Tag Archives: string theory

The State of Four Gravitons

This blog is named for a question: does the four-graviton amplitude in N=8 supergravity diverge?

Over the years, Zvi Bern and a growing cast of collaborators have been trying to answer that question. They worked their way up, loop by loop, until they stalled at five loops. Last year, they finally broke the stall, and last week, they published the result of the five-loop calculation. They find that N=8 supergravity does not diverge at five loops in four dimensions, but does diverge in 24/5 dimensions. I thought I’d write a brief FAQ about the status so far.

Q: Wait a minute, 24/5 dimensions? What does that mean? Are you talking about fractals, or…

Nothing so exotic. The number 24/5 comes from a regularization trick. When we’re calculating an amplitude that might be divergent, one way to deal with it is to treat the dimension like a free variable. You can then see what happens as you vary the dimension, and see when the amplitude starts diverging. If the dimension is an integer, then this ends up matching a more physics-based picture, where you start with a theory in eleven dimensions and curl up the extra ones until you get to the dimension you’re looking for. For fractional dimensions, it’s not clear that there’s any physical picture like this: it’s just a way to talk about how close something is to diverging.

Q: I’m really confused. What’s a graviton? What is supergravity? What’s a divergence?

I don’t have enough space to explain these things here, but that’s why I write handbooks. Here are explanations of gravitons, supersymmetry, and (N=8) supergravity, loops, and divergences. Please let me know if anything in those explanations is unclear, or if you have any more questions.

Q: Why do people think that N=8 supergravity will diverge at seven loops?

There’s a useful rule of thumb in quantum field theory: anything that can happen, will happen. In this case, that means if there’s a way for a theory to diverge that’s consistent with the symmetries of the theory, then it almost always does diverge. In the past, that meant that people expected N=8 supergravity to diverge at five loops. However, researchers found a previously unknown symmetry that looked like it would forbid the five-loop divergence, and only allow a divergence at seven loops (in four dimensions). Zvi and co.’s calculation confirms that the five-loop divergence doesn’t show up.

More generally, string theory not only avoids divergences but clears up other phenomena, like black holes. These two things seem tied together: string theory cleans up problems in quantum gravity in a consistent, unified way. There isn’t a clear way for N=8 supergravity on its own to clean up these kinds of problems, which makes some people skeptical that it can match string theory’s advantages. Either way N=8 supergravity, unlike string theory, isn’t a candidate theory of nature by itself: it would need to be modified in order to describe our world, and no-one has suggested a way to do that.

Q: Why do people think that N=8 supergravity won’t diverge at seven loops?

There’s a useful rule of thumb in amplitudes: amplitudes are weird. In studying amplitudes we often notice unexpected simplifications, patterns that uncover new principles that weren’t obvious before.

Gravity in general seems to have a lot of these kinds of simplifications. Even without any loops, its behavior is surprisingly tame: it’s a theory that we can build up piece by piece from the three-particle interaction, even though naively we shouldn’t be able to (for the experts: I’m talking about large-z behavior in BCFW). This behavior seems to have an effect on one-loop amplitudes as well. There are other ways in which gravity seems better-behaved than expected, overall this suggests that we still have a fair ways to go before we understand all of the symmetries of gravity theories.

Supersymmetric gravity in particular also seems unusually well-behaved. N=5 supergravity was expected to diverge at four loops, but doesn’t. N=4 supergravity does diverge at four loops, but that seems to be due to an effect that is specific to that case (for the experts: an anomaly).

For N=8 specifically, a suggestive hint came from varying the dimension. If you checked the dimension in which the theory diverged at each loop, you’d find it matched the divergences of another theory, N=4 super Yang-Mills. At l loops, N=4 super Yang-Mills diverges in dimension 4+6/l. From that formula, you can see that no matter how much you increase l, you’ll never get to four dimensions: in four dimensions, N=4 super Yang-Mills doesn’t diverge.

At five loops, N=4 super Yang-Mills diverges in 26/5 dimensions. Zvi Bern made a bet with supergravity expert Kelly Stelle that the dimension would be the same for N=8 supergravity: a bottle of California wine from Bern versus English wine from Stelle. Now that they’ve found a divergence in 24/5 dimensions instead, Stelle will likely be getting his wine soon.

Q: It sounds like the calculation was pretty tough. Can they still make it to seven loops?

