Tag Archives: particle physics

What Space Can Tell Us about Fundamental Physics

Back when LIGO announced its detection of gravitational waves, there was one question people kept asking me: “what does this say about quantum gravity?”

The answer, each time, was “nothing”. LIGO’s success told us nothing about quantum gravity, and very likely LIGO will never tell us anything about quantum gravity.

The sheer volume of questions made me think, though. Astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology fascinate people. They capture the public’s imagination in a way that makes them expect breakthroughs about fundamental questions. Especially now, with the LHC so far seeing nothing new since the Higgs, people are turning to space for answers.

Is that a fair expectation? Well, yes and no.

Most astrophysicists aren’t concerned with finding new fundamental laws of nature. They’re interested in big systems like stars and galaxies, where we know most of the basic rules but can’t possibly calculate all their consequences. Like most physicists, they’re doing the vital work of “physics of decimals”.

At the same time, there’s a decent chunk of astrophysics and cosmology that does matter for fundamental physics. Just not all of it. Here are some of the key areas where space has something important to say about the fundamental rules that govern our world:


1. Dark Matter:

Galaxies rotate at different speeds than their stars would alone. Clusters of galaxies bend light that passes by, and do so more than their visible mass would suggest. And when scientists try to model the evolution of the universe, from early images to its current form, the models require an additional piece: extra matter that cannot interact with light. All of this suggests that there is some extra “dark” matter in the universe, not described by our standard model of particle physics.

If we want to understand this dark matter, we need to know more about its properties, and much of that can be learned from astronomy. If it turns out dark matter isn’t really matter after all, if it can be explained by a modification of gravity or better calculations of gravity’s effects, then it still will have important implications for fundamental physics, and astronomical evidence will still be key to finding those implications.

2. Dark Energy (/Cosmological Constant/Inflation/…):

The universe is expanding, and its expansion appears to be accelerating. It also seems more smooth and uniform than expected, suggesting that it had a period of much greater acceleration early on. Both of these suggest some extra quantity: a changing acceleration, a “dark energy”, the sort of thing that can often be explained by a new scalar field like the Higgs.

Again, the specifics: how (and perhaps if) the universe is expanding now, what kinds of early expansion (if any) the shape of the universe suggests, these will almost certainly have implications for fundamental physics.

3. Limits on stable stuff:

Let’s say you have a new proposal for particle physics. You’ve predicted a new particle, but it can’t interact with anything else, or interacts so weakly we’d never detect it. If your new particle is stable, then you can still say something about it, because its mass would have an effect on the early universe. Too many such particles and they would throw off cosmologists’ models, ruling them out.

Alternatively, you might predict something that could be detected, but hasn’t, like a magnetic monopole. Then cosmologists can tell you how many such particles would have been produced in the early universe, and thus how likely we would be to detect them today. If you predict too many particles and we don’t see them, then that becomes evidence against your proposal.

4. “Cosmological Collider Physics”:

A few years back, Nima Arkani-Hamed and Juan Maldacena suggested that the early universe could be viewed as an extremely high energy particle collider. While this collider performed only one experiment, the results from that experiment are spread across the sky, and observed patterns in the early universe should tell us something about the particles produced by the cosmic collider.

People are still teasing out the implications of this idea, but it looks promising, and could mean we have a lot more to learn from examining the structure of the universe.

5. Big Weird Space Stuff:

If you suspect we live in a multiverse, you might want to look for signs of other universes brushing up against our own. If your model of the early universe predicts vast cosmic strings, maybe a gravitational wave detector like LIGO will be able to see them.

6. Unexpected weirdness:

In all likelihood, nothing visibly “quantum” happens at the event horizons of astrophysical black holes. If you think there’s something to see though, the Event Horizon Telescope might be able to see it. There’s a grab bag of other predictions like this: situations where we probably won’t see anything, but where at least one person thinks there’s a question worth asking.


I’ve probably left something out here, but this should give you a general idea. There is a lot that fundamental physics can learn from astronomy, from the overall structure and origins of the universe to unexplained phenomena like dark matter. But not everything in astronomy has these sorts of implications: for the most part, astronomy is interesting not because it tells us something about the fundamental laws of nature, but because it tells us how the vast space above us actually happens to work.

What If the Field Is Doomed?

Around Halloween, I have a tradition of exploring the spooky and/or scary side of physics (sometimes rather tenuously). This time, I want to talk about something particle physicists find scary: the future of the field.

For a long time, now, our field has centered around particle colliders. Early colliders confirmed the existence of quarks and gluons, and populated the Standard Model with a wealth of particles, some expected and some not. Now, an enormous amount of effort has poured into the Large Hadron Collider, which found the Higgs…and so far, nothing else.

