Tagged: Edward Witten Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • richardmitnick 11:52 am on December 19, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: AdS/CFT, Beyond Einstein: Physicists find surprising connections in the cosmos, Edward Witten, From tiny bits of string, , Our world when we get down to the level of particles is a quantum world, , , Relatability between gravity and subatomic particles provides a sort of Rosetta stone for physics, The idea that fundamental particles are actually tiny bits of vibrating string was taking off and by the mid-1980s “string theory” had lassoed the imaginations of many leading physicists,   

    From Princeton University: “Beyond Einstein: Physicists find surprising connections in the cosmos” 

    Princeton University
    From Princeton University

    Dec. 17, 2018
    Catherine Zandonella

    1
    Gravity, the force that brings baseballs back to Earth and governs the growth of black holes, is mathematically relatable to the peculiar antics of the subatomic particles that make up all the matter around us. Illustration by J.F. Podevin

    Albert Einstein’s desk can still be found on the second floor of Princeton’s physics department. Positioned in front of a floor-to-ceiling blackboard covered with equations, the desk seems to embody the spirit of the frizzy-haired genius as he asks the department’s current occupants, “So, have you solved it yet?”

    Einstein never achieved his goal of a unified theory to explain the natural world in a single, coherent framework. Over the last century, researchers have pieced together links between three of the four known physical forces in a “standard model,” but the fourth force, gravity, has always stood alone.

    No longer. Thanks to insights made by Princeton faculty members and others who trained here, gravity is being brought in from the cold — although in a manner not remotely close to how Einstein had imagined it.

    Though not yet a “theory of everything,” this framework, laid down over 20 years ago and still being filled in, reveals surprising ways in which Einstein’s theory of gravity relates to other areas of physics, giving researchers new tools with which to tackle elusive questions.

    The key insight is that gravity, the force that brings baseballs back to Earth and governs the growth of black holes, is mathematically relatable to the peculiar antics of the subatomic particles that make up all the matter around us.

    This revelation allows scientists to use one branch of physics to understand other seemingly unrelated areas of physics. So far, this concept has been applied to topics ranging from why black holes run a temperature to how a butterfly’s beating wings can cause a storm on the other side of the world.

    This relatability between gravity and subatomic particles provides a sort of Rosetta stone for physics. Ask a question about gravity, and you’ll get an explanation couched in the terms of subatomic particles. And vice versa.

    “This has turned out to be an incredibly rich area,” said Igor Klebanov, Princeton’s Eugene Higgins Professor of Physics, who generated some of the initial inklings in this field in the 1990s. “It lies at the intersection of many fields of physics.”

    From tiny bits of string

    The seeds of this correspondence were sprinkled in the 1970s, when researchers were exploring tiny subatomic particles called quarks. These entities nest like Russian dolls inside protons, which in turn occupy the atoms that make up all matter. At the time, physicists found it odd that no matter how hard you smash two protons together, you cannot release the quarks — they stay confined inside the protons.

    One person working on quark confinement was Alexander Polyakov, Princeton’s Joseph Henry Professor of Physics. It turns out that quarks are “glued together” by other particles, called gluons. For a while, researchers thought gluons could assemble into strings that tie quarks to each other. Polyakov glimpsed a link between the theory of particles and the theory of strings, but the work was, in Polyakov’s words, “hand-wavy” and he didn’t have precise examples.

    Meanwhile, the idea that fundamental particles are actually tiny bits of vibrating string was taking off, and by the mid-1980s, “string theory” had lassoed the imaginations of many leading physicists. The idea is simple: just as a vibrating violin string gives rise to different notes, each string’s vibration foretells a particle’s mass and behavior. The mathematical beauty was irresistible and led to a swell of enthusiasm for string theory as a way to explain not only particles but the universe itself.

    One of Polyakov’s colleagues was Klebanov, who in 1996 was an associate professor at Princeton, having earned his Ph.D. at Princeton a decade earlier. That year, Klebanov, with graduate student Steven Gubser and postdoctoral research associate Amanda Peet, used string theory to make calculations about gluons, and then compared their findings to a string-theory approach to understanding a black hole. They were surprised to find that both approaches yielded a very similar answer. A year later, Klebanov studied absorption rates by black holes and found that this time they agreed exactly.

