We’ve had talks from a variety of corners of amplitudes, with major themes including the web of theories that can sort of be described by string theory-esque models, the amplituhedron, and theories you can “square” to get other theories. I’m excited about Zvi Bern’s talk at the end of the conference, which will describe the progress I talked about last week. There’s also been recent progress on understanding the amplituhedron, which I will likely post about in the near future.
Do the same thing you would with any other theory, and you get infinity. You get repeated infinities, an infinity of infinities. And while you could fix one or two infinities, fixing an infinite number requires giving up an infinity of possible predictions, so in the end your theory predicts nothing.
String theory fixes this with its own infinity, the infinite number of ways a string can vibrate. Because this infinity is organized and structured and well-understood, you’re left with a theory that is still at least capable of making predictions.
(Note that this is an independent question from whether string theory can make predictions for experiments in the real world. This is a much more “in-principle” statement: if we knew everything we might want to about physics, all the fields and particles and shapes of the extra dimensions, we could use string theory to make predictions. Even if we knew all of that, we still couldn’t make predictions from naive quantum gravity.)
Are there ways to fix the problem that don’t involve an infinity of vibrations? Or at least, to fix part of the problem?
That’s what Zvi Bern, John Joseph Carrasco, Henrik Johansson, and a growing cast of collaborators have been trying to find out.
They’re investigating N=8 supergravity, a theory that takes gravity and adds on a host of related particles. It’s one of the easiest theories to get from string theory, by curling up extra dimensions in a particularly simple way and ignoring higher-energy vibrations.
Bern, along with Lance Dixon and David Kosower, invented the generalized unitarity technique I talked about last week. Along with Carrasco and Johansson, he figured out another important trick: the idea that you can do calculations in gravity by squaring the appropriate part of calculations in Yang-Mills theory. For N=8 supergravity, the theory you need to square is my favorite theory, N=4 super Yang-Mills.
Using this, they started pushing forward, calculating approximations to greater and greater precision (more and more loops).
What they found, at each step, was that N=8 supergravity behaved better than expected. In fact, it behaved like N=4 super Yang-Mills.
N=4 super Yang-Mills is special, because in four dimensions (three space and one time, the dimensions we’re used to in daily life) there are no infinities to fix. In a world with more dimensions, though, you start getting infinities, and with more and more loops you need fewer and fewer dimensions to see them.
N=8 supergravity, unexpectedly, was giving infinities in the same dimensions that N=4 super Yang-Mills did (and no earlier). If it kept doing that, you might guess that it also had no infinities in four dimensions. You might wonder if, at least loop by loop, N=8 supergravity could be a way to fix quantum gravity without string theory.
Of course, you’d only really know if you could check in four dimensions.
If you want to check in four dimensions, though, you run into a problem. The fewer dimensions you’re looking at, the more loops you need before N=8 supergravity could possibly give infinity. In four dimensions, you need a forbidding seven loops of precision.
Still, Bern, Carrasco, and Johansson were up to the challenge. Along with Lance Dixon, David Kosower, and Radu Roiban, they looked at three loops, calculating an interaction of four gravitons, and the pattern continued. Four loops, and it was still going strong.
At around this time, I had just started grad school. My first project was a cumbersome numerical calculation. To keep me motivated, my advisor mentioned that the work I was doing would be good preparation for a much grander project: the calculation of whether the four-graviton interaction in N=8 supergravity diverges at seven loops. All I’d have to do was wait for Bern and collaborators to get there.
I named this blog “4 gravitons and a grad student”, and hoped I would get a chance to contribute.
And then something unexpected happened. They got stuck at five loops.
The method they were using, generalized unitarity, is an ansatz-based method. You start with a guess, then refine it. As such, the method is ultimately only as good as your guess.
Their guesses, in general, were pretty good. The trick they were using, squaring N=4 to get N=8, requires a certain type of guess: one in which the pieces they square have similar relationships to the different types of charge in Yang-Mills theory. There’s still an infinite number of guesses that can obey this, so they applied more restrictions, expectations based on other calculations, to get something more manageable. This worked at three loops, and worked (with a little extra thought) at four loops.
But at five loops they were stuck. They couldn’t find anything, with their restrictions, that gave the correct answer when “cut up” by generalized unitarity. And while they could drop some restrictions, if they dropped too many they’d end up with far too general a guess, something that could take months of computer time to solve.
So they stopped.
