Why I Study a Theory That Isn’t “True”

I study a theory called N=4 super Yang-Mills. (There’s a half-decent explanation of the theory here. For now, just know that it involves a concept called supersymmetry, where forces and matter are very closely related.) When I mention this to people, sometimes they ask me if I’m expecting to see evidence for N=4 super Yang-Mills at the Large Hadron Collider. And if not there, when can we expect a test of the theory?

Never.

Never? Yep. N=4 super Yang-Mills will never be tested, because N=4 super Yang-Mills (sYM for short) is not “true”.

We know it’s not “true”, because it contains particles that don’t exist. Not just particles we might not have found yet, but particles that would make the universe a completely different and possibly unknowable place.

So if it isn’t true, why do I study it?

Let me give you an analogy. Remember back in 2008 when Sarah Palin made fun of funding “fruit fly research in France”?

Most people I talked to found that pretty ridiculous. After all, fruit flies are one of the most stereotypical research animals, second only to mice. And besides, hadn’t we all grown up knowing about how they were used to research HOX genes?

Wait, you didn’t know about that? Evidently, you weren’t raised by a biologist.

HOX genes are how your body knows what limbs go where. When HOX genes activate in an embryo, they send signals, telling cells where to grow arms and legs.

Much of HOX genes’ power was first discovered in fruit flies. With their relatively simple genetics, scientists were able to manipulate the HOX genes, creating crazy frankenflies like Antennapedia (literally: antenna-feet) here.

A fruity fly’s HOX genes, and the body parts they correspond to.

Old antenna-feet. Ain’t he a beauty?

It was only later, as the science got more sophisticated, that biologists began to track what HOX genes do in humans, making substantial progress in understanding debilitating mutations.

How is this related to N=4 super Yang-Mills? Well, just as fruit flies are simpler to study than humans, sYM is simpler to study than the whole mess of unconnected particles that exist in the real world. We can do calculations with sYM that would be out of reach in normal particle physics. As we do these calculations, we discover new patterns and new techniques. The hope is that, just like HOX genes, we will discover traits that still hold in the more complicated situation of the real world. We’re not quite there yet, but it’s getting close.

 

By the way, make sure to watch Big Bang Theory on Thursday (11/29, 8/7c on CBS). Turns out, Sheldon is working on this stuff too, and for those who have read arXiv:1210.7709, his diagrams should look quite familiar…

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