    That work was limited to the example of gluons and black holes. It took an insight by Juan Maldacena in 1997 to pull the pieces into a more general relationship. At that time, Maldacena, who had earned his Ph.D. at Princeton one year earlier, was an assistant professor at Harvard. He detected a correspondence between a special form of gravity and the theory that describes particles. Seeing the importance of Maldacena’s conjecture, a Princeton team consisting of Gubser, Klebanov and Polyakov followed up with a related paper formulating the idea in more precise terms.

    Another physicist who was immediately taken with the idea was Edward Witten of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), an independent research center located about a mile from the University campus. He wrote a paper that further formulated the idea, and the combination of the three papers in late 1997 and early 1998 opened the floodgates.

    “It was a fundamentally new kind of connection,” said Witten, a leader in the field of string theory who had earned his Ph.D. at Princeton in 1976 and is a visiting lecturer with the rank of professor in physics at Princeton. “Twenty years later, we haven’t fully come to grips with it.”

    2

    Two sides of the same coin

    This relationship means that gravity and subatomic particle interactions are like two sides of the same coin. On one side is an extended version of gravity derived from Einstein’s 1915 theory of general relativity. On the other side is the theory that roughly describes the behavior of subatomic particles and their interactions.

    The latter theory includes the catalogue of particles and forces in the “standard model” (see sidebar), a framework to explain matter and its interactions that has survived rigorous testing in numerous experiments, including at the Large Hadron Collider.

    In the standard model, quantum behaviors are baked in. Our world, when we get down to the level of particles, is a quantum world.

    Notably absent from the standard model is gravity. Yet quantum behavior is at the basis of the other three forces, so why should gravity be immune?

    The new framework brings gravity into the discussion. It is not exactly the gravity we know, but a slightly warped version that includes an extra dimension. The universe we know has four dimensions, the three that pinpoint an object in space — the height, width and depth of Einstein’s desk, for example — plus the fourth dimension of time. The gravitational description adds a fifth dimension that causes spacetime to curve into a universe that includes copies of familiar four-dimensional flat space rescaled according to where they are found in the fifth dimension. This strange, curved spacetime is called anti-de Sitter (AdS) space after Einstein’s collaborator, Dutch astronomer Willem de Sitter.

    The breakthrough in the late 1990s was that mathematical calculations of the edge, or boundary, of this anti-de Sitter space can be applied to problems involving quantum behaviors of subatomic particles described by a mathematical relationship called conformal field theory (CFT). This relationship provides the link, which Polyakov had glimpsed earlier, between the theory of particles in four space-time dimensions and string theory in five dimensions. The relationship now goes by several names that relate gravity to particles, but most researchers call it the AdS/CFT (pronounced A-D-S-C-F-T) correspondence.

    3

    Tackling the big questions

    This correspondence, it turns out, has many practical uses. Take black holes, for example. The late physicist Stephen Hawking startled the physics community by discovering that black holes have a temperature that arises because each particle that falls into a black hole has an entangled particle that can escape as heat.

    Using AdS/CFT, Tadashi Takayanagi and Shinsei Ryu, then at the University of California-Santa Barbara, discovered a new way to study
    entanglement in terms of geometry, extending Hawking’s insights in a fashion that experts consider quite remarkable.

    In another example, researchers are using AdS/CFT to pin down chaos theory, which says that a random and insignificant event such as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings could result in massive changes to a large-scale system such as a faraway hurricane. It is difficult to calculate chaos, but black holes — which are some of the most chaotic quantum systems possible — could help. Work by Stephen Shenker and Douglas Stanford at Stanford University, along with Maldacena, demonstrates how, through AdS/CFT, black holes can model quantum chaos.

    One open question Maldacena hopes the AdS/CFT correspondence will answer is the question of what it is like inside a black hole, where an infinitely dense region called a singularity resides. So far, the relationship gives us a picture of the black hole as seen from the outside, said Maldacena, who is now the Carl P. Feinberg Professor at IAS.

    “We hope to understand the singularity inside the black hole,” Maldacena said. “Understanding this would probably lead to interesting lessons for the Big Bang.”

    The relationship between gravity and strings has also shed new light on quark confinement, initially through work by Polyakov and Witten, and later by Klebanov and Matt Strassler, who was then at IAS.

    Those are just a few examples of how the relationship can be used. “It is a tremendously successful idea,” said Gubser, who today is a professor of physics at Princeton. “It compels one’s attention. It ropes you in, it ropes in other fields, and it gives you a vantage point on theoretical physics that is very compelling.”

    The relationship may even unlock the quantum nature of gravity. “It is among our best clues to understand gravity from a quantum perspective,” said Witten. “Since we don’t know what is still missing, I cannot tell you how big a piece of the picture it ultimately will be.”