Plans are being discussed for an even larger collider, in Europe or China, but it’s not clear that either will be funded. Even if the case for new physics isn’t as strong in such a collider, there are properties of the Higgs that the LHC won’t be able to measure, things it’s important to check with a more powerful machine.

That’s the case we’ll have to make to the public, if we want such a collider to be built. But in addition to the scientific reasons, there are selfish reasons to hope for a new collider. Without one, it’s not clear the field can survive in its current form.

By “the field”, here, I don’t just mean those focused on making predictions for collider physics. My work isn’t plugged particularly tightly into the real world, the same is true of most string theorists. Naively, you’d think it wouldn’t matter to us if a new collider gets built.

The trouble is, physics is interconnected. We may not all make predictions about the world, but the purpose of the tools we build and concepts we explore is to eventually make contact. On grant applications, we talk about that future, one that leads not just to understanding the mathematics and models we use but to understanding reality. And for a long while, a major theme in those grant applications has been collider physics.

Different sub-fields are vulnerable to this in different ways. Surprisingly, the people who directly make predictions for the LHC might have it easiest. Many of them can pivot, and make predictions for cosmological observations and cheaper dark matter detection experiments. Quite a few are already doing so.

It’s harder for my field, for amplitudeology. We try to push the calculation techniques of theoretical physics to greater and greater precision…but without colliders, there are fewer experiments that can match that precision. Cosmological observations and dark matter detection won’t need four-loop calculations.

If there isn’t a next big collider, our field won’t dry up overnight. Our work is disconnected enough, at a far enough remove from reality, that it takes time for that sort of change to be reflected in our funding. Optimistically, this gives people enough time to change gears and alter their focus to the less collider-dependent parts of the field. Pessimistically, it means people would be working on a zombie field, shambling around in a field that is already dead but can’t admit it.


Well I had to use some Halloween imagery

My hope is that this won’t happen. Even if the new colliders don’t get approved and collider physics goes dormant, I’d like to think my colleagues are adaptable enough to stay useful as the world’s demands change. But I’m young in this field, I haven’t seen it face these kinds of challenges before. And so, I worry.

Most of String Theory Is Not String Pheno

Last week, Sabine Hossenfelder wrote a post entitled “Why not string theory?” In it, she argued that string theory has a much more dominant position in physics than it ought to: that it’s crowding out alternative theories like Loop Quantum Gravity and hogging much more funding than it actually merits.

If you follow the string wars at all, you’ve heard these sorts of arguments before. There’s not really anything new here.

That said, there were a few sentences in Hossenfelder’s post that got my attention, and inspired me to write this post.

So far, string theory has scored in two areas. First, it has proved interesting for mathematicians. But I’m not one to easily get floored by pretty theorems – I care about math only to the extent that it’s useful to explain the world. Second, string theory has shown to be useful to push ahead with the lesser understood aspects of quantum field theories. This seems a fruitful avenue and is certainly something to continue. However, this has nothing to do with string theory as a theory of quantum gravity and a unification of the fundamental interactions.

(Bolding mine)

Here, Hossenfelder explicitly leaves out string theorists who work on “lesser understood aspects of quantum field theories” from her critique. They’re not the big, dominant program she’s worried about.

What Hossenfelder doesn’t seem to realize is that right now, it is precisely the “aspects of quantum field theories” crowd that is big and dominant. The communities of string theorists working on something else, and especially those making bold pronouncements about the nature of the real world, are much, much smaller.

Let’s define some terms:

Phenomenology (or pheno for short) is the part of theoretical physics that attempts to make predictions that can be tested in experiments. String pheno, then, covers attempts to use string theory to make predictions. In practice, though, it’s broader than that: while some people do attempt to predict the results of experiments, more work on figuring out how models constructed by other phenomenologists can make sense in string theory. This still attempts to test string theory in some sense: if a phenomenologist’s model turns out to be true but it can’t be replicated in string theory then string theory would be falsified. That said, it’s more indirect. In parallel to string phenomenology, there is also the related field of string cosmology, which has a similar relationship with cosmology.

If other string theorists aren’t trying to make predictions, what exactly are they doing? Well, a large number of them are studying quantum field theories. Quantum field theories are currently our most powerful theories of nature, but there are many aspects of them that we don’t yet understand. For a large proportion of string theorists, string theory is useful because it provides a new way to understand these theories in terms of different configurations of string theory, which often uncovers novel and unexpected properties. This is still physics, not mathematics: the goal, in the end, is to understand theories that govern the real world. But it doesn’t involve the same sort of direct statements about the world as string phenomenology or string cosmology: crucially, it doesn’t depend on whether string theory is true.