I think so, yes. Doing the five-loop calculation they noticed simplifications, clever tricks uncovered by even more clever grad students. The end result is that if they just want to find out whether the theory diverges then they don’t have to do the “whole calculation”, just part of it. This simplifies things a lot. They’ll probably have to find a few more simplifications to make seven loops viable, but I’m optimistic that they’ll find them, and in the meantime the new tricks should have some applications in other theories.

Q: What do you think? Will the theory diverge?

I’m not sure.

To be honest, I’m a bit less optimistic than I used to be. The agreement of divergence dimensions between N=8 supergravity and N=4 super Yang-Mills wasn’t the strongest argument (there’s a reason why, though Stelle accepted the bet on five loops, string theorist Michael Green is waiting on seven loops for his bet). Fractional dimensions don’t obviously mean anything physically, and many of the simplifications in gravity seem specific to four dimensions. Still, it was suggestive, the kind of “motivation” that gets a conjecture started.

Without that motivation, none of the remaining arguments are specific to N=8. I still think unexpected simplifications are likely, that gravity overall behaves better than we yet appreciate. I still would bet on seven loops being finite. But I’m less confident about what it would mean for the theory overall. That’s going to take more serious analysis, digging in to the anomaly in N=4 supergravity and seeing what generalizes. It does at least seem like Zvi and co. are prepared to undertake that analysis.

Regardless, it’s still worth pushing for seven loops. Having that kind of heavy-duty calculation in our sub-field forces us to improve our mathematical technology, in the same way that space programs and particle colliders drive technology in the wider world. If you think your new amplitudes method is more efficient than the alternatives, the push to seven loops is the ideal stress test. Jacob Bourjaily likes to tell me how his prescriptive unitarity technique is better than what Zvi and co. are doing, this is our chance to find out!

Overall, I still stand by what I say in my blog’s sidebar. I’m interested in N=8 supergravity, I’d love to find out whether the four-graviton amplitude diverges…and now that the calculation is once again making progress, I expect that I will.


Bubbles of Nothing

I recently learned about a very cool concept, called a bubble of nothing.

Read about physics long enough, and you’ll hear all sorts of cosmic disaster scenarios. If the Higgs vacuum decays, and the Higgs field switches to a different value, then the masses of most fundamental particles would change. It would be the end of physics, and life, as we know it.

A bubble of nothing is even more extreme. In a bubble of nothing, space itself ceases to exist.

The idea was first explored by Witten in 1982. Witten started with a simple model, a world with our four familiar dimensions of space and time, plus one curled-up extra dimension. What he found was that this simple world is unstable: quantum mechanics (and, as was later found, thermodynamics) lets it “tunnel” to another world, one that contains a small “bubble”, a sphere in which nothing at all exists.


Except perhaps the Nowhere Man

A bubble of nothing might sound like a black hole, but it’s quite different. Throw a particle into a black hole and it will fall in, never to return. Throw it into a bubble of nothing, though, and something more interesting happens. As you get closer, the extra dimension of space gets smaller and smaller. Eventually, it stops, smoothly closing off. The particle you threw in will just bounce back, smoothly, off the outside of the bubble. Essentially, it reached the edge of the universe.

The bubble starts out small, comparable to the size of the curled-up dimension. But it doesn’t stay that way. In Witten’s setup, the bubble grows, faster and faster, until it’s moving at the speed of light, erasing the rest of the universe from existence.

You probably shouldn’t worry about this happening to us. As far as I’m aware, nobody has written down a realistic model that can transform into a bubble of nothing.

Still, it’s an evocative concept, and one I’m surprised isn’t used more often in science fiction. I could see writers using a bubble of nothing as a risk from an experimental FTL drive, or using a stable (or slowly growing) bubble as the relic of some catastrophic alien war. The idea of a bubble of literal nothing is haunting enough that it ought to be put to good use.

Epistemology, Not Metaphysics, Justifies Experiments

While I was visiting the IAS a few weeks back, they had a workshop on Quantum Information and Black Holes. I didn’t see many of the talks, but I did get to see Leonard Susskind talk about his new slogan, GR=QM.

