, hopefully, we understand the pattern. We know what happens in the simplest case, and we know what happens when the different pieces start to interact. If all goes well, that’s enough: we can extrapolate our knowledge to understand not just case “three”, but any case: any model, any calculation. We publish the general case, the general method. We’ve counted one, two, infinity.


Once we’ve counted “infinity”, we don’t have to do any more cases. And so “infinity” becomes the new “zero”, and the next type of calculation you don’t know how to do becomes “one”. It’s like going from addition to multiplication, from multiplication to exponentiation, from exponentials up into the wilds of up-arrow notation. Each time, once you understand the general rules you can jump ahead to an entirely new world with new capabilities…and repeat the same process again, on a new scale. You don’t need to count one, two, three, four, on and on and on.

Of course, research doesn’t always work out this way. My last few papers counted three, four, five, with six on the way. (One and two were already known.) Unlike the ideal cases that go one, two, infinity, here “two” doesn’t give all the pieces you need to keep going. You need to go a few numbers more to get novel insights. That said, we are thinking about “infinity” now, so look forward to a future post that says something about that.

A lot of frustration in physics comes from situations when “infinity” remains stubbornly out of reach. When people complain about all the models for supersymmetry, or inflation, in some sense they’re complaining about fields that haven’t taken that “infinity” step. One or two models of inflation are nice, but by the time the count reaches ten you start hoping that someone will describe all possible models of inflation in one paper, and see if they can make any predictions from that.

(In particle physics, there’s an extent to which people can actually do this. There are methods to describe all possible modifications of the Standard Model in terms of what sort of effects they can have on observations of known particles. There’s a group at NBI who work on this sort of thing.)

The gold standard, though, is one, two, infinity. Our ability to step back, stop working case-by-case, and move on to the next level is not just a cute trick: it’s a foundation for exponential progress. If we can count one, two, infinity, then there’s nowhere we can’t reach.

Congratulations to Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish, and Kip Thorne!

The Nobel Prize in Physics was announced this week, awarded to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish for their work on LIGO, the gravitational wave detector.


Many expected the Nobel to go to LIGO last year, but the Nobel committee waited. At the time, it was expected the prize would be awarded to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Ronald Drever, the three founders of the LIGO project, but there were advocates for Barry Barish was well. Traditionally, the Nobel is awarded to at most three people, so the argument got fairly heated, with opponents arguing Barish was “just an administrator” and advocates pointing out that he was “just the administrator without whom the project would have been cancelled in the 90’s”.

All of this ended up being irrelevant when Drever died last March. The Nobel isn’t awarded posthumously, so the list of obvious candidates (or at least obvious candidates who worked on LIGO) was down to three, which simplified thing considerably for the committee.

LIGO’s work is impressive and clearly Nobel-worthy, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there is some controversy around it. In June, several of my current colleagues at the Niels Bohr Institute uploaded a paper arguing that if you subtract the gravitational wave signal that LIGO claims to have found then the remaining data, the “noise”, is still correlated between LIGO’s two detectors, which it shouldn’t be if it were actually just noise. LIGO hasn’t released an official response yet, but a LIGO postdoc responded with a guest post on Sean Carroll’s blog, and the team at NBI had responses of their own.

I’d usually be fairly skeptical of this kind of argument: it’s easy for an outsider looking at the data from a big experiment like this to miss important technical details that make the collaboration’s analysis work. That said, having seen some conversations between these folks, I’m a bit more sympathetic. LIGO hadn’t been communicating very clearly initially, and it led to a lot of unnecessary confusion on both sides.

One thing that I don’t think has been emphasized enough is that there are two claims LIGO is making: that they detected gravitational waves, and that they detected gravitational waves from black holes of specific masses at a specific distance. The former claim could be supported by the existence of correlated events between the detectors, without many assumptions as to what the signals should look like. The team at NBI seem to have found a correlation of that sort, but I don’t know if they still think the argument in that paper holds given what they’ve said elsewhere.

The second claim, that the waves were from a collision of black holes with specific masses, requires more work. LIGO compares the signal to various models, or “templates”, of black hole events, trying to find one that matches well. This is what the group at NBI subtracts to get the noise contribution. There’s a lot of potential for error in this sort of template-matching. If two templates are quite similar, it may be that the experiment can’t tell the difference between them. At the same time, the individual template predictions have their own sources of uncertainty, coming from numerical simulations and “loops” in particle physics-style calculations. I haven’t yet found a clear explanation from LIGO of how they take these various sources of error into account. It could well be that even if they definitely saw gravitational waves, they don’t actually have clear evidence for the specific black hole masses they claim to have seen.