They did quite a bit of interesting work in the meantime. They found more theories they could square to get gravity theories, of more and more unusual types. They calculated infinities in other theories, and found surprises there too, other cases where infinities didn’t show up when they were “supposed” to. But for some time, the N=8 supergravity calculation was stalled.
And in the meantime, I went off in another direction, which long-time readers of this blog already know about.
Recently, though, they’ve broken the stall.
What they realized is that the condition on their guess, that the parts they square be related like Yang-Mills charges, wasn’t entirely necessary. Instead, they could start with a “bad” guess, and modify it, using the failure of those relations to fill in the missing pieces.
It looks like this is going to work.
We’re all at an amplitudes program right now in Santa Barbara. Walking through the halls of the KITP, I overhear conversations about five loops. They’re paring things down, honing their code, getting rid of the last few bugs, and checking their results.
They’re almost there, and it’s exciting. It looks like finally things are moving again, like the train to seven loops has once again left the station.
Increasingly, they’re beginning to understand the absent infinities, to see that they really are due to something unexpected and new.
N=8 supergravity isn’t going to be the next theory of everything. (For one, you can’t get chiral fermions out of it.) But if it really has no infinities at any loop, that tells us something about what a theory of quantum gravity is allowed to be, about the minimum necessary to at least make sense on a loop-by-loop level.
And that, I think, is worth being excited about.
This is going to be a bit more technical than my usual, but you were warned.
There are a few things you’ll need to know to understand this post.
First, you should know that when we calculate probabilities of things happening in particle physics, we can do it by drawing Feynman diagrams, pictures of particles traveling and interacting. These diagrams can have loops, and the particle in the loop can have any momentum, from zero on up to infinity: you have to add up all the possibilities to get whatever you’re trying to calculate.
Second, you should understand that the “particles” in these loops aren’t really particles. They’re “virtual particles”, better understood as disturbances in quantum fields. Matt Strassler has a very nice article about this. In particular, these “particles” don’t have to obey (or rather, if we include kinetic energy, , where is the momentum).
You can imagine a space that the momentum and energy “live in”. It’s got three dimensions for the three directions momentum can have, and one more dimension for the energy. Virtual particles can live anywhere in this four-dimensional space, but real particles have to live on a “shell” of points that obey . If you’ve heard physicists say “on-shell” or “off-shell”, they’re referring to whether a particle is virtual, a quantum mechanical disturbance (and thus lives anywhere in the space) or a real classical particle (living on this “shell”).
Third, you should appreciate that in quantum physics, in Scott Aaronson’s words, we put complex numbers in our ontologies. Often, quantum weirdness shows itself when we look at our calculations as functions of complex numbers.
Let’s say I’m calculating an amplitude with one loop, and I draw a diagram like this:
Unitarity is how particle physicists say “all probabilities have to add up to one”. Since we have complex numbers in our ontologies, this statement is more complicated than it looks. One thing it ends up implying is that if I calculate an amplitude from the one-loop diagram above, its imaginary part will be given by multiplying together two simpler amplitudes:
Here you can imagine that I took a pair of scissors and “cut” the diagram in two along the dashed line. Now that the diagram has been “cut”, the particles I cut through are no longer part of a loop, so they’re no longer virtual: they’re real, on-shell particles.
If I wanted, I could keep “cutting” the diagram, generalizing this implication of unitarity. (For those who know some complex analysis, this involves taking residues.) I could cut all of the lines in the loop, like this:
Now something interesting happens. Here I’ve forced all four of the particles in the loop to be “on-shell”, to obey . Previously, the momentum and energy in the loop was entirely free, living in its four-dimensional space. Now, though, it must obey four equations. And for those who’ve seen some algebra, four independent equations and four unknowns gives us one solution. By cutting all of these particles, we’ve killed all of the freedom that the loop momentum had. Instead of the living, quantum amplitude we had, we’ve cut it up into a bunch of dead, classical parts.
Why do this?
Well, suppose we have a guess for what the full amplitude should be. We’ve still got some uncertainty in our guess: it’s an ansatz.
If we wanted to check our guess, to fix the uncertainty in our ansatz, we could compare it to the full amplitude. But then we’d have to calculate the full quantum amplitude, and that’s hard.
It’s a lot easier, though, to calculate those “dead” classical amplitudes.
That’s the method we call “generalized unitarity”. We stitch together these easier-to-calculate, “dead” amplitudes. Enough different stitching patterns, and we can fix all the uncertainty in our ansatz, ending up with a unique correct answer without ever doing the full quantum calculation. Like Frankenstein, from dead parts we’ve assembled a living thing.
