Ansatz: Progress by Guesswork

I’ve talked before about how hard traditional Quantum Field Theory is. Building things up step by step is slow and inefficient. And like any slow and inefficient process, there is a quicker way. An easier way. A…riskier way.

You guess.

Guess is such an ugly word, though…so let’s call it an ansatz.

Ansatz is a word of German origin. In German, it is part of various idiomatic expressions, where it can refer to an approach, an attempt, or a starting point. When physicists and mathematicians use the term ansatz, they mean a combination of all of these.

An ansatz is an approach in that it is a way of finding a solution to a problem without using more general, inefficient methods. Rather than approaching problems starting from the question, an ansatz approaches problems by starting with an answer, or rather, an attempt at an answer.

An ansatz is an attempt in that it serves as researcher’s best first guess at what the answer is, based on what they know about it. This knowledge can come from several sources. Sometimes, the question constrains the answer, ruling out some possibilities or restricting the output to a particular form. Usually, though, the attempt of an ansatz goes beyond this, incorporating the scientist’s experience as to what sorts of answers similar questions have had in the past, even if it isn’t understood yet why those sorts of answers are common. With information from both of these sources, a scientist comes up with a preliminary guess, or ansatz, as to answer to the problem at hand.

What if the answer is wrong, though? The key here is that an ansatz is only a starting point. Rather than being a full answer with all the details filled in, an ansatz generally leaves some parameters free. These free parameters represent unknowns, and it is up to further tests to fix their values and complete the answer. These tests can be experimental, but they can also be mathematical: often there are restrictions on possible answers that are difficult to apply when creating a first guess, but easier to apply when one has only a few parameters to fix. In order to avoid the risk of finding an ansatz that only works by coincidence, many more tests are done than there are parameters. That way, if the guess behind the ansatz is wrong, then some of the tests will give contradictory rules for the values of the parameters, and you’ll know that it’s time to go back and find a better guess.

In the end, this approach, using your first attempt as a starting point, should end up with only a few parameters free, ideally none at all. One way or another, you have figured out a lot about your question just by guessing the answer!

The use of ansatzes is quite common in theoretical physics. Some of the most interesting problem either can’t be solved or are tedious to solve through traditional means. The only way to make progress, to go beyond what everyone else can already do, is to notice a pattern, make a guess, and hope you get lucky. Well, not just a guess: an ansatz.

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