I’m sure we’ll hear more about this in the coming months, as both groups continue to talk through their disagreement. Hopefully we’ll get a clearer picture of what’s going on. In the meantime, though, Weiss, Barish, and Thorne have accomplished something impressive regardless, and should enjoy their Nobel.

Visiting Uppsala

I’ve been in Uppsala this week, visiting Henrik Johansson‘s group.


The Ångström Laboratory here is substantially larger than an ångström, a clear example of false advertising.

As such, I haven’t had time to write a long post about the recent announcement by the LIGO and VIRGO collaborations. Luckily, Matt Strassler has written one of his currently all-too-rare posts on the subject, so if you’re curious you should check out what he has to say.

Looking at the map of black hole collisions in that post, I’m struck by how quickly things have improved. The four old detections are broad slashes across the sky, the newest is a small patch. Now that there are enough detectors to triangulate, all detections will be located that precisely, or better. A future map might be dotted with precise locations of black hole collisions, but it would still be marred by those four slashes: relics of the brief time when only two machines in the world could detect gravitational waves.

When It Rains It Amplitudes

The last few weeks have seen a rain of amplitudes papers on arXiv, including quite a few interesting ones.


As well as a fair amount of actual rain in Copenhagen

Over the last year Nima Arkani-Hamed has been talking up four or five really interesting results, and not actually publishing any of them. This has understandably frustrated pretty much everybody. In the last week he published two of them, Cosmological Polytopes and the Wavefunction of the Universe with Paolo Benincasa and Alexander Postnikov and Scattering Amplitudes For All Masses and Spins with Tzu-Chen Huang and Yu-tin Huang. So while I’ll have to wait on the others (I’m particularly looking forward to seeing what he’s been working on with Ellis Yuan) this can at least tide me over.

Cosmological Polytopes and the Wavefunction of the Universe is Nima & co.’s attempt to get a geometrical picture for cosmological correlators, analogous to the Ampituhedron. Cosmological correlators ask questions about the overall behavior of the visible universe: how likely is one clump of matter to be some distance from another? What sorts of patterns might we see in the Cosmic Microwave Background? This is the sort of thing that can be used for “cosmological collider physics”, an idea I mention briefly here.

Paolo Benincasa was visiting Perimeter near the end of my time there, so I got a few chances to chat with him about this. One thing he mentioned, but that didn’t register fully at the time, was Postnikov’s involvement. I had expected that even if Nima and Paolo found something interesting that it wouldn’t lead to particularly deep mathematics. Unlike the N=4 super Yang-Mills theory that generates the Amplituhedron, the theories involved in these cosmological correlators aren’t particularly unique, they’re just a particular class of models cosmologists use that happen to work well with Nima’s methods. Given that, it’s really surprising that they found something mathematically interesting enough to interest Postnikov, a mathematician who was involved in the early days of the Amplituhedron’s predecessor, the Positive Grassmannian. If there’s something that mathematically worthwhile in such a seemingly arbitrary theory then perhaps some of the beauty of the Amplithedron are much more general than I had thought.

Scattering Amplitudes For All Masses and Spins is on some level a byproduct of Nima and Yu-tin’s investigations of whether string theory is unique. Still, it’s a useful byproduct. Many of the tricks we use in scattering amplitudes are at their best for theories with massless particles. Once the particles have masses our notation gets a lot messier, and we often have to rely on older methods. What Nima, Yu-tin, and Tzu-Chen have done here is to build a notation similar to what we use for massless particle, but for massive ones.

The advantage of doing this isn’t just clean-looking papers: using this notation makes it a lot easier to see what kinds of theories make sense. There are a variety of old theorems that restrict what sorts of theories you can write down: photons can’t interact directly with each other, there can only be one “gravitational force”, particles with spins greater than two shouldn’t be massless, etc. The original theorems were often fairly involved, but for massless particles there were usually nice ways to prove them in modern amplitudes notation. Yu-tin in particular has a lot of experience finding these kinds of proofs. What the new notation does is make these nice simple proofs possible for massive particles as well. For example, you can try to use the new notation to write down an interaction between a massive particle with spin greater than two and gravity, and what you find is that any expression you write breaks down: it works fine at low energies, but once you’re looking at particles with energies much higher than their mass you start predicting probabilities greater than one. This suggests that particles with higher spins shouldn’t be “fundamental”, they should be explained in terms of other particles at higher energies. The only way around this turns out to be an infinite series of particles to cancel problems from the previous ones, the sort of structure that higher vibrations have in string theory. I often don’t appreciate papers that others claim are a pleasure to read, but this one really was a pleasure to read: there’s something viscerally satisfying about seeing so many important constraints manifest so cleanly.

