Tag Archives: theoretical physics

Thoughts on Polchinski’s Memoir

I didn’t get a chance to meet Joseph Polchinski when I was visiting Santa Barbara last spring. At the time, I heard his health was a bit better, but he still wasn’t feeling well enough to come in to campus. Now that I’ve read his memoir, I almost feel like I have met him. There’s a sense of humor, a diffidence, and a passion for physics that shines through the pages.

The following are some scattered thoughts inspired by the memoir:

 

A friend of mine once complained to me that in her field grad students all brag about the colleges they went to. I mentioned that in my field your undergrad never comes up…unless it was Caltech. For some reason, everyone I’ve met who went to Caltech is full of stories about the place, and Polchinski is no exception. Speaking as someone who didn’t go there, it seems like Caltech has a profound effect on its students that other places don’t.

 

Polchinski mentions hearing stories about geniuses of the past, and how those stories helped temper some of his youthful arrogance. There’s an opposite effect that’s also valuable: hearing stories like Polchinski’s, his descriptions of struggling with anxiety and barely publishing and “not really accomplishing anything” till age 40, can be a major comfort to those of us who worry we’ve fallen behind in the academic race. That said, it’s important not to take these things too far: times have changed, you’re not Polchinski, and much like his door-stealing trick at Caltech getting a postdoc without any publications is something you shouldn’t try at home. Even Witten’s students need at least one.

 

Last week I was a bit puzzled by nueww’s comment, a quote from Polchinski’s memoir which distinguishes “math of the equations” from “math of the solutions”, attributing the former to physicists and the latter to mathematicians. Reading the context in the memoir and the phrase’s origin in a remark by Susskind cleared up a bit, but still left me uneasy. I only figured out why after Lubos Motl posted about it: it doesn’t match my experience of mathematicians at all!

If anything, I think physicists usually care more about the “solutions” than mathematicians do. In my field, often a mathematician will construct some handy basis of functions and then frustrate everyone by providing no examples of how to use them. In the wider math community I’ve met graph theorists who are happy to prove something is true for all graphs of size 10^{10^10} and larger, not worrying about the vast number of graphs where it fails because it’s just a finite number of special cases. And I don’t think this is just my experience: a common genre of jokes revolve around mathematicians proving a solution exists and then not bothering to do anything with it (for example, see the joke with the hotel fire here).

I do think there’s a meaningful sense in which mathematicians care about details that we’re happy to ignore, but “solutions” versus “equations” isn’t really the right axis. It’s something more like “rigor” versus “principles”. Mathematicians will often begin a talk by defining a series of maps between different spaces, carefully describing where they are and aren’t valid. A physicist might just write down a function. That sort of thing is dangerous in mathematics: there are always special, pathological cases that make careful definitions necessary. In physics, those cases rarely come up, and when they do there’s often a clear physical problem that brings them to the forefront. We have a pretty good sense of when we need rigor, and when we don’t we’re happy to lay things out without filling in the details, putting a higher priority on moving forward and figuring out the basic principles underlying reality.

 

Polchinski talks a fair bit about his role in the idea of the multiverse, from hearing about Weinberg’s anthropic argument to coming to terms with the string landscape. One thing his account makes clear is how horrifying the concept seemed at first: how the idea that the parameters of our universe might just be random could kill science and discourage experimentalists. This touches on something that I think gets lost in arguments about the multiverse: even the people most involved in promoting the multiverse in public aren’t happy about it.

It also sharpened my thinking about the multiverse a bit. I’ve talked before about how I don’t think the popularity of the multiverse is actually going to hurt theoretical physics as a field. Polchinski’s worries made me think about the experimental side of the equation: why do experiments if the world might just be random? I think I have a clearer answer to this now, but it’s a bit long, so I’ll save it for a future post.

 

One nice thing about these long-term accounts is you get to see how much people shift between fields over time. Polchinski didn’t start out working in string theory, and most of the big names in my field, like Lance Dixon and David Kosower, didn’t start out in scattering amplitudes. Academic careers are long, and however specialized we feel at any one time we can still get swept off in a new direction.

 

I’m grateful for this opportunity to “meet” Polchinski, if only through his writing. His is a window on the world of theoretical physics that is all too rare, and valuable as a result.