For some time now, researchers have been uncovering deep connections between gravity and quantum mechanics. Juan Maldacena jump-started the field with the discovery of AdS/CFT, showing that theories that describe gravity in a particular curved space (Anti-de Sitter, or AdS) are equivalent to non-gravity quantum theories describing the boundary of that space (specifically, Conformal Field Theories, or CFTs). The two theories contain the same information and, with the right “dictionary”, describe the same physics: in our field’s vernacular, they’re dual. Since then, physicists have found broader similarities, situations where properties of quantum mechanics, like entanglement, are closely linked to properties of gravity theories. Maldacena’s ER=EPR may be the most publicized of these, a conjectured equivalence between Einstein-Rosen bridges (colloquially known as wormholes) and entangled pairs of particles (famously characterized by Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen).

GR=QM is clearly a riff on ER=EPR, but Susskind is making a more radical claim. Based on these developments, including his own work on quantum complexity, Susskind is arguing that the right kind of quantum mechanical system automatically gives rise to quantum gravity. What’s more, he claims that these systems will be available, using quantum computers, within roughly a decade. Within ten years or so, we’ll be able to do quantum gravity experiments.

That sounds ridiculous, until you realize he’s talking about dual theories. What he’s imagining is not an experiment at the absurdly high energies necessary to test quantum gravity, but rather a low-energy quantum mechanics experiment that is equivalent, by something like AdS/CFT, to a quantum gravity experiment.

Most people would think of that as a simulation, not an actual test of quantum gravity. Susskind, though, spends quite a bit of time defending the claim that it really is gravity, that literally GR=QM. His description of clever experiments and overarching physical principles is aimed at piling on evidence for that particular claim.

What do I think? I don’t think it matters much.

The claim Susskind is making is one of metaphysics: the philosophy of which things do and do not “really” exist. Unlike many physicists, I think metaphysics is worth discussing, that there are philosophers who make real progress with it.

But ultimately, Susskind is proposing a set of experiments. And what justifies experiments isn’t metaphysics, it’s epistemology: not what’s “really there”, but what we can learn.

What can we learn from the sorts of experiments Susskind is proposing?

Let’s get this out of the way first: we can’t learn which theory describes quantum gravity in our own world.

That’s because every one of these experiments relies on setting up a quantum system with particular properties. Every time, you’re choosing the “boundary theory”, the quantum mechanical side of GR=QM. Either you choose a theory with a known gravity partner, and you know how the inside should behave, or you choose a theory with an unknown partner. Either way, you have no reason to expect the gravity side to resemble the world we live in.

Plenty of people would get suspicious of Susskind here, and accuse him of trying to mislead people. They’re imagining headlines, “Experiment Proves String Theory”, based on a system intentionally set up to have a string theory dual, a system that can’t actually tell us whether string theory describes the real world.

That’s not where I’m going with this.

The experiments that Susskind is describing can’t prove string theory. But we could still learn something from them.

For one, we could learn whether these pairs of theories really are equivalent. AdS/CFT, ER=EPR, these are conjectures. In some cases, they’re conjectures with very good evidence. But they haven’t been proven, so it’s still possible there’s a problem people overlooked. One of the nice things about experiments and simulations is that they’re very good at exposing problems that were overlooked.

For another, we could get a better idea of how gravity behaves in general. By simulating a wide range of theories, we could look for overarching traits, properties that are common to most gravitational theories. We wouldn’t be sure that those properties hold in our world…but with enough examples, we could get pretty confident. Hopefully, we’d stumble on things that gravity has to do, in order to be gravity.

Susskind is quite capable of making these kinds of arguments, vastly more so than I. So it frustrates me that every time I’ve seen him talk or write about this, he hasn’t. Instead, he keeps framing things in terms of metaphysics, whether quantum mechanics “really is” gravity, whether the experiment “really” explores a wormhole. If he wants to usher in a new age of quantum gravity experiments, not just as a buzzword but as real, useful research, then eventually he’s going to have to stop harping on metaphysics and start talking epistemology. I look forward to when that happens.

4gravitons Meets QCD Meets Gravity

I’m at UCLA this week, for the workshop QCD Meets Gravity. I haven’t worked on QCD or gravity yet, so I’m mostly here as an interested observer, and as an excuse to enjoy Los Angeles in December.


I think there’s a song about this…

QCD Meets Gravity is a conference centered around the various ways that “gravity is Yang-Mills squared”. There are a number of tricks that let you “square” calculations in Yang-Mills theories (a type of theory that includes QCD) to get calculations in gravity, and this conference showcased most of them.