I’ve talked before about the difference between planar and non-planar theories. Planar theories end up being simpler, and in the case of N=4 super Yang-Mills this results in powerful symmetries that let us do much more complicated calculations. Non-planar theories are more complicated, but necessary for understanding gravity. Dual Conformal Symmetry, Integration-by-Parts Reduction, Differential Equations and the Nonplanar Sector, a new paper by Zvi Bern, Michael Enciso, Harald Ita, and Mao Zeng, works on bridging the gap between these two worlds.

Most of the paper is concerned with using some of the symmetries of N=4 super Yang-Mills in other, more realistic (but still planar) theories. The idea is that even if those symmetries don’t hold one can still use techniques that respect those symmetries, and those techniques can often be a lot cleaner than techniques that don’t. This is probably the most practically useful part of the paper, but the part I was most curious about is in the last few sections, where they discuss non-planar theories. For a while now I’ve been interested in ways to treat a non-planar theory as if it were planar, to try to leverage the powerful symmetries we have in planar N=4 super Yang-Mills elsewhere. Their trick is surprisingly simple: they just cut the diagram open! Oddly enough, they really do end up with similar symmetries using this method. I still need to read this in more detail to understand its limitations, since deep down it feels like something this simple couldn’t possibly work. Still, if anything like the symmetries of planar N=4 holds in the non-planar case there’s a lot we could do with it.

There are a bunch of other interesting recent papers that I haven’t had time to read. Some look like they might relate to weird properties of N=4 super Yang-Mills, others say interesting things about the interconnected web of theories tied together by their behavior when a particle becomes “soft”. Another presents a method for dealing with elliptic functions, one of the main obstructions to applying my hexagon function technique to more situations. And of course I shouldn’t fail to mention a paper by my colleague Carlos Cardona, applying amplitudes techniques to AdS/CFT. Overall, a lot of interesting stuff in a short span of time. I should probably get back to reading it!

The Multiverse Can Only Kill Physics by Becoming Physics

I’m not a fan of the multiverse. I think it’s over-hyped, way beyond its current scientific support.

But I don’t think it’s going to kill physics.

By “the multiverse” I’m referring to a group of related ideas. There’s the idea that we live in a vast, varied universe, with different physical laws in different regions. Relatedly, there’s the idea that the properties of our region aren’t typical of the universe as a whole, just typical of places where life can exist. It may be that in most of the universe the cosmological constant is enormous, but if life can only exist in places where it is tiny then a tiny cosmological constant is what we’ll see. That sort of logic is called anthropic reasoning. If it seems strange, think about a smaller scale: there are many planets in the universe, but only a small number of them can support life. Still, we shouldn’t be surprised that we live on a planet that can support life: if it couldn’t, we wouldn’t live here!

If we really do live in a multiverse, though, some of what we think of as laws of physics are just due to random chance. Maybe the quarks have the masses they do not for some important reason, but just because they happened to end up that way in our patch of the universe.

This seems to have depressing implications. If the laws of physics are random, or just consequences of where life can exist, then what’s left to discover? Why do experiments at all?

Well, why not ask the geoscientists?


These guys

We might live in one universe among many, but we definitely live on one planet among many. And somehow, this realization hasn’t killed geoscience.

That’s because knowing we live on a random planet doesn’t actually tell us very much.

Now, I’m not saying you can’t do anthropic reasoning about the Earth. For example, it looks like an active system of plate tectonics is a necessary ingredient for life. Even if plate tectonics is rare, we shouldn’t be surprised to live on a planet that has it.

Ok, so imagine it’s 1900, before Wegener proposed continental drift. Scientists believe there are many planets in the universe, that we live in a “multiplanet”. Could you predict plate tectonics?

Even knowing that we live on one of the few planets that can support life, you don’t know how it supports life. Even living in a “multiplanet”, geoscience isn’t dead. The specifics of our Earth are still going to teach you something important about how planets work.

