Tag Archives: mathematics

Writing the Paper Changes the Results

You spent months on your calculation, but finally it’s paid off. Now you just have to write the paper. That’s the easy part, right?

Not quite. Even if writing itself is easy for you, writing a paper is never just writing. To write a paper, you have to make your results as clear as possible, to fit them into one cohesive story. And often, doing that requires new calculations.

It’s something that first really struck me when talking to mathematicians, who may be the most extreme case. For them, a paper needs to be a complete, rigorous proof. Even when they have a result solidly plotted out in their head, when they’re sure they can prove something and they know what the proof needs to “look like”, actually getting the details right takes quite a lot of work.

Physicists don’t have quite the same standards of rigor, but we have a similar paper-writing experience. Often, trying to make our work clear raises novel questions. As we write, we try to put ourselves in the mind of a potential reader. Sometimes our imaginary reader is content and quiet. Other times, though, they object:

“Does this really work for all cases? What about this one? Did you make sure you can’t do this, or are you just assuming? Where does that pattern come from?”

Addressing those objections requires more work, more calculations. Sometimes, it becomes clear we don’t really understand our results at all! The paper takes a new direction, flows with new work to a new, truer message, one we wouldn’t have discovered if we didn’t sit down and try to write it out.


At Least One Math Term That Makes Sense

I’ve complained before about how mathematicians name things. Mathematicans seem to have a knack for taking an ordinary bland word that’s almost indistinguishable from the other ordinary, bland words they’ve used before and assigning it an incredibly specific mathematical concept. Varieties and forms, motives and schemes, in each case you end up wishing they picked a word that was just a little more descriptive.

Sometimes, though, a word may seem completely out of place when it actually has a fairly reasonable explanation. Such is the case for the word “period“.

Suppose you want to classify numbers. You have the integers, and the rational numbers. A bigger class of numbers are “algebraic”, in that you can get them “from algebra”: more specifically, as solutions of polynomial equations with rational coefficients. Numbers that aren’t algebraic are “transcendental”, a popular example being \pi.

Periods lie in between: a set that contains algebraic numbers, but also many of the transcendental numbers. They’re numbers you can get, not from algebra, but from calculus: they’re integrals over rational functions. These numbers were popularized by Kontsevich and Zagier, and they’ve led to a lot of fruitful inquiry in both math and physics.

But why the heck are they called periods?

Think about e^{i x}.


Or if you prefer, think about a circle

e^{i x} is a periodic function, with period 2\pi.  Take x from 0 to 2\pi and the function repeats, you’ve traveled in a circle.

Thought of another way, 2\pi is the volume of the circle. It’s the integral, around the circle, of \frac{dz}{z}. And that integral nicely matches Kontsevich and Zagier’s definition of a period.

The idea of a period, then, comes from generalizing this. What happens when you only go partway around the circle, to some point z in the complex plane? Then you need to go to a point x=-i \ln z. So a logarithm can also be thought of as measuring the period of e^{i x}. And indeed, since a logarithm can be expressed as \int\frac{dz}{z}, they count as periods in the Kontsevich-Zagier sense.

Starting there, you can loosely think about the polylogarithm functions I like to work with as collections of logs, measuring periods of interlocking circles.

And if you need to go beyond polylogarithms, when you can’t just go circle by circle?

Then you need to think about functions with two periods, like Weierstrass’s elliptic function. Just as you can think about e^{i x} as a circle, you can think of Weierstrass’s function in terms of a torus.


Obligatory donut joke here

The torus has two periods, corresponding to the two circles you can draw around it. The periods of Weierstrass’s function are transcendental numbers, and they fit Kontsevich and Zagier’s definition of periods. And if you take the inverse of Weierstrass’s function, you get an elliptic integral, just like taking the inverse of e^{i x} gives a logarithm.

So mathematicians, I apologize. Periods, at least, make sense.

I’m still mad about “varieties” though.

Proofs and Insight

Hearing us talking about the Amplituhedron, the professor across the table chimed in.

“The problem with you amplitudes people, I never know what’s a conjecture and what’s proven. The Amplituhedron, is that still a conjecture?”

The Amplituhedron, indeed, is still a conjecture (although a pretty well-supported one at this point). After clearing that up, we got to talking about the role proofs play in theoretical physics.