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On the Care and Feeding of Ideas

I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in high school. It’s got a reputation for being obnoxiously mystical, but one of its points seemed pretty reasonable: the claim that the hard part of science, and the part we understand the least, is coming up with hypotheses.

In some sense, theoretical physics is all about hypotheses. By this I don’t mean that we just say “what if?” all the time. I mean that in theoretical physics most of the work is figuring out the right way to ask a question. Phrase your question in the right way and the answer becomes obvious (or at least, obvious after a straightforward calculation). Because our questions are mathematical, the right question can logically imply its own solution.

From the point of view of “Zen and the Art”, as well as most non-scientists I’ve met, this part is utterly mysterious. The ideas you need here seem like they can’t come from hard work or careful observation. In order to ask the right questions, you just need to be “smart”.

In practice, I’ve noticed there’s more to it than that. We can’t just sit around and wait for an idea to show up. Instead, as physicists we develop a library of tricks, often unstated, that let us work towards the ideas we need.

Sometimes, this involves finding simpler cases, working with them until we understand the right questions to ask. Sometimes it involves doing numerics, or using crude guesses, not because either method will give the final answer but because it will show what the answer should look like. Sometimes we need to rephrase the problem many times, in many different contexts, before we happen on one that works. Most of this doesn’t end up in published papers, so in the end we usually have to pick it up from experience.

Along the way, we often find tricks to help us think better. Mostly this is straightforward stuff: reminders to keep us on-task, keeping our notes organized and our code commented so we have a good idea of what we were doing when we need to go back to it. Everyone has their own personal combination of these things in the background, and they’re rarely discussed.

The upshot is that coming up with ideas is hard work. We need to be smart, sure, but that’s not enough by itself: there are a lot of smart people who aren’t physicists after all.

With all that said, some geniuses really do seem to come up with ideas out of thin air. It’s not the majority of the field: we’re not the idiosyncratic Sheldon Coopers everyone seems to imagine. But for a few people, it really does feel like there’s something magical about where they get their ideas. I’ve had the privilege of working with a couple people like this, and the way they think sometimes seems qualitatively different from our usual way of building ideas. I can’t see any of the standard trappings, the legacy of partial results and tricks of thought, that would lead to where they end up. That doesn’t mean they don’t use tricks just like the rest of us, in the end. But I think genius, if it means anything at all, is thinking in a novel enough way that from the outside it looks like magic.

Most of the time, though, we just need to hone our craft. We build our methods and shape our minds as best we can, and we get better and better at the central mystery of science: asking the right questions.

We’re Weird

Preparing to move to Denmark, it strikes me just how strange what I’m doing would seem to most people. I’m moving across the ocean to a place where I don’t know the language. (Or at least, don’t know more than half a duolingo lesson.) I’m doing this just three years after another international move. And while I’m definitely nervous, this isn’t the big life changing shift it would be for many people. It’s just how academic careers are expected to work.

At borders, I’m often asked why I am where I am. Why be an American working in Canada? Why move to Denmark? And in general, the answer is just that it’s where I need to be to do what I want to do, because it’s where the other people who do what I want to do are. A few people seed this process by managing to find faculty jobs in their home countries, and others sort themselves out by their interests. In the end, we end up with places like Perimeter, an institute in the middle of Canada with barely any Canadians.

This is more pronounced for smaller fields than for larger ones. A chemist or biologist might just manage to have their whole career in the same state of the US, or the same country in Europe. For a theoretical physicist, this is much less likely. I also suspect it’s more true of more “universal” fields: that most professors of Portuguese literature are in Portugal or Brazil, for example.

For theoretical physics, the result is an essentially random mix of people around the world. This works, in part, because essentially everyone does science in English. Occasionally, a group of collaborators happens to speak the same non-English language, so you sometimes hear people talking science in Russian or Spanish or French. But even then there are times people will default to English anyway, because they’re used to it. We publish in English, we chat in English. And as a result, wherever we end up we can at least talk to our colleagues, even if the surrounding world is trickier.

Communities this international, with four different accents in every conversation, are rare, and I occasionally forget that. Before grad school, the closest I came to this was on the internet. On Dungeons and Dragons forums, much like in academia, everyone was drawn together by shared interests and expertise. We had Australians logging on in the middle of everyone else’s night to argue with the Germans, and Brazilians pointing out how the game’s errata was implemented differently in Portuguese.