How well does this work?
That depends on how good the ansatz is. The ansatze for one loop are very well understood, and for two loops the community is getting there. For higher loops, you have to be either smart or lucky. I happen to know some people who are both, I’ll be talking about them next week.
From pretty early on, most requests were for more explanations of QFT, gravity, and string theory concepts, with amplitudes content a clear second. This is something I can definitely do more of: I haven’t had much inspiration for interesting pieces of this sort recently, but it’s something I can ramp up in future.
I suspect that many of the people voting for more QFT and more amplitudes content were also interested in something else, though: more physics news. Xezlec mentioned that with Résonaances and Of Particular Significance quiet, there’s an open niche for vaguely reasonable people blogging about physics.
The truth is, I didn’t think of adding a “more physics news” option to the poll. I’m not a great source of news: not being a phenomenologist, I don’t keep up with the latest experimental results, and since my sub-field is small and insular I’m not always aware of the latest thing Witten or Maldacena is working on.
For an example of the former: recently, various LHC teams presented results at the Moriond and Aspen conferences, with no new evidence of supersymmetry in the data they’ve gathered thus far. This triggered concessions on several bets about SUSY (including an amusingly awkward conversation about how to pay one of them).
And I only know about that because other bloggers talked about it.
So I’m not going to be a reliable source of physics news.
With that said, knowing there’s a sizable number of people interested in this kind of thing is helpful. I’ve definitely had times when I saw something I found interesting, but wasn’t sure if my audience would care. (For example, recently there’s been some substantial progress on the problem that gave this blog its name.) Now that I know some of you are interested, I’ll err on the side of posting about these kinds of things.
“What’s it like to be a physicist” and science popularization were both consistently third and fourth in the poll, switching back and forth as more votes came in. This tells me that while many of you want more technical content, there are still people interested in pieces aimed to a broader audience, so I won’t abandon those.
The other topics were fairly close together, with the more “news-y” ones (astrophysics/cosmology and criticism of bad science coverage) beating the less “news-y” ones. This also supports my guess that people were looking for a “more physics news” option. A few people even voted for “more arguments”, which was really more of a joke topic: getting into arguments with other bloggers tends to bring in readers, but it’s not something I ever plan to do intentionally.
So, what’s next? I’ll explain more quantum field theory, talk more about interesting progress in amplitudes, and mention news when I come across it, trusting you guys to find it interesting. I’ll keep up with the low-level stuff, and with trying to humanize physics, to get the public to understand what being a physicist is all about. And I’ll think about some of the specific suggestions you gave: I’m always looking for good post ideas.
Want to win over a mathematician? Bake them a pi.
Of course, presentation counts. You can’t just pour a spew of digits.
Ideally, you’ve baked your pi at home, in a comfortable physical theory. You lay out a graph to give it structure, then wrap it in algebraic curves before baking under an integration.
(Sometimes you can skip this part. My mathematician will happily eat graphs and ignore the pi.)
At this point, if your motives are pure (or at least mixed Tate), you have your pi. To make it more interesting, be sure to pair with a well-aged Riemann zeta value. With the right preparation, you can achieve a truly cosmic pi.
Lubos Motl has responded to my post from last week about the recent Caltech short, Quantum is Calling. His response is pretty much exactly what you’d expect, including the cameos by Salma Hayek and Kaley Cuoco.
The only surprise was his lack of concern for accuracy. Quantum is Calling got the conjecture it was trying to popularize almost precisely backwards. I was expecting that to bother him, at least a little.
Should it bother you?
That depends on what you think Quantum is Calling is trying to do.
Science popularization, even good science popularization, tends to get things wrong. Some of that is inevitable, a result of translating complex concepts to a wider audience.
Sometimes, though, you can’t really chalk it up to translation. Interstellar had some extremely accurate visualizations of black holes, but it also had an extremely silly love-powered tesseract. That wasn’t their attempt to convey some subtle scientific truth, it was just meant to sound cool.
And the thing is, that’s not a bad thing to do. For a certain kind of piece, sounding cool really is the point.
Imagine being an explorer. You travel out into the wilderness and find a beautiful waterfall.
How do you tell people about it?
One option is the press. The news can cover your travels, so people can stay up to date with the latest in waterfall discoveries. In general, you’d prefer this sort of thing to be fairly accurate: the goal here is to inform people, to give them a better idea of the world around them.