    Still, the AdS/CFT correspondence, while powerful, relies on a simplified version of spacetime that is not exactly like the real universe. Researchers are working to find ways to make the theory more broadly applicable to the everyday world, including Gubser’s research on modeling the collisions of heavy ions, as well as high-temperature superconductors.

    Also on the to-do list is developing a proof of this correspondence that draws on underlying physical principles. It is unlikely that Einstein would be satisfied without a proof, said Herman Verlinde, Princeton’s Class of 1909 Professor of Physics, the chair of the Department of Physics and an expert in string theory, who shares office space with Einstein’s desk.

    “Sometimes I imagine he is still sitting there,” Verlinde said, “and I wonder what he would think of our progress.”

    See the full article here .

    five-ways-keep-your-child-safe-school-shootings

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    Princeton University Campus

    About Princeton: Overview

    Princeton University is a vibrant community of scholarship and learning that stands in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations. Chartered in 1746, Princeton is the fourth-oldest college in the United States. Princeton is an independent, coeducational, nondenominational institution that provides undergraduate and graduate instruction in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and engineering.

    As a world-renowned research university, Princeton seeks to achieve the highest levels of distinction in the discovery and transmission of knowledge and understanding. At the same time, Princeton is distinctive among research universities in its commitment to undergraduate teaching.

    Today, more than 1,100 faculty members instruct approximately 5,200 undergraduate students and 2,600 graduate students. The University’s generous financial aid program ensures that talented students from all economic backgrounds can afford a Princeton education.

    Princeton Shield

     
  • richardmitnick 4:33 pm on August 20, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Anomalies, Bosons and fermions, Branes, , Edward Witten, , , , Parity violation, , , , , , , The second superstring revolution, Theorist John Schwarz   

    From Caltech: “Long and Winding Road: A Conversation with String Theory Pioneer” John Schwarz 

    Caltech Logo

    From Caltech

    08/20/2018

    Whitney Clavin
    (626) 395-1856
    wclavin@caltech.edu

    John Schwarz discusses the history and evolution of superstring theory.

    1
    John Schwarz. Credit: Seth Hansen for Caltech

    The decades-long quest for a theory that would unify all the known forces—from the microscopic quantum realm to the macroscopic world where gravity dominates—has had many twists and turns. The current leading theory, known as superstring theory and more informally as string theory, grew out of an approach to theoretical particle physics, called S-matrix theory, which was popular in the 1960s. Caltech’s John H. Schwarz, the Harold Brown Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus, began working on the problem in 1971, while a junior faculty member at Princeton University. He moved to Caltech in 1972, where he continued his research with various collaborators from other universities. Their studies in the 1970s and 1980s would dramatically shift the evolution of the theory and, in 1984, usher in what’s known as the first superstring revolution.

    Essentially, string theory postulates that our universe is made up, at its most fundamental level, of infinitesimal tiny vibrating strings and contains 10 dimensions—three for space, one for time, and six other spatial dimensions curled up in such a way that we don’t perceive them in everyday life or even with the most sensitive experimental searches to date. One of the many states of a string is thought to correspond to the particle that carries the gravitational force, the graviton, thereby linking the two pillars of fundamental physics—quantum mechanics and the general theory of relativity, which includes gravity.

    We sat down with Schwarz to discuss the history and evolution of string theory and how the theory itself might have moved past strings.

    What are the earliest origins of string theory?

    The first study often regarded as the beginning of string theory came from an Italian physicist named Gabriele Veneziano in 1968. He discovered a mathematical formula that had many of the properties that people were trying to incorporate in a fundamental theory of the strong nuclear force [a fundamental force that holds nuclei together]. This formula was kind of pulled out of the blue, and ultimately Veneziano and others realized, within a couple years, that it was actually describing a quantum theory of a string—a one-dimensional extended object.

    How did the field grow after this paper?

    In the early ’70s, there were several hundred people worldwide working on string theory. But then everything changed when quantum chromodynamics, or QCD—which was developed by Caltech’s Murray Gell-Mann [Nobel Laureate, 1969] and others—became the favored theory of the strong nuclear force. Almost everyone was convinced QCD was the right way to go and stopped working on string theory. The field shrank down to just a handful of people in the course of a year or two. I was one of the ones who remained.

    How did Gell-Mann become interested in your work?