At Amplitudes this summer, I was disappointed there were so few surprises. QCD Meets Gravity was different, with several talks on new or preliminary results, including one by Julio Parra-Martinez where the paper went up in the last few minutes of the talk! Yu-tin Huang talked about his (still-unpublished) work with Nima Arkani-Hamed on “UV/IR Polytopes”. The story there is a bit like the conformal bootstrap, with constraints (in this case based on positivity) marking off a space of “allowed” theories. String theory, interestingly, is quite close to the boundary of what is allowed. Enrico Herrmann is working on a way to figure out which gravity integrands are going to diverge without actually integrating them, while Simon Caron-Huot, in his characteristic out-of-the-box style, is wondering whether supersymmetric black holes precess. We also heard a bit more about a few recent papers. Oliver Schlotterer’s talk cleared up one thing: apparently the GEF functions he defines in his paper on one-loop “Z theory” are pronounced “Jeff”. I kept waiting for him to announce “Jeff theory”, but unfortunately no such luck. Sebastian Mizera’s talk was a very clear explanation of intersection theory, the subject of his recent paper. As it turns out, intersection theory is the study of mathematical objects like the Beta function (which shows up extensively in string theory), taking them apart in a way very reminiscent of the “squaring” story of Yang-Mills and gravity.

The heart of the workshop this year was gravitational waves. Since LIGO started running, amplitudes researchers (including, briefly, me) have been looking for ways to get involved. This conference’s goal was to bring together amplitudes people and the gravitational wave community, to get a clearer idea of what we can contribute. Between talks and discussions, I feel like we all understand the problem better. Some things that the amplitudes community thought were required, like breaking the symmetries of special relativity, turn out to be accidents of how the gravitational wave community calculates things: approximations that made things easier for them, but make things harder for us. There are areas in which we can make progress quite soon, even areas in which amplitudes people have already made progress. The detectors for which the new predictions matter might still be in the future (LIGO can measure two or three “loops”, LISA will see up to four), but they will eventually be measured. Amplitudes and gravitational wave physics could turn out to be a very fruitful partnership.


Interesting Work at the IAS

I’m visiting the Institute for Advanced Study this week, on the outskirts of Princeton’s impressively Gothic campus.


A typical Princeton reading room

The IAS was designed as a place for researchers to work with minimal distraction, and we’re taking full advantage of it. (Though I wouldn’t mind a few more basic distractions…dinner closer than thirty minutes away for example.)

The amplitudes community seems to be busily working as well, with several interesting papers going up on the arXiv this week, four with some connection to the IAS.

Carlos Mafra and Oliver Schlotterer’s paper about one-loop string amplitudes mentions visiting the IAS in the acknowledgements. Mafra and Schlotterer have found a “double-copy” structure in the one-loop open string. Loosely, “double-copy” refers to situations in which one theory can be described as two theories “multiplied together”, like how “gravity is Yang-Mills squared”. Normally, open strings would be the “Yang-Mills” in that equation, with their “squares”, closed strings, giving gravity. Here though, open strings themselves are described as a “product” of two different pieces, a Yang-Mills part and one that takes care of the “stringiness”. You may remember me talking about something like this and calling it “Z theory”. That was at “tree level”, for the simplest string diagrams. This paper updates the technology to one-loop, where the part taking care of the “stringiness” has a more sophisticated mathematical structure. It’s pretty nontrivial for this kind of structure to survive at one loop, and it suggests something deeper is going on.

Yvonne Geyer (IAS) and Ricardo Monteiro (non-IAS) work on the ambitwistor string, a string theory-like setup for calculating particle physics amplitudes. Their paper shows how this setup can be used for one-loop amplitudes in a wide range of theories, in particular theories without supersymmetry. This makes some patterns that were observed before quite a bit clearer, and leads to a fairly concise way of writing the amplitudes.

Nima-watchers will be excited about a paper by Nima Arkani-Hamed and his student Yuntao Bai (IAS) and Song He and his student Gongwang Yan (non-IAS). This paper is one that has been promised for quite some time, Nima talked about it at Amplitudes last summer. Nima is famous for the amplituhedron, an abstract geometrical object that encodes amplitudes in one specific theory, N=4 super Yang-Mills. Song He is known for the Cachazo-He-Yuan (or CHY) string, a string-theory like picture of particle scattering in a very general class of theories that is closely related to the ambitwistor string. Collaborating, they’ve managed to link the two pictures together, and in doing so take the first step to generalizing the amplituhedron to other theories. In order to do this they had to think about the amplituhedron not in terms of some abstract space, but in terms of the actual momenta of the particles they’re colliding. This is important because the amplituhedron’s abstract space is very specific to N=4 super Yang-Mills, with supersymmetry in some sense built in, while momenta can be written down for any particles. Once they had mastered this trick, they could encode other things in this space of momenta: colors of quarks, for example. Using this, they’ve managed to find amplituhedron-like structure in the CHY string, and in a few particular theories. They still can’t do everything the amplituhedron can, in particular the amplituhedron can go to any number of loops while the structures they’re finding are tree-level. But the core trick they’re using looks very powerful. I’ve been hearing hints about the trick from Nima for so long that I had forgotten they hadn’t published it yet, now that they have I’m excited to see what the amplitudes community manages to do with it.