It’s fun to be in that sort of community in the real world. There’s always something to learn from each other, even on completely mundane topics. Lunch often turns into a discussion of different countries’ cuisines. As someone who became an academic because I enjoy learning, it’s great to have the wheels constantly spinning like that. I should remember, though, that most of the world doesn’t live like this: we’re currently a pretty weird bunch.

More Travel

I’m visiting the Niels Bohr Institute this week, on my way back from Amplitudes.

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You might recognize the place from old conference photos.

Amplitudes itself was nice. There weren’t any surprising new developments, but a lot of little “aha” moments when one of the speakers explained something I’d heard vague rumors about. I figured I’d mention a few of the things that stood out. Be warned, this is going to be long and comparatively jargon-heavy.

The conference organizers were rather daring in scheduling Nima Arkani-Hamed for the first talk, as Nima has a tendency to arrive at the last minute and talk for twice as long as you ask him to. Miraculously, though, things worked out, if only barely: Nima arrived at the wrong campus and ran most of the way back, showing up within five minutes of the start of the conference. He also stuck to his allotted time, possibly out of courtesy to his student, Yuntao Bai, who was speaking next.

Between the two of them, Nima and Yuntao covered an interesting development, tying the Amplituhedron together with the string theory-esque picture of scattering amplitudes pioneered by Freddy Cachazo, Song He, and Ellis Ye Yuan (or CHY). There’s a simpler (and older) Amplituhedron-like object called the associahedron that can be thought of as what the Amplituhedron looks like on the surface of a string, and CHY’s setup can be thought of as a sophisticated map that takes this object and turns it into the Amplituhedron. It was nice to hear from both Nima and his student on this topic, because Nima’s talks are often high on motivation but low on detail, so it was great that Yuntao was up next to fill in the blanks.

Anastasia Volovich talked about Landau singularities, a topic I’ve mentioned before. What I hadn’t appreciated was how much they can do with them at this point. Originally, Juan Maldacena had suggested that these singularities, mathematical points that determine the behavior of amplitudes first investigated by Landau in the 60’s, might explain some of the simplicity we’ve observed in N=4 super Yang-Mills. They ended up not being enough by themselves, but what Volovich and collaborators are discovering is that with a bit of help from the Amplithedron they explain quite a lot. In particular, if they start with the Amplituhedron and do a procedure similar to Landau’s, they can find the simpler set of singularities allowed by N=4 super Yang-Mills, at least for the examples they’ve calculated. It’s still a bit unclear how this links to their previous investigations of these things in terms of cluster algebras, but it sounds like they’re making progress.

Dmitry Chicherin gave me one of those minor “aha” moments. One big useful fact about scattering amplitudes in N=4 super Yang-Mills is that they’re “dual” to different mathematical objects called Wilson loops, a fact which allows us to compare to the “POPE” approach of Basso, Sever, and Vieira. Chicherin asks the question: “What if you’re not calculating a scattering amplitude or a Wilson loop, but something halfway in between?” Interestingly, this has an answer, with the “halfway between” objects having a similar duality among themselves.

Yorgos Papathansiou talked about work I’ve been involved with. I’ll probably cover it in detail in another post, so now I’ll just mention that we’re up to six loops!

Andy Strominger talked about soft theorems. It’s always interesting seeing people who don’t traditionally work on amplitudes giving talks at Amplitudes. There’s a range of responses, from integrability people (who are basically welcomed like family) to work on fairly unrelated areas that have some “amplitudes” connection (met with yawns except from the few people interested in the connection). The response to Strominger was neither welcome nor boredom, but lively debate. He’s clearly doing something interesting, but many specialists worried he was ignorant of important no-go results in the field that could hamstring some of his bolder conjectures.

The second day focused on methods for more practical calculations, and had the overall effect of making me really want to clean up my code. Tiziano Peraro’s finite field methods in particular look like they could be quite useful. There were two competing bases of integrals on display, Von Manteuffel’s finite integrals and Rutger Boels’s uniform transcendental integrals later in the conference. Both seem to have their own virtues, and I ended up asking Rob Schabinger if it was possible to combine the two, with the result that he’s apparently now looking into it.