Alternatively, you can advertise. You put signposts up around town pointing toward the waterfall, complete with vivid pictures. Here, accuracy matters a lot less: you’re trying to get people excited, knowing that as they get closer they can get more detailed information.
In science popularization, the “news” here isn’t just news. It’s also blog posts, press releases, and public lectures. It’s the part of science popularization that’s supposed to keep people informed, and it’s one that we hope is mostly accurate, at least as far as possible.
The “signposts”, meanwhile, are things like Interstellar. Their audience is as wide as it can possibly be, and we don’t expect them to get things right. They’re meant to excite people, to get them interested in science. The expectation is that a few students will find the imagery interesting enough to go further, at which point they can learn the full story and clear up any remaining misconceptions.
Quantum is Calling is pretty clearly meant to be a signpost. The inaccuracy is one way to tell, but it should be clear just from the context. We’re talking about a piece with Hollywood stars here. The relative star-dom of Zoe Saldana and Keanu Reeves doesn’t matter, the presence of any mainstream film stars whatsoever means they’re going for the broadest possible audience.
(Of course, the fact that it’s set up to look like an official tie-in to the Star Trek films doesn’t hurt matters either.)
They’re also quite explicit about their goals. The piece’s predecessor has Keanu Reeves send a message back in time, with the goal of inspiring a generation of young scientists to build a future paradise. They’re not subtle about this.
Ok, so what’s the problem? Signposts are allowed to be inaccurate, so the inaccuracy shouldn’t matter. Eventually people will climb up to the waterfall and see it for themselves, right?
What if the waterfall isn’t there?
The evidence for ER=EPR (the conjecture that Quantum is Calling is popularizing) isn’t like seeing a waterfall. It’s more like finding it via surveying. By looking at the slope of nearby terrain and following the rivers, you can get fairly confident that there should be a waterfall there, even if you can’t yet see it over the next ridge. You can then start sending scouts, laying in supplies, and getting ready for a push to the waterfall. You can alert the news, telling journalists of the magnificent waterfall you expect to find, so the public can appreciate the majesty of your achievement.
What you probably shouldn’t do is put up a sign for tourists.
As I hope I made clear in my last post, ER=EPR has some decent evidence. It hasn’t shown that it can handle “foot traffic”, though. The number of researchers working on it is still small. (For a fun but not especially rigorous exercise, try typing “ER=EPR” and “AdS/CFT” into physics database INSPIRE.) Conjectures at this stage are frequently successful, but they often fail, and ER=EPR still has a decent chance of doing so. Tying your inspiring signpost to something that may well not be there risks sending tourists up to an empty waterfall. They won’t come down happy.
As such, I’m fine with “news-style” popularizations of ER=EPR. And I’m fine with “signposts” for conjectures that have shown they can handle some foot traffic. (A piece that sends Zoe Saldana to the holodeck to learn about holography could be fun, for example.) But making this sort of high-profile signpost for ER=EPR feels irresponsible and premature. There will be plenty of time for a Star Trek tie-in to ER=EPR once it’s clear the idea is here to stay.
I finished a new paper recently, it’s up on arXiv now.
Here’s something you might expect: if something is a volume, it should be positive, right? You can’t have a negative amount of space. So you’d naturally guess that these scattering amplitudes, if they’re really the “volume” of something, should be positive.
“Volume” is in quotation marks there for a reason, though, because the real story is a bit more complicated. The Amplituhedron isn’t literally the volume of some space, there are a bunch of other mathematical steps between the geometric story of the Amplituhedron on the one end and the final amplitude on the other. If it was literally a volume, calculating it would be quite a bit easier: mathematicians have gotten very talented at calculating volumes. But if it was literally a volume, it would have to be positive.
What our paper demonstrates is that, in the right regions (selected by the structure of the Amplituhedron), the amplitudes we’ve calculated so far are in fact positive. That first, basic requirement for the amplitude to actually literally be a volume is satisfied.
Of course, this doesn’t prove anything. There’s still a lot of work to do to actually find the thing the amplitude is the volume of, and this isn’t even proof that such a thing exists. It’s another, small piece of evidence. But it’s a reassuring one, and it’s nice to begin to link our approach with the Amplituhedron folks.
This week was the 75th birthday of John Schwarz, one of the founders of string theory and a discoverer of N=4 super Yang-Mills. We’ve dedicated the paper to him. His influence on the field, like the amplitudes of N=4 themselves, has been consistently positive.