Tag Archives: string theory

How to Get a “Minimum Scale” Without Pixels

Zoom in, and the world gets stranger. Down past atoms, past protons and neutrons, far past the smallest scales we can probe at the Large Hadron Collider, we get to the scale at which quantum gravity matters: the Planck scale.

Weird things happen at the Planck scale. Space and time stop making sense. Read certain pop science articles, and they’ll tell you the Planck scale is the smallest scale, the scale where space and time are quantized, the “pixels of the universe”.

That last sentence, by the way, is not actually how the Planck scale works. In fact, there’s pretty good evidence that the universe doesn’t have “pixels”, that space and time are not quantized in that way. Even very tiny pixels would change the speed of light, making it different for different colors. Tiny effects like that add up, and astronomers would almost certainly have noticed an effect from even Planck-scale pixels. Unless your idea of “pixels” is fairly unusual, it’s already been ruled out.

If the Planck scale isn’t the scale of the “pixels of the universe”, why do people keep saying it is?

Part of the problem is that the real story is vaguer. We don’t know what happens at the Planck scale. It’s not just that we don’t know which theory of quantum gravity is right: we don’t even know what different quantum gravity proposals predict. People are trying to figure it out, and there are some more or less viable ideas, but ultimately all we know is that at the Planck scale our description of space-time should break down.

“Our description breaks down” is unfortunately not very catchy. Certainly, it’s less catchy than “pixels of the universe”. Part of the problem is that most people don’t know what “our description breaks down” actually means.

So if that’s the part that’s puzzling you, maybe an example would help. This won’t be the full answer, though it could be part of the story. What it will be is an example of what “our description breaks down” can actually mean, how there can be a scale beyond which space-time stops making sense without there being “pixels”.

The example comes from string theory, from a concept called “T duality”. In string theory, “extra” dimensions beyond our usual three space and one time are curled up small, so that traveling along them just gets you back where you started. Instead of particles, there are strings, with length close to the Planck length.

Picture a loop of string in a small extra dimension. What can it do?

Image credit: someone who’s done a lot more work explaining string theory than I have

One thing it can do is move along the extra dimension. Since it has to end up back where it started, it can’t just move at any speed it wants. It turns out that the smaller the extra dimension, the more energy the string has when it spins around it.

The other thing it can do is wrap around the extra dimension. If it wraps around, the string has more energy if the dimension is larger, like a rubber band stretched around a pipe.

The string can do either or both of these multiple times. It can wrap many times around the extra dimension, or move in a quicker circle around it, or both at once. And if you calculate the energy of these combinations, you notice something: a string wound around a big circle has the same energy as a string moving around a small circle. In particular, you get the same energy on a circle of radius R, and a circle of radius l^2/R, where l is the length of the string.

It turns out it’s not just the energy that’s the same: for everything that happens on a circle of radius R, there’s a matching description with a circle of radius l^2/R, with wrapping and moving swapped. We say that the two descriptions are dual: two seemingly different pictures that turn out to be completely physically indistinguishable.

Since the two pictures are indistinguishable, it doesn’t actually make sense to talk about dimensions smaller than the length of the string. It’s not that they can’t exist, or that they’re smaller than the “pixels of the universe”: it’s just that any description you write down of such a small dimension could just as easily have been of a larger, dual dimension. It’s that your picture, of one obvious size of the curled up dimension, broke down and stopped making sense.

As I mentioned, this isn’t the whole picture of what happens at the Planck scale, even in string theory. It is an example of a broader idea that string theorists are investigating, that in order to understand space-time at the smallest scales you need to understand many different dual descriptions. And hopefully, it’s something you can hold in your mind, a specific example of what “our description breaks down” can actually mean in practice, without pixels.

Advertisements

A Micrographia of Beastly Feynman Diagrams

Earlier this year, I had a paper about the weird multi-dimensional curves you get when you try to compute trickier and trickier Feynman diagrams. These curves were “Calabi-Yau”, a type of curve string theorists have studied as a way to curl up extra dimensions to preserve something called supersymmetry. At the time, string theorists asked me why Calabi-Yau curves showed up in these Feynman diagrams. Do they also have something to do with supersymmetry?

I still don’t know the general answer. I don’t know if all Feynman diagrams have Calabi-Yau curves hidden in them, or if only some do. But for a specific class of diagrams, I now know the reason. In this week’s paper, with Jacob Bourjaily, Andrew McLeod, and Matthias Wilhelm, we prove it.

We just needed to look at some more exotic beasts to figure it out.

tardigrade_eyeofscience_960

Like this guy!