Finally, last night a paper by Igor Prlina, Marcus Spradlin, James Stankowicz, Stefan Stanojevic, and Anastasia Volovich went up while three of the authors were visiting the IAS. The paper deals with Landau equations, a method to classify and predict the singularities of amplitudes. By combining this method with the amplituhedron they’ve already made substantial progress, and this paper serves as a fairly thorough proof of principle, using the method to comprehensively catalog the singularities of one-loop amplitudes. In this case I’ve been assured that they have papers at higher loops in the works, so it will be interesting to see how powerful this method ends up being.

When It Rains It Amplitudes

The last few weeks have seen a rain of amplitudes papers on arXiv, including quite a few interesting ones.


As well as a fair amount of actual rain in Copenhagen

Over the last year Nima Arkani-Hamed has been talking up four or five really interesting results, and not actually publishing any of them. This has understandably frustrated pretty much everybody. In the last week he published two of them, Cosmological Polytopes and the Wavefunction of the Universe with Paolo Benincasa and Alexander Postnikov and Scattering Amplitudes For All Masses and Spins with Tzu-Chen Huang and Yu-tin Huang. So while I’ll have to wait on the others (I’m particularly looking forward to seeing what he’s been working on with Ellis Yuan) this can at least tide me over.

Cosmological Polytopes and the Wavefunction of the Universe is Nima & co.’s attempt to get a geometrical picture for cosmological correlators, analogous to the Ampituhedron. Cosmological correlators ask questions about the overall behavior of the visible universe: how likely is one clump of matter to be some distance from another? What sorts of patterns might we see in the Cosmic Microwave Background? This is the sort of thing that can be used for “cosmological collider physics”, an idea I mention briefly here.

Paolo Benincasa was visiting Perimeter near the end of my time there, so I got a few chances to chat with him about this. One thing he mentioned, but that didn’t register fully at the time, was Postnikov’s involvement. I had expected that even if Nima and Paolo found something interesting that it wouldn’t lead to particularly deep mathematics. Unlike the N=4 super Yang-Mills theory that generates the Amplituhedron, the theories involved in these cosmological correlators aren’t particularly unique, they’re just a particular class of models cosmologists use that happen to work well with Nima’s methods. Given that, it’s really surprising that they found something mathematically interesting enough to interest Postnikov, a mathematician who was involved in the early days of the Amplituhedron’s predecessor, the Positive Grassmannian. If there’s something that mathematically worthwhile in such a seemingly arbitrary theory then perhaps some of the beauty of the Amplithedron are much more general than I had thought.

Scattering Amplitudes For All Masses and Spins is on some level a byproduct of Nima and Yu-tin’s investigations of whether string theory is unique. Still, it’s a useful byproduct. Many of the tricks we use in scattering amplitudes are at their best for theories with massless particles. Once the particles have masses our notation gets a lot messier, and we often have to rely on older methods. What Nima, Yu-tin, and Tzu-Chen have done here is to build a notation similar to what we use for massless particle, but for massive ones.

The advantage of doing this isn’t just clean-looking papers: using this notation makes it a lot easier to see what kinds of theories make sense. There are a variety of old theorems that restrict what sorts of theories you can write down: photons can’t interact directly with each other, there can only be one “gravitational force”, particles with spins greater than two shouldn’t be massless, etc. The original theorems were often fairly involved, but for massless particles there were usually nice ways to prove them in modern amplitudes notation. Yu-tin in particular has a lot of experience finding these kinds of proofs. What the new notation does is make these nice simple proofs possible for massive particles as well. For example, you can try to use the new notation to write down an interaction between a massive particle with spin greater than two and gravity, and what you find is that any expression you write breaks down: it works fine at low energies, but once you’re looking at particles with energies much higher than their mass you start predicting probabilities greater than one. This suggests that particles with higher spins shouldn’t be “fundamental”, they should be explained in terms of other particles at higher energies. The only way around this turns out to be an infinite series of particles to cancel problems from the previous ones, the sort of structure that higher vibrations have in string theory. I often don’t appreciate papers that others claim are a pleasure to read, but this one really was a pleasure to read: there’s something viscerally satisfying about seeing so many important constraints manifest so cleanly.