The more practical talks that day had a clear focus on calculations with two loops, which are becoming increasingly viable for LHC-relevant calculations. From talking to people who work on this, I get the impression that the goal of these calculations isn’t so much to find new physics as to confirm and investigate new physics found via other methods. Things are complicated enough at two loops that for the moment it isn’t feasible to describe what all the possible new particles might do at that order, and instead the goal is to understand the standard model well enough that if new physics is noticed (likely based on one-loop calculations) then the details can be pinned down by two-loop data. But this picture could conceivably change as methods improve.

Wednesday was math-focused. We had a talk by Francis Brown on his conjecture of a cosmic Galois group. This is a topic I knew a bit about already, since it’s involved in something I’ve been working on. Brown’s talk cleared up some things, but also shed light on the vagueness of the proposal. As with Yorgos’s talk, I’ll probably cover more about this in a future post, so I’ll skip the details for now.

There was also a talk by Samuel Abreu on a much more physical picture of the “symbols” we calculate with. This is something I’ve seen presented before by Ruth Britto, and it’s a setup I haven’t looked into as much as I ought to. It does seem at the moment that they’re limited to one loop, which is a definite downside. Other talks discussed elliptic integrals, the bogeyman that we still can’t deal with by our favored means but that people are at least understanding better.

The last talk on Wednesday before the hike was by David Broadhurst, who’s quite a character in his own right. Broadhurst sat in the front row and asked a question after nearly every talk, usually bringing up papers at least fifty years old, if not one hundred and fifty. At the conference dinner he was exactly the right person to read the Address to the Haggis, resurrecting a thick Scottish accent from his youth. Broadhurst’s techniques for handling high-loop elliptic integrals are quite impressively powerful, leaving me wondering if the approach can be generalized.

Thursday focused on gravity. Radu Roiban gave a better idea of where he and his collaborators are on the road to seven-loop supergravity and what the next bottlenecks are along the way. Oliver Schlotterer’s talk was another one of those “aha” moments, helping me understand a key difference between two senses in which gravity is Yang-Mills squared ( the Kawai-Lewellen-Tye relations and BCJ). In particular, the latter is much more dependent on specifics of how you write the scattering amplitude, so to the extent that you can prove something more like the former at higher loops (the original was only for trees, unlike BCJ) it’s quite valuable. Schlotterer has managed to do this at one loop, using the “Q-cut” method I’ve (briefly) mentioned before. The next day’s talk by Emil Bjerrum-Bohr focused more heavily on these Q-cuts, including a more detailed example at two loops than I’d seen that group present before.

There was also a talk by Walter Goldberger about using amplitudes methods for classical gravity, a subject I’ve looked into before. It was nice to see a more thorough presentation of those ideas, including a more honest appraisal of which amplitudes techniques are really helpful there.

There were other interesting topics, but I’m already way over my usual post length, so I’ll sign off for now. Videos from all but a few of the talks are now online, so if you’re interested you should watch them on the conference page.

Amplitudes 2017

I’ve been at Amplitudes this week, in Edinburgh. There have been a lot of great talks, most of which should already have slides online. (They’ve been surprisingly quick about getting slides up this year, with many uploaded before the corresponding talks!) Recordings of the talks should also be up soon.

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We also hiked up local hill Arthur’s Seat on Wednesday, which was a nice change of pace.

I’ll have more time to write about the talks later, a few of them were quite interesting. For now, take a look at some of the slides if you’re curious.

Bootstrapping in the Real World

I’ll be at Amplitudes, my subfield’s big yearly conference, next week, so I don’t have a lot to talk about. That said, I wanted to give a shout-out to my collaborator and future colleague Andrew McLeod, who is a co-author (along with Øyvind Almelid, Claude Duhr, Einan Gardi, and Chris White) on a rather cool paper that went up on arXiv this week.

Andrew and I work on “bootstrapping” calculations in quantum field theory. In particular, we start with a guess for what the result will be based on a specific set of mathematical functions (in my case, “hexagon functions” involving interactions of six particles). We then narrow things down, using other calculations that by themselves only predict part of the result, until we know the right answer. The metaphor here is that we’re “pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps”, skipping a long calculation by essentially just guessing the answer.

This method has worked pretty well…in a toy model anyway. The calculations I’ve done with it use N=4 super Yang-Mills, a simpler cousin of the theories that describe the real world. There, fewer functions can show up, so our guess is much less unwieldy than it would be otherwise.

What’s impressive about Andrew and co.’s new paper is that they apply this method, not to N=4 super Yang-Mills, but to QCD, the theory that describes quarks and gluons in the real world. This is exactly the sort of thing I’ve been hoping to see more of, these methods built into something that can help with real, useful calculations.