Meet the tardigrade. In biology, they’re incredibly tenacious microscopic animals, able to withstand the most extreme of temperatures and the radiation of outer space. In physics, we’re using their name for a class of Feynman diagrams.

even_loop_tardigrades

A clear resemblance!

There is a long history of physicists using whimsical animal names for Feynman diagrams, from the penguin to the seagull (no relation). We chose to stick with microscopic organisms: in addition to the tardigrades, we have paramecia and amoebas, even a rogue coccolithophore.

The diagrams we look at have one thing in common, which is key to our proof: the number of lines on the inside of the diagram (“propagators”, which represent “virtual particles”) is related to the number of “loops” in the diagram, as well as the dimension. When these three numbers are related in the right way, it becomes relatively simple to show that any curves we find when computing the Feynman diagram have to be Calabi-Yau.

This includes the most well-known case of Calabi-Yaus showing up in Feynman diagrams, in so-called “banana” or “sunrise” graphs. It’s closely related to some of the cases examined by mathematicians, and our argument ended up pretty close to one made back in 2009 by the mathematician Francis Brown for a different class of diagrams. Oddly enough, neither argument works for the “traintrack” diagrams from our last paper. The tardigrades, paramecia, and amoebas are “more beastly” than those traintracks: their Calabi-Yau curves have more dimensions. In fact, we can show they have the most dimensions possible at each loop, provided all of our particles are massless. In some sense, tardigrades are “as beastly as you can get”.

We still don’t know whether all Feynman diagrams have Calabi-Yau curves, or just these. We’re not even sure how much it matters: it could be that the Calabi-Yau property is a red herring here, noticed because it’s interesting to string theorists but not so informative for us. We don’t understand Calabi-Yaus all that well yet ourselves, so we’ve been looking around at textbooks to try to figure out what people know. One of those textbooks was our inspiration for the “bestiary” in our title, an author whose whimsy we heartily approve of.

Like the classical bestiary, we hope that ours conveys a wholesome moral. There are much stranger beasts in the world of Feynman diagrams than anyone suspected.

IGST 2018

Conference season in Copenhagen continues this week, with Integrability in Gauge and String Theory 2018. Integrability here refers to integrable theories, theories where physicists can calculate things exactly, without the perturbative approximations we typically use. Integrable theories come up in a wide variety of situations, but this conference was focused on the “high-energy” side of the field, on gauge theories (roughly, theories of fundamental forces like Yang-Mills) and string theory.

Integrability is one of the bigger sub-fields in my corner of physics, about the same size as amplitudes. It’s big enough that we can’t host the conference in the old Niels Bohr Institute auditorium.

IMG_20180820_162035401_HDR

Instead, they herded us into the old agriculture school

I don’t normally go to integrability conferences, but when the only cost is bus fare there’s not much to lose. Integrability is arguably amplitudes’s nearest neighbor. The two fields have a history of sharing ideas, and they have similar reputations in the wider community, seen as alternately deep and overly technical. Many of the talks still went over my head, but it was worth getting a chance to see how the neighbors are doing.

Adversarial Collaborations for Physics

Sometimes physics debates get ugly. For the scientists reading this, imagine your worst opponents. Think of the people who always misinterpret your work while using shoddy arguments to prop up their own, where every question at a talk becomes a screaming match until you just stop going to the same conferences at all.

Now, imagine writing a paper with those people.

Adversarial collaborations, subject of a recent a contest on the blog Slate Star Codex, are a proposed method for resolving scientific debates. Two scientists on opposite sides of an argument commit to writing a paper together, describing the overall state of knowledge on the topic. For the paper to get published, both sides have to sign off on it: they both have to agree that everything in the paper is true. This prevents either side from cheating, or from coming back later with made-up objections: if a point in the paper is wrong, one side or the other is bound to catch it.

This won’t work for the most vicious debates, when one (or both) sides isn’t interested in common ground. But for some ongoing debates in physics, I think this approach could actually help.

One advantage of adversarial collaborations is in preventing accusations of bias. The debate between dark matter and MOND-like proposals is filled with these kinds of accusations: claims that one group or another is ignoring important data, being dishonest about the parameters they need to fit, or applying standards of proof they would never require of their own pet theory. Adversarial collaboration prevents these kinds of accusations: whatever comes out of an adversarial collaboration, both sides would make sure the other side didn’t bias it.