I’ve talked before about the difference between planar and non-planar theories. Planar theories end up being simpler, and in the case of N=4 super Yang-Mills this results in powerful symmetries that let us do much more complicated calculations. Non-planar theories are more complicated, but necessary for understanding gravity. Dual Conformal Symmetry, Integration-by-Parts Reduction, Differential Equations and the Nonplanar Sector, a new paper by Zvi Bern, Michael Enciso, Harald Ita, and Mao Zeng, works on bridging the gap between these two worlds.

Most of the paper is concerned with using some of the symmetries of N=4 super Yang-Mills in other, more realistic (but still planar) theories. The idea is that even if those symmetries don’t hold one can still use techniques that respect those symmetries, and those techniques can often be a lot cleaner than techniques that don’t. This is probably the most practically useful part of the paper, but the part I was most curious about is in the last few sections, where they discuss non-planar theories. For a while now I’ve been interested in ways to treat a non-planar theory as if it were planar, to try to leverage the powerful symmetries we have in planar N=4 super Yang-Mills elsewhere. Their trick is surprisingly simple: they just cut the diagram open! Oddly enough, they really do end up with similar symmetries using this method. I still need to read this in more detail to understand its limitations, since deep down it feels like something this simple couldn’t possibly work. Still, if anything like the symmetries of planar N=4 holds in the non-planar case there’s a lot we could do with it.

There are a bunch of other interesting recent papers that I haven’t had time to read. Some look like they might relate to weird properties of N=4 super Yang-Mills, others say interesting things about the interconnected web of theories tied together by their behavior when a particle becomes “soft”. Another presents a method for dealing with elliptic functions, one of the main obstructions to applying my hexagon function technique to more situations. And of course I shouldn’t fail to mention a paper by my colleague Carlos Cardona, applying amplitudes techniques to AdS/CFT. Overall, a lot of interesting stuff in a short span of time. I should probably get back to reading it!

The Multiverse Can Only Kill Physics by Becoming Physics

I’m not a fan of the multiverse. I think it’s over-hyped, way beyond its current scientific support.

But I don’t think it’s going to kill physics.

By “the multiverse” I’m referring to a group of related ideas. There’s the idea that we live in a vast, varied universe, with different physical laws in different regions. Relatedly, there’s the idea that the properties of our region aren’t typical of the universe as a whole, just typical of places where life can exist. It may be that in most of the universe the cosmological constant is enormous, but if life can only exist in places where it is tiny then a tiny cosmological constant is what we’ll see. That sort of logic is called anthropic reasoning. If it seems strange, think about a smaller scale: there are many planets in the universe, but only a small number of them can support life. Still, we shouldn’t be surprised that we live on a planet that can support life: if it couldn’t, we wouldn’t live here!

If we really do live in a multiverse, though, some of what we think of as laws of physics are just due to random chance. Maybe the quarks have the masses they do not for some important reason, but just because they happened to end up that way in our patch of the universe.

This seems to have depressing implications. If the laws of physics are random, or just consequences of where life can exist, then what’s left to discover? Why do experiments at all?

Well, why not ask the geoscientists?


These guys

We might live in one universe among many, but we definitely live on one planet among many. And somehow, this realization hasn’t killed geoscience.

That’s because knowing we live on a random planet doesn’t actually tell us very much.

Now, I’m not saying you can’t do anthropic reasoning about the Earth. For example, it looks like an active system of plate tectonics is a necessary ingredient for life. Even if plate tectonics is rare, we shouldn’t be surprised to live on a planet that has it.

Ok, so imagine it’s 1900, before Wegener proposed continental drift. Scientists believe there are many planets in the universe, that we live in a “multiplanet”. Could you predict plate tectonics?

Even knowing that we live on one of the few planets that can support life, you don’t know how it supports life. Even living in a “multiplanet”, geoscience isn’t dead. The specifics of our Earth are still going to teach you something important about how planets work.