Last week, I said that before replying to Hossenfelder’s post I’d have to gather some numbers. I was hoping to find some statistics on how many people work on each of these fields, or on their funding. Unfortunately, nobody seems to collect statistics broken down by sub-field like this.

As a proxy, though, we can look at conferences. Strings is the premier conference in string theory. If something has high status in the string community, it will probably get a talk at Strings. So to investigate, I took a look at the talks given last year, at Strings 2015, and broke them down by sub-field.


Here I’ve left out the historical overview talks, since they don’t say much about current research.

“QFT” is for talks about lesser understood aspects of quantum field theories. Amplitudes, my own sub-field, should be part of this: I’ve separated it out to show what a typical sub-field of the QFT block might look like.

“Formal Strings” refers to research into the fundamentals of how to do calculations in string theory: in principle, both the QFT folks and the string pheno folks find it useful.

“Holography” is a sub-topic of string theory in which string theory in some space is equivalent to a quantum field theory on the boundary of that space. Some people study this because they want to learn about quantum field theory from string theory, others because they want to learn about quantum gravity from quantum field theory. Since the field can’t be cleanly divided into quantum gravity and quantum field theory research, I’ve given it its own category.

While all string theory research is in principle about quantum gravity, the “Quantum Gravity” section refers to people focused on the sorts of topics that interest non-string quantum gravity theorists, like black hole entropy.

Finally, we have String Cosmology and String Phenomenology, which I’ve already defined.

Don’t take the exact numbers here too seriously: not every talk fit cleanly into a category, so there were some judgement calls on my part. Nonetheless, this should give you a decent idea of the makeup of the string theory community.

The biggest wedge in the diagram by far, taking up a majority of the talks, is QFT. Throwing in Amplitudes (part of QFT) and Formal Strings (useful to both), and you’ve got two thirds of the conference. Even if you believe Hossenfelder’s tale of the failures of string theory, then, that only matters to a third of this diagram. And once you take into account that many of the Holography and Quantum Gravity people are interested in aspects of QFT as well, you’re looking at an even smaller group. Really, Hossenfelder’s criticism is aimed at two small slices on the chart: String Pheno, and String Cosmo.

Of course, string phenomenologists also have their own conference. It’s called String Pheno, and last year it had 130 participants. In contrast, LOOPS’ 2015, the conference for string theory’s most famous “rival”, had…190 participants. The fields are really pretty comparable.

Now, I have a lot more sympathy for the string phenomenologists and string cosmologists than I do for loop quantum gravity. If other string theorists felt the same way, then maybe that would cause the sort of sociological effect that Hossenfelder is worried about.

But in practice, I don’t think this happens. I’ve met string theorists who didn’t even know that people still did string phenomenology. The two communities are almost entirely disjoint: string phenomenologists and string cosmologists interact much more with other phenomenologists and cosmologists than they do with other string theorists.

You want to talk about sociology? Sociologically, people choose careers and fund research because they expect something to happen soon. People don’t want to be left high and dry by a dearth of experiments, don’t feel comfortable working on something that may only be vindicated long after they’re dead. Most people choose the safe option, the one that, even if it’s still aimed at a distant goal, is also producing interesting results now (aspects of quantum field theories, for example).

The people that don’t? Tend to form small, tight-knit, passionate communities. They carve out a few havens of like-minded people, and they think big thoughts while the world around them seems to only care about their careers.

If you’re a loop quantum gravity theorist, or a quantum gravity phenomenologist like Hossenfelder, and you see some of your struggles in that paragraph, please realize that string phenomenology is like that too.

I feel like Hossenfelder imagines a world in which string theory is struck from its high place, and alternative theories of quantum gravity are of comparable size and power. But from where I’m sitting, it doesn’t look like it would work out that way. Instead, you’d have alternatives grow to the same size as similarly risky parts of string theory, like string phenomenology. And surprise, surprise: they’re already that size.

In certain corners of the internet, people like to argue about “punching up” and “punching down”. Hossenfelder seems to think she’s “punching up”, giving the big dominant group a taste of its own medicine. But by leaving out string theorists who study QFTs, she’s really “punching down”, or at least sideways, and calling out a sub-group that doesn’t have much more power than her own.

Mass Is Just Energy You Haven’t Met Yet

How can colliding two protons give rise to more massive particles? Why do vibrations of a string have mass? And how does the Higgs work anyway?