Physical laws work the same way. I’ve said that the masses of the quarks could be random, but it’s not quite that simple. The underlying reasons why the masses of the quarks are what they are could be random: the specifics of how six extra dimensions happened to curl up in our region of the universe, for example. But there’s important physics in between: the physics of how those random curlings of space give rise to quark masses. There’s a mechanism there, and we can’t just pick one out of a hat or work backwards to it anthropically. We have to actually go out and discover the answer.

Similarly, we don’t know automatically which phenomena are “random”, which are “anthropic”, and which are required by some deep physical principle. Even in a multiverse, we can’t assume that everything comes down to chance, we only know that some things will, much as the geoscientists don’t know what’s unique to Earth and what’s true of every planet without actually going out and checking.

You can even find a notion of “naturalness” here, if you squint. In physics, we find phenomena like the mass of the Higgs “unnatural”, they’re “fine-tuned” in a way that cries out for an explanation. Normally, we think of this in terms of a hypothetical “theory of everything”: the more “fine-tuned” something appears, the harder it would be to explain it in a final theory. In a multiverse, it looks like we’d have to give up on this, because even the most unlikely-looking circumstance would happen somewhere, especially if it’s needed for life.

Once again, though, imagine you’re a geoscientist. Someone suggests a ridiculously fine-tuned explanation for something: perhaps volcanoes only work if they have exactly the right amount of moisture. Even though we live on one planet in a vast universe, you’re still going to look for simpler explanations before you move on to more complicated ones. It’s human nature, and by and large it’s the only way we’re capable of doing science. As physicists, we’ve papered this over with technical definitions of naturalness, but at the end of the day even in a multiverse we’ll still start with less fine-tuned-looking explanations and only accept the fine-tuned ones when the evidence forces us to. It’s just what people do.

The only way for anthropic reasoning to get around this, to really make physics pointless once and for all, is if it actually starts making predictions. If anthropic reasoning in physics can be made much stronger than anthropic reasoning in geoscience (which, as mentioned, didn’t predict tectonic plates until a century after their discovery) then maybe we can imagine getting to a point where it tells us what particles we should expect to discover, and what masses they should have.

At that point, though, anthropic reasoning won’t have made physics pointless: it will have become physics.

If anthropic reasoning is really good enough to make reliable, falsifiable predictions, then we should be ecstatic! I don’t think we’re anywhere near that point, though some people are earnestly trying to get there. But if it really works out, then we’d have a powerful new method to make predictions about the universe.


Ok, so with all of this said, there is one other worry.

Karl Popper criticized Marxism and Freudianism for being unfalsifiable. In both disciplines, there was a tendency to tell what were essentially “just-so stories”. They could “explain” any phenomenon by setting it in their framework and explaining how it came to be “just so”. These explanations didn’t make new predictions, and different people often ended up coming up with different explanations with no way to distinguish between them. They were stories, not scientific hypotheses. In more recent times, the same criticism has been made of evolutionary psychology. In each case the field is accused of being able to justify anything and everything in terms of its overly ambiguous principles, whether dialectical materialism, the unconscious mind, or the ancestral environment.


Or an elephant’s ‘satiable curtiosity

You’re probably worried that this could happen to physics. With anthropic reasoning and the multiverse, what’s to stop physicists from just proposing some “anthropic” just-so-story for any evidence we happen to find, no matter what it is? Surely anything could be “required for life” given a vague enough argument.

You’re also probably a bit annoyed that I saved this objection for last. I know that for many people, this is precisely what you mean when you say the multiverse will “kill physics”.

I’ve saved this for last for a reason though. It’s because I want to point out something important: this outcome, that our field degenerates into just-so-stories, isn’t required by the physics of the multiverse. Rather, it’s a matter of sociology.

If we hold anthropic reasoning to the same standards as the rest of physics, then there’s no problem: if an anthropic explanation doesn’t make falsifiable predictions then we ignore it. The problem comes if we start loosening our criteria, start letting people publish just-so-stories instead of real science.

This is a real risk! I don’t want to diminish that. It’s harder than it looks for a productive academic field to fall into bullshit, but just-so-stories are a proven way to get there.