Physical laws work the same way. I’ve said that the masses of the quarks could be random, but it’s not quite that simple. The underlying reasons why the masses of the quarks are what they are could be random: the specifics of how six extra dimensions happened to curl up in our region of the universe, for example. But there’s important physics in between: the physics of how those random curlings of space give rise to quark masses. There’s a mechanism there, and we can’t just pick one out of a hat or work backwards to it anthropically. We have to actually go out and discover the answer.

Similarly, we don’t know automatically which phenomena are “random”, which are “anthropic”, and which are required by some deep physical principle. Even in a multiverse, we can’t assume that everything comes down to chance, we only know that some things will, much as the geoscientists don’t know what’s unique to Earth and what’s true of every planet without actually going out and checking.

You can even find a notion of “naturalness” here, if you squint. In physics, we find phenomena like the mass of the Higgs “unnatural”, they’re “fine-tuned” in a way that cries out for an explanation. Normally, we think of this in terms of a hypothetical “theory of everything”: the more “fine-tuned” something appears, the harder it would be to explain it in a final theory. In a multiverse, it looks like we’d have to give up on this, because even the most unlikely-looking circumstance would happen somewhere, especially if it’s needed for life.

Once again, though, imagine you’re a geoscientist. Someone suggests a ridiculously fine-tuned explanation for something: perhaps volcanoes only work if they have exactly the right amount of moisture. Even though we live on one planet in a vast universe, you’re still going to look for simpler explanations before you move on to more complicated ones. It’s human nature, and by and large it’s the only way we’re capable of doing science. As physicists, we’ve papered this over with technical definitions of naturalness, but at the end of the day even in a multiverse we’ll still start with less fine-tuned-looking explanations and only accept the fine-tuned ones when the evidence forces us to. It’s just what people do.

The only way for anthropic reasoning to get around this, to really make physics pointless once and for all, is if it actually starts making predictions. If anthropic reasoning in physics can be made much stronger than anthropic reasoning in geoscience (which, as mentioned, didn’t predict tectonic plates until a century after their discovery) then maybe we can imagine getting to a point where it tells us what particles we should expect to discover, and what masses they should have.

At that point, though, anthropic reasoning won’t have made physics pointless: it will have become physics.

If anthropic reasoning is really good enough to make reliable, falsifiable predictions, then we should be ecstatic! I don’t think we’re anywhere near that point, though some people are earnestly trying to get there. But if it really works out, then we’d have a powerful new method to make predictions about the universe.


Ok, so with all of this said, there is one other worry.

Karl Popper criticized Marxism and Freudianism for being unfalsifiable. In both disciplines, there was a tendency to tell what were essentially “just-so stories”. They could “explain” any phenomenon by setting it in their framework and explaining how it came to be “just so”. These explanations didn’t make new predictions, and different people often ended up coming up with different explanations with no way to distinguish between them. They were stories, not scientific hypotheses. In more recent times, the same criticism has been made of evolutionary psychology. In each case the field is accused of being able to justify anything and everything in terms of its overly ambiguous principles, whether dialectical materialism, the unconscious mind, or the ancestral environment.


Or an elephant’s ‘satiable curtiosity

You’re probably worried that this could happen to physics. With anthropic reasoning and the multiverse, what’s to stop physicists from just proposing some “anthropic” just-so-story for any evidence we happen to find, no matter what it is? Surely anything could be “required for life” given a vague enough argument.

You’re also probably a bit annoyed that I saved this objection for last. I know that for many people, this is precisely what you mean when you say the multiverse will “kill physics”.

I’ve saved this for last for a reason though. It’s because I want to point out something important: this outcome, that our field degenerates into just-so-stories, isn’t required by the physics of the multiverse. Rather, it’s a matter of sociology.

If we hold anthropic reasoning to the same standards as the rest of physics, then there’s no problem: if an anthropic explanation doesn’t make falsifiable predictions then we ignore it. The problem comes if we start loosening our criteria, start letting people publish just-so-stories instead of real science.

This is a real risk! I don’t want to diminish that. It’s harder than it looks for a productive academic field to fall into bullshit, but just-so-stories are a proven way to get there.

What I want to emphasize is that we’re all together in this. We all want to make sure that physics remains scientific. We all need to be vigilant, to prevent a culture of just-so-stories from growing. Regardless of whether the multiverse is the right picture, and regardless of how many annoying TV specials they make about it in the meantime, that’s the key: keeping physics itself honest. If we can manage that, nothing we discover can kill our field.