Currently, what they can do is still fairly limited. For the particular problem they’re looking at, the functions required ended up being relatively simple, involving interactions between at most four particles. So far, they’ve just reproduced a calculation done by other means. Going further (more “loops”) would involve interactions between more particles, as well as mixing different types of functions (different “transcendental weight”), either of which make the problem much more complicated.

That said, the simplicity of their current calculation is also a reason to be optimistic.  Their starting “guess” had just thirteen parameters, while the one Andrew and I are working on right now (in N=4 super Yang-Mills) has over a thousand. Even if things get a lot more complicated for them at the next loop, we’ve shown that “a lot more complicated” can still be quite doable.

So overall, I’m excited. It looks like there are contexts in which one really can “bootstrap” up calculations in a realistic theory, and that’s a method that could end up really useful.

An Amplitudes Flurry

Now that we’re finally done with flurries of snow here in Canada, in the last week arXiv has been hit with a flurry of amplitudes papers.

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We’re also seeing a flurry of construction, but that’s less welcome.

Andrea Guerrieri, Yu-tin Huang, Zhizhong Li, and Congkao Wen have a paper on what are known as soft theorems. Most famously studied by Weinberg, soft theorems are proofs about what happens when a particle in an amplitude becomes “soft”, or when its momentum becomes very small. Recently, these theorems have gained renewed interest, as new amplitudes techniques have allowed researchers to go beyond Weinberg’s initial results (to “sub-leading” order) in a variety of theories.

Guerrieri, Huang, Li, and Wen’s contribution to the topic looks like it clarifies things quite a bit. Previously, most of the papers I’d seen about this had been isolated examples. This paper ties the various cases together in a very clean way, and does important work in making some older observations more rigorous.

 

Vittorio Del Duca, Claude Duhr, Robin Marzucca, and Bram Verbeek wrote about transcendental weight in something known as the multi-Regge limit. I’ve talked about transcendental weight before: loosely, it’s counting the power of pi that shows up in formulas. The multi-Regge limit concerns amplitudes with very high energies, in which we have a much better understanding of how the amplitudes should behave. I’ve used this limit before, to calculate amplitudes in N=4 super Yang-Mills.

One slogan I love to repeat is that N=4 super Yang-Mills isn’t just a toy model, it’s the most transcendental part of QCD. I’m usually fairly vague about this, because it’s not always true: while often a calculation in N=4 super Yang-Mills will give the part of the same calculation in QCD with the highest power of pi, this isn’t always the case, and it’s hard to propose a systematic principle for when it should happen. Del Duca, Duhr, Marzucca, and Verbeek’s work is a big step in that direction. While some descriptions of the multi-Regge limit obey this property, others don’t, and in looking at the ones that don’t the authors gain a better understanding of what sorts of theories only have a “maximally transcendental part”. What they find is that even when such theories aren’t restricted to N=4 super Yang-Mills, they have shared properties, like supersymmetry and conformal symmetry. Somehow these properties are tied to the transcendentality of functions in the amplitude, in a way that’s still not fully understood.

 

My colleagues at Perimeter released two papers over the last week: one, by Freddy Cachazo and Alfredo Guevara, uses amplitudes techniques to look at classical gravity, while the other, by Sebastian Mizera and Guojun Zhang, looks at one of the “pieces” inside string theory amplitudes.

I worked with Freddy and Alfredo on an early version of their result, back at the PSI Winter School. While I was off lazing about in Santa Barbara, they were hard at work trying to understand how the quantum-looking “loops” one can use to make predictions for potential energy in classical gravity are secretly classical. What they ended up finding was a trick to figure out whether a given amplitude was going to have a classical part or be purely quantum. So far, the trick works for amplitudes with one loop, and a few special cases at higher loops. It’s still not clear if it works for the general case, and there’s a lot of work still to do to understand what it means, but it definitely seems like an idea with potential. (Pun mostly not intended.)

I’ve talked before about “Z theory”, the weird thing you get when you isolate the “stringy” part of string theory amplitudes. What Sebastian and Guojun have carved out isn’t quite the same piece, but it’s related. I’m still not sure of the significance of cutting string amplitudes up in this way, I’ll have to read the paper more thoroughly (or chat with the authors) to find out.