There is one central misunderstanding that makes each of these topics confusing. It’s something I’ve brought up before, but it really deserves its own post. It’s people not realizing that mass is just energy you haven’t met yet.

It’s quite intuitive to think of mass as some sort of “stuff” that things can be made out of. In our everyday experience, that’s how it works: combine this mass of flour and this mass of sugar, and get this mass of cake. Historically, it was the dominant view in physics for quite some time. However, once you get to particle physics it starts to break down.

It’s probably most obvious for protons. A proton has a mass of 938 MeV/c², or 1.6×10⁻²⁷ kg in less physicist-specific units. Protons are each made of three quarks, two up quarks and a down quark. Naively, you’d think that the quarks would have to be around 300 MeV/c². They’re not, though: up and down quarks both have masses less than 10 MeV/c². Those three quarks account for less than a fiftieth of a proton’s mass.

The “extra” mass is because a proton is not just three quarks. It’s three quarks interacting. The forces between those quarks, the strong nuclear force that binds them together, involves a heck of a lot of energy. And from a distance, that energy ends up looking like mass.

This isn’t unique to protons. In some sense, it’s just what mass is.

The quarks themselves get their mass from the Higgs field. Far enough away, this looks like the quarks having a mass. However, zoom in and it’s energy again, the energy of interaction between quarks and the Higgs. In string theory, mass comes from the energy of vibrating strings. And so on. Every time we run into something that looks like a fundamental mass, it ends up being just another energy of interaction.

If mass is just energy, what about gravity?

When you’re taught about gravity, the story is all about mass. Mass attracts mass. Mass bends space-time. What gets left out, until you actually learn the details of General Relativity, is that energy gravitates too.

Normally you don’t notice this, because mass contributes so much more to energy than anything else. That’s really what E=m is really about: it’s a unit conversion formula. It tells you that if you want to know how much energy a given mass “really is”, you multiply it by the speed of light squared. And that’s a large enough number that most of the time, when you notice energy gravitating, it’s because that energy looks like a big chunk of mass. (It’s also why physicists like silly units like MeV/c² for mass: we can just multiply by c² and get an energy!)

It’s really tempting to think about mass as a substance, of mass as always conserved, of mass as fundamental. But in physics we often have to toss aside our everyday intuitions, and this is no exception. Mass really is just energy. It’s just energy that we’ve “zoomed out” enough not to notice.

A Collider’s Eye View

When it detected the Higgs, what did the LHC see, exactly?


What do you see with your detector-eyes, CMS?

The first problem is that the Higgs, like most particles produced in particle colliders, is unstable. In a very short amount of time the Higgs transforms into two or more lighter particles. Often, these particles will decay in turn, possibly many more times.  So when the LHC sees a Higgs boson, it doesn’t really “see the Higgs”.

The second problem is that you can’t “see” the lighter particles either. They’re much too small for that. Instead, the LHC has to measure their properties.

Does the particle have a charge? Then its path will curve in a magnetic field, and it will send electrical signals in silicon. So the LHC can “see” charge.

Can the particle be stopped, absorbed by some material? Getting absorbed releases energy, lighting up a detector. So the LHC can “see” energy, and what it takes for a particle to be absorbed.


Diagram of a collider’s “eye”

And that’s…pretty much it. When the LHC “sees” the Higgs, what it sees is a set of tracks in a magnetic field, indicating charge, and energy in its detectors, caused by absorption at different points. Everything else has to be inferred: what exactly the particles were, where they decayed, and from what. Some of it can be figured out in real-time, some is only understood later once we can add up everything and do statistics.

On the face of it, this sounds about as impossible as astrophysics. Like astrophysics, it works in part because what the colliders see is not the whole story. The strong force has to both be consistent with our observations of hadrons, and with nuclear physics. Neutrinos aren’t just mysterious missing energy that we can’t track, they’re an important part of cosmology. And so on.

So in the sense of that massive, interconnected web of ideas, the LHC sees the Higgs. It sees patterns of charges and energies, binned into histograms and analyzed with statistics and cross-checked, implicitly or explicitly, against all of the rest of physics at every scale we know. All of that, together, is the collider’s eye view of the universe.

GUTs vs ToEs: What Are We Unifying Here?

“Grand Unified Theory” and “Theory of Everything” may sound like meaningless grandiose titles, but they mean very different things.

In particular, Grand Unified Theory, or GUT, is a technical term, referring to a specific way to unify three of the fundamental interactions: electromagnetism, the weak force, and the strong force.


In contrast, guts unify the two fundamental intestines.

Those three forces are called Yang-Mills forces, and they can all be described in the same basic way. In particular, each has a strength (the coupling constant) and a mathematical structure that determines how it interacts with itself, called a group.