What I want to emphasize is that we’re all together in this. We all want to make sure that physics remains scientific. We all need to be vigilant, to prevent a culture of just-so-stories from growing. Regardless of whether the multiverse is the right picture, and regardless of how many annoying TV specials they make about it in the meantime, that’s the key: keeping physics itself honest. If we can manage that, nothing we discover can kill our field.

Thoughts on Polchinski’s Memoir

I didn’t get a chance to meet Joseph Polchinski when I was visiting Santa Barbara last spring. At the time, I heard his health was a bit better, but he still wasn’t feeling well enough to come in to campus. Now that I’ve read his memoir, I almost feel like I have met him. There’s a sense of humor, a diffidence, and a passion for physics that shines through the pages.

The following are some scattered thoughts inspired by the memoir:


A friend of mine once complained to me that in her field grad students all brag about the colleges they went to. I mentioned that in my field your undergrad never comes up…unless it was Caltech. For some reason, everyone I’ve met who went to Caltech is full of stories about the place, and Polchinski is no exception. Speaking as someone who didn’t go there, it seems like Caltech has a profound effect on its students that other places don’t.


Polchinski mentions hearing stories about geniuses of the past, and how those stories helped temper some of his youthful arrogance. There’s an opposite effect that’s also valuable: hearing stories like Polchinski’s, his descriptions of struggling with anxiety and barely publishing and “not really accomplishing anything” till age 40, can be a major comfort to those of us who worry we’ve fallen behind in the academic race. That said, it’s important not to take these things too far: times have changed, you’re not Polchinski, and much like his door-stealing trick at Caltech getting a postdoc without any publications is something you shouldn’t try at home. Even Witten’s students need at least one.


Last week I was a bit puzzled by nueww’s comment, a quote from Polchinski’s memoir which distinguishes “math of the equations” from “math of the solutions”, attributing the former to physicists and the latter to mathematicians. Reading the context in the memoir and the phrase’s origin in a remark by Susskind cleared up a bit, but still left me uneasy. I only figured out why after Lubos Motl posted about it: it doesn’t match my experience of mathematicians at all!

If anything, I think physicists usually care more about the “solutions” than mathematicians do. In my field, often a mathematician will construct some handy basis of functions and then frustrate everyone by providing no examples of how to use them. In the wider math community I’ve met graph theorists who are happy to prove something is true for all graphs of size 10^{10^10} and larger, not worrying about the vast number of graphs where it fails because it’s just a finite number of special cases. And I don’t think this is just my experience: a common genre of jokes revolve around mathematicians proving a solution exists and then not bothering to do anything with it (for example, see the joke with the hotel fire here).

I do think there’s a meaningful sense in which mathematicians care about details that we’re happy to ignore, but “solutions” versus “equations” isn’t really the right axis. It’s something more like “rigor” versus “principles”. Mathematicians will often begin a talk by defining a series of maps between different spaces, carefully describing where they are and aren’t valid. A physicist might just write down a function. That sort of thing is dangerous in mathematics: there are always special, pathological cases that make careful definitions necessary. In physics, those cases rarely come up, and when they do there’s often a clear physical problem that brings them to the forefront. We have a pretty good sense of when we need rigor, and when we don’t we’re happy to lay things out without filling in the details, putting a higher priority on moving forward and figuring out the basic principles underlying reality.


Polchinski talks a fair bit about his role in the idea of the multiverse, from hearing about Weinberg’s anthropic argument to coming to terms with the string landscape. One thing his account makes clear is how horrifying the concept seemed at first: how the idea that the parameters of our universe might just be random could kill science and discourage experimentalists. This touches on something that I think gets lost in arguments about the multiverse: even the people most involved in promoting the multiverse in public aren’t happy about it.

It also sharpened my thinking about the multiverse a bit. I’ve talked before about how I don’t think the popularity of the multiverse is actually going to hurt theoretical physics as a field. Polchinski’s worries made me think about the experimental side of the equation: why do experiments if the world might just be random? I think I have a clearer answer to this now, but it’s a bit long, so I’ll save it for a future post.


One nice thing about these long-term accounts is you get to see how much people shift between fields over time. Polchinski didn’t start out working in string theory, and most of the big names in my field, like Lance Dixon and David Kosower, didn’t start out in scattering amplitudes. Academic careers are long, and however specialized we feel at any one time we can still get swept off in a new direction.


I’m grateful for this opportunity to “meet” Polchinski, if only through his writing. His is a window on the world of theoretical physics that is all too rare, and valuable as a result.