Another advantage of adversarial collaborations is that they make it much harder for one side to move the goalposts, or to accuse the other side of moving the goalposts. From the sidelines, one thing that frustrates me watching string theorists debate whether the theory can describe de Sitter space is that they rarely articulate what it would take to decisively show that a particular model gives rise to de Sitter. Any conclusion of an adversarial collaboration between de Sitter skeptics and optimists would at least guarantee that both parties agreed on the criteria. Similarly, I get the impression that many debates about interpretations of quantum mechanics are bogged down by one side claiming they’ve closed off a loophole with a new experiment, only for the other to claim it wasn’t the loophole they were actually using, something that could be avoided if both sides were involved in the experiment from the beginning.

It’s possible, even likely, that no-one will try adversarial collaboration for these debates. Even if they did, it’s quite possible the collaborations wouldn’t be able to agree on anything! Still, I have to hope that someone takes the plunge and tries writing a paper with their enemies. At minimum, it’ll be an interesting read!

Strings 2018

I’m at Strings this week, in tropical Okinawa. Opening the conference, organizer Hirosi Ooguri joked that they had carefully scheduled things for a sunny time of year, and since the rainy season had just ended “who says that string theorists don’t make predictions?”

IMG_20180625_125441806

There was then a rainstorm during lunch, falsifying string theory

This is the first time I’ve been to Strings. There are almost 500 people here, which might seem small for folks in other fields, but for me this is the biggest conference I’ve attended. The size is noticeable in the little things: this is the first conference I’ve been to with a diaper changing room, the first managed by a tour company, the first with a dedicated “Cultural Evening” featuring classical music from the region. With this in mind, the conference were impressively well-organized, but there were some substantial gaps (tightly packed tours before the Cultural Evening that didn’t leave time for dinner, and a talk by Morrison cut short by missing slides that offset the schedule of the whole last day).

On the well-organized side, Strings has a particular structure for its talks, with Review Talks and Plenary Talks. The Review Talks each summarize a subject: mostly main focuses of the conference, but with a few (Ashoke Sen on String Field Theory, David Simmons-Duffin on the Conformal Bootstrap) that only covered the content of a few talks.

I’m not going to make another pie chart this year, if you want that kind of breakdown Daniel Harlow gave one during the “Golden Jubilee” at the end. If I did something like that this time, I’d divide it up not by sub-fields, but by goals. Talks here focused on a few big questions: “Can we classify all quantum field theories?” “What are the general principles behind quantum gravity?” “Can we make some of the murky aspects of string theory clearer?” “How can string theory give rise to sensible physics in four dimensions?”

Of those questions, classifying quantum field theories made up the bulk of the conference. I’ve heard people dismiss this work on the ground that much of it only works in supersymmetric theories. With that in mind, it was remarkable just how much of the conference was non-supersymmetric. Supersymmetry still played a role, but the assumption seemed to be that it was more of a sub-topic than something universal (to the extent that one of the Review Talks, Clay Cordova’s “What’s new with Q?”, was “the supersymmetry review talk”). Both supersymmetric and non-supersymmetric theories are increasingly understood as being part of a “landscape”, linked by duality and thinking at different scales. These links are sometimes understood in terms of string theory, but often not. So far it’s not clear if there is a real organizing principle here, especially for the non-supersymmetric cases, and people seem to be kept busy enough just proving the links they observe.

Finding general principles behind quantum gravity motivated a decent range of the talks, from Andrew Strominger to Jorge Santos. The topics that got the most focus, and two of the Review Talks, were by what I’ve referred to as “entanglers”, people investigating the structure of space and time via quantum entanglement and entropy. My main takeaway from these talks was perhaps a bit frivolous: between Maldacena’s talk (about an extremely small wormhole made from Standard Model-compatible building blocks) and Hartman’s discussion of the Average Null Energy Condition, it looks like a “useful sci-fi wormhole” (specifically, one that gets you there faster than going the normal way) has been conclusively ruled out in quantum field theory.

Only a minority of talks discussed using string theory to describe the real world, though I get the impression this was still more focus than in past years. In particular, there were several talks trying to discover properties of Calabi-Yaus, the geometries used to curl up string theory’s extra dimensions. Watching these talks I had a similar worry to Strominger’s question after Irene Valenzuela’s talk: it’s not clear that these investigations aren’t just examining a small range of possibilities, one that might become irrelevant if new dualities or types of compactification are found. Ironically, this objection seems to apply least to Valenzuela’s talk itself: characterizing the “swampland” of theories that don’t make sense as part of a theory of quantum gravity may start with examples from string compactifications, but its practitioners are looking for more general principles about quantum gravity and seem to manage at least reasonable arguments that don’t depend on string theory being true.