The core idea of a GUT, then, is pretty simple: to unite the three Yang-Mills forces, they need to have the same strength (the same coupling constant) and be part of the same group.

But wait! (You say, still annoyed at the pun in the above caption.) These forces don’t have the same strength at all! One of them’s strong, one of them’s weak, and one of them is electromagnetic!

As it turns out, this isn’t as much of a problem as it seems. While the three Yang-Mills forces seem to have very different strengths on an everyday scale, that’s not true at very high energies. Let’s steal a plot from Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology:


Why Sweden? Why not!

What’s going on in this plot?

Here, each \alpha represents the strength of a fundamental force. As the force gets stronger, \alpha gets bigger (and so \alpha^{-1} gets smaller). The variable on the x-axis is the energy scale. The grey lines represent a world without supersymmetry, while the black lines show the world in a supersymmetric model.

So based on this plot, it looks like the strengths of the fundamental forces change based on the energy scale. That’s true, but if you find that confusing there’s another, mathematically equivalent way to think about it.

You can think about each force as having some sort of ultimate strength, the strength it would have if the world weren’t quantum. Without quantum mechanics, each force would interact with particles in only the simplest of ways, corresponding to the simplest diagram here.

However, our world is quantum mechanical. Because of that, when we try to measure the strength of a force, we’re not really measuring its “ultimate strength”. Rather, we’re measuring it alongside a whole mess of other interactions, corresponding to the other diagrams in that post. These extra contributions mean that what looks like the strength of the force gets stronger or weaker depending on the energy of the particles involved.

(I’m sweeping several things under the rug here, including a few infinities and electroweak unification. But if you just want a general understanding of what’s going on, this should be a good starting point.)

If you look at the plot, you’ll see the forces meet up somewhere around 10^16 GeV. They miss each-other for the faint, non-supersymmetric lines, but they meet fairly cleanly for the supersymmetric ones.

So (at least if supersymmetry is true), making the Yang-Mills forces have the same strength is not so hard. Putting them in the same mathematical group is where things get trickier. This is because any group that contains the groups of the fundamental forces will be “bigger” than just the sum of those forces: it will contain “extra forces” that we haven’t observed yet, and these forces can do unexpected things.

In particular, the “extra forces” predicted by GUTs usually make protons unstable. As far as we can tell, protons are very long-lasting: if protons decayed too fast, we wouldn’t have stars. So if protons decay, they must do it only very rarely, detectable only with very precise experiments. These experiments are powerful enough to rule out most of the simplest GUTs. The more complicated GUTs still haven’t been ruled out, but it’s enough to make fewer people interested in GUTs as a research topic.

What about Theories of Everything, or ToEs?

While GUT is a technical term, ToE is very much not. Instead, it’s a phrase that journalists have latched onto because it sounds cool. As such, it doesn’t really have a clear definition. Usually it means uniting gravity with the other fundamental forces, but occasionally people use it to refer to a theory that also unifies the various Standard Model particles into some sort of “final theory”.

Gravity is very different from the other fundamental forces, different enough that it’s kind of silly to group them as “fundamental forces” in the first place. Thus, while GUT models are the kind of thing one can cook up and tinker with, any ToE has to be based on some novel insight, one that lets you express gravity and Yang-Mills forces as part of the same structure.

So far, string theory is the only such insight we have access to. This isn’t just me being arrogant: while there are other attempts at theories of quantum gravity, aside from some rather dubious claims none of them are even interested in unifying gravity with other forces.

This doesn’t mean that string theory is necessarily right. But it does mean that if you want a different “theory of everything”, telling physicists to go out and find a new one isn’t going to be very productive. “Find a theory of everything” is a hope, not a research program, especially if you want people to throw out the one structure we have that even looks like it can do the job.

It Was Thirty Years Ago Yesterday, Parke and Taylor Taught the Band to Play…

Just a short post this week. I’m at MHV@30, a conference at Fermilab in honor of Parke and Taylor’s landmark paper from March 17, 1986. I don’t have time to write up an explanation of their work’s importance, but luckily I already have.

It’s my first time visiting Fermilab. They took us on a tour of their neutrino detectors 100m underground. Since we theorists don’t visit experiments very often, it was an unusual experience.


In case you wanted to know what a neutrino beam looks like, look at the target.

The fun thing about these kinds of national labs is the sheer variety of research, from the most abstract theory to the most grounded experiments, that spring from the same core goals. Physics almost always involves a diversity of viewpoints and interests, and that’s nowhere more obvious than here.