The professor was worried that we weren’t being direct enough in stating which ideas in amplitudes had been proven. While I agreed that we should be clearer, one of his points stood out to me: he argued that one benefit of clearly labeling conjectures is that it motivates people to go back and prove things. That’s a good thing to do in general, to be sure that your conjecture is really true, but often it has an added benefit: even if you’re pretty sure your conjecture is true, proving it can show you why it’s true, leading to new and valuable insight.

There’s a long history of important physics only becoming clear when someone took the time to work out a proof. But in amplitudes right now, I don’t think our lack of proofs is leading to a lack of insight. That’s because the kinds of things we’d like to prove often require novel insight themselves.

It’s not clear what it would take to prove the Amplituhedron. Even if you’ve got a perfectly clear, mathematically nice definition for it, you’d still need to prove that it does what it’s supposed to do: that it really calculates scattering amplitudes in N=4 super Yang-Mills. In order to do that, you’d need a very complete understanding of how those calculations work. You’d need to be able to see how known methods give rise to something like the Amplituhedron, or to find the Amplituhedron buried deep in the structure of the theory.

If you had that kind of insight? Then yeah, you could prove the Amplituhedron, and accomplish remarkable things along the way. But more than that, if you had that sort of insight, you would prove the Amplituhedron. Even if you didn’t know about the Amplituhedron to begin with, or weren’t sure whether or not it was a conjecture, once you had that kind of insight proving something like the Amplituhedron would be the inevitable next step. The signpost, “this is a conjecture” is helpful for other reasons, but it doesn’t change circumstances here: either you have what you need, or you don’t.

This contrasts with how progress works in other parts of physics, and how it has worked at other times. Sometimes, a field is moving so fast that conjectures get left by the wayside, even when they’re provable. You get situations where everyone busily assumes something is true and builds off it, and no-one takes the time to work out why. In that sort of field, it can be really valuable to clearly point out conjectures, so that someone gets motivated to work out the proof (and to hopefully discover something along the way).

I don’t think amplitudes is in that position though. It’s still worthwhile to signal our conjectures, to make clear what needs a proof and what doesn’t. But our big conjectures, like the Amplituhedron, aren’t the kind of thing someone can prove just by taking some time off and working on it. They require new, powerful insight. Because of that, our time is typically best served looking for that insight, finding novel examples and unusual perspectives that clear up what’s really going on. That’s a fair bit broader an activity than just working out a proof.

An Elliptical Workout

I study scattering amplitudes, probabilities that particles scatter off each other.

In particular, I’ve studied them using polylogarithmic functions. Polylogarithmic functions can be taken apart into “logs”, which obey identities much like logarithms do. They’re convenient and nice, and for my favorite theory of N=4 super Yang-Mills they’re almost all you need.

Well, until ten particles get involved, anyway.

That’s when you start needing elliptic integrals, and elliptic polylogarithms. These integrals substitute one of the “logs” of a polylogarithm with an integration over an elliptic curve.

And with Jacob Bourjaily, Andrew McLeod, Marcus Spradlin, and Matthias Wilhelm, I’ve now computed one.


This one, to be specific

Our paper, The Elliptic Double-Box Integral, went up on the arXiv last night.

The last few weeks have been a frenzy of work, finishing up our calculations and writing the paper. It’s the fastest I’ve ever gotten a paper out, which has been a unique experience.

Computing this integral required new, so far unpublished tricks by Jake Bourjaily, as well as some rather powerful software and Mark Spradlin’s extensive expertise in simplifying polylogarithms. In the end, we got the integral into a “canonical” form, one other papers had proposed as the right way to represent it, with the elliptic curve in a form standardized by Weierstrass.

One of the advantages of fixing a “canonical” form is that it should make identities obvious. If two integrals are actually the same, then writing them according to the same canonical rules should make that clear. This is one of the nice things about polylogarithms, where these identities are really just identities between logs and the right form is comparatively easy to find.

Surprisingly, the form we found doesn’t do this. We can write down an integral in our “canonical” form that looks different, but really is the same as our original integral. The form other papers had suggested, while handy, can’t be the final canonical form.

What the final form should be, we don’t yet know. We have some ideas, but we’re also curious what other groups are thinking. We’re relatively new to elliptic integrals, and there are other groups with much more experience with them, some with papers coming out soon. As far as we know they’re calculating slightly different integrals, ones more relevant for the real world than for N=4 super Yang-Mills. It’s going to be interesting seeing what they come up with. So if you want to follow this topic, don’t just watch for our names on the arXiv: look for Claude Duhr and Falko Dulat, Luise Adams and Stefan Weinzierl. In the elliptic world, big things are coming.

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.

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.

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.