There wasn’t much from the amplitudes field at this conference, with just Yu-tin Huang’s talk carrying that particular flag. Despite that, amplitudes methods came up in several talks, with Silviu Pufu praising an amplitudes textbook and David Simmons-Duffin bringing up amplitudes several times (more than he did in his talk last week at Amplitudes).

The end of the conference featured a panel discussion in honor of String Theory’s 50th Anniversary, its “Golden Jubilee”. The panel was evenly split between founders of string theory, heroes of the string duality revolution, and the current crop of young theorists. The panelists started by each giving a short presentation. Michael Green joked that it felt like a “geriatric gong show”, and indeed a few of the presentations were gong show-esque. Still, some of the speeches were inspiring. I was particularly impressed by Juan Maldacena, Eva Silverstein, and Daniel Harlow, who each laid out a compelling direction for string theory’s future. The questions afterwards were collated by David Gross from audience submissions, and were largely what you would expect, with quite a lot of questions about whether string theory can ever connect with experiment. I was more than a little disappointed by the discussion of whether string theory can give rise to de Sitter space, which was rather botched: Maldacena was appointed as the defender of de Sitter, but (contra Gross’s summary) the quantum complexity-based derivation he proposed didn’t sound much like the flux compactifications that have inspired so much controversy, so everyone involved ended up talking past each other.

Edit: See Shamit’s comment below, I apparently misunderstood what Maldacena was referring to.

Calabi-Yaus for Higgs Phenomenology

less joking title:

You Didn’t Think We’d Stop at Elliptics, Did You?

When calculating scattering amplitudes, I like to work with polylogarithms. They’re a very well-understood type of mathematical function, and thus pretty easy to work with.

Even for our favorite theory of N=4 super Yang-Mills, though, they’re not the whole story. You need other types of functions to represent amplitudes, elliptic polylogarithms that are only just beginning to be properly understood. We had our own modest contribution to that topic last year.

You can think of the difference between these functions in terms of more and more complicated curves. Polylogarithms just need circles or spheres, elliptic polylogarithms can be described with a torus.

A torus is far from the most complicated curve you can think of, though.

983px-calabi_yau_formatted-svgString theorists have done a lot of research into complicated curves, in particular ones with a property called Calabi-Yau. They were looking for ways to curl up six or seven extra dimensions, to get down to the four we experience. They wanted to find ways of curling that preserved some supersymmetry, in the hope that they could use it to predict new particles, and it turned out that Calabi-Yau was the condition they needed.

That hope, for the most part, didn’t pan out. There were too many Calabi-Yaus to check, and the LHC hasn’t seen any supersymmetric particles. Today, “string phenomenologists”, who try to use string theory to predict new particles, are a relatively small branch of the field.

This research did, however, have lasting impact: due to string theorists’ interest, there are huge databases of Calabi-Yau curves, and fruitful dialogues with mathematicians about classifying them.

This has proven quite convenient for us, as we happen to have some Calabi-Yaus to classify.

traintrackpic

Our midnight train going anywhere…in the space of Calabi-Yaus

We call Feynman diagrams like the one above “traintrack integrals”. With two loops, it’s the elliptic integral we calculated last year. With three, though, you need a type of Calabi-Yau curve called a K3. With four loops, it looks like you start needing Calabi-Yau three-folds, the type of space used to compactify string theory to four dimensions.

“We” in this case is myself, Jacob Bourjaily, Andrew McLeod, Matthias Wilhelm, and Yang-Hui He, a Calabi-Yau expert we brought on to help us classify these things. Our new paper investigates these integrals, and the more and more complicated curves needed to compute them.

Calabi-Yaus had been seen in amplitudes before, in diagrams called “sunrise” or “banana” integrals. Our example shows that they should occur much more broadly. “Traintrack” integrals appear in our favorite N=4 super Yang-Mills theory, but they also appear in theories involving just scalar fields, like the Higgs boson. For enough loops and particles, we’re going to need more and more complicated functions, not just the polylogarithms and elliptic polylogarithms that people understand.

(And to be clear, no, nobody needs to do this calculation for Higgs bosons in practice. This diagram would calculate the result of two Higgs bosons colliding and producing ten or more Higgs bosons, all at energies so high you can ignore their mass, which is…not exactly relevant for current collider phenomenology. Still, the title proved too tempting to resist.)

Is there a way to understand traintrack integrals like we understand polylogarithms? What kinds of Calabi-Yaus do they pick out, in the vast space of these curves? We’d love to find out. For the moment, we just wanted to remind all the people excited about elliptic polylogarithms that there’s quite a bit more strangeness to find, even if we don’t leave the tracks.

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.