    Gell-Mann is the one who brought me to Caltech and was very supportive of my work. He took an interest in studies I had done with a French physicist, André Neveu, when we were at Princeton. Neveu and I introduced a second string theory. The initial Veneziano version had many problems. There are two kinds of fundamental particles called bosons and fermions, and the Veneziano theory only described bosons. The one I developed with Neveu included fermions. And not only did it include fermions but it led to the discovery of a new kind of symmetry that relates bosons and fermions, which is called supersymmetry. Because of that discovery, this version of string theory is called superstring theory.

    When did the field take off again?

    A pivotal change happened after work I did with another French physicist, Joël Scherk, whom Gell-Mann and I had brought to Caltech as a visitor in 1974. During that period, we realized that many of the problems we were having with string theory could be turned into advantages if we changed the purpose. Instead of insisting on constructing a theory of the strong nuclear force, we took this beautiful theory and asked what it was good for. And it turned out it was good for gravity. Neither of us had worked on gravity. It wasn’t something we were especially interested in but we realized that this theory, which was having trouble describing the strong nuclear force, gives rise to gravity. Once we realized this, I knew what I would be doing for the rest of my career. And I believe Joël felt the same way. Unfortunately, he died six years later. He made several important discoveries during those six years, including a supergravity theory in 11 dimensions.

    Surprisingly, the community didn’t respond very much to our papers and lectures. We were generally respected and never had a problem getting our papers published, but there wasn’t much interest in the idea. We were proposing a quantum theory of gravity, but in that era physicists who worked on quantum theory weren’t interested in gravity, and physicists who worked on gravity weren’t interested in quantum theory.

    That changed after I met Michael Green [a theoretical physicist then at the University of London and now at the University of Cambridge], at the CERN cafeteria in Switzerland in the summer of 1979. Our collaboration was very successful, and Michael visited Caltech for several extended visits over the next few years. We published a number of papers during that period, which are much cited, but our most famous work was something we did in 1984, which had to do with a problem known as anomalies.

    What are anomalies in string theory?

    One of the facts of nature is that there is what’s called parity violation, which means that the fundamental laws are not invariant under mirror reflection. For example, a neutrino always spins clockwise and not counterclockwise, so it would look wrong viewed in a mirror. When you try to write down a fundamental theory with parity violation, mathematical inconsistencies often arise when you take account of quantum effects. This is referred to as the anomaly problem. It appeared that one couldn’t make a theory based on strings without encountering these anomalies, which, if that were the case, would mean strings couldn’t give a realistic theory. Green and I discovered that these anomalies cancel one another in very special situations.

    When we released our results in 1984, the field exploded. That’s when Edward Witten [a theoretical physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton], probably the most influential theoretical physicist in the world, got interested. Witten and three collaborators wrote a paper early in 1985 making a particular proposal for what to do with the six extra dimensions, the ones other than the four for space and time. That proposal looked, at the time, as if it could give a theory that is quite realistic. These developments, together with the discovery of another version of superstring theory, constituted the first superstring revolution.

    Richard Feynman was here at Caltech during that time, before he passed away in 1988. What did he think about string theory?

    After the 1984 to 1985 breakthroughs in our understanding of superstring theory, the subject no longer could be ignored. At that time it acquired some prominent critics, including Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking. Feynman’s skepticism of superstring theory was based mostly on the concern that it could not be tested experimentally. This was a valid concern, which my collaborators and I shared. However, Feynman did want to learn more, so I spent several hours explaining the essential ideas to him. Thirty years later, it is still true that there is no smoking-gun experimental confirmation of superstring theory, though it has proved its value in other ways. The most likely possibility for experimental support in the foreseeable future would be the discovery of supersymmetry particles. So far, they have not shown up.

    What was the second superstring revolution about?

    The second superstring revolution occurred 10 years later in the mid ’90s. What happened then is that string theorists discovered what happens when particle interactions become strong. Before, we had been studying weakly interacting systems. But as you crank up the strength of the interaction, a 10th dimension of space can emerge. New objects called branes also emerge. Strings are one dimensional; branes have all sorts of dimensions ranging from zero to nine. An important class of these branes, called D-branes, was discovered by the late Joseph Polchinski [BS ’75]. Strings do have a special role, but when the system is strongly interacting, then the strings become less fundamental. It’s possible that in the future the subject will get a new name but until we understand better what the theory is, which we’re still struggling with, it’s premature to invent a new name.

    What can we say now about the future of string theory?

    It’s now over 30 years since a large community of scientists began pooling their talents, and there’s been enormous progress in those 30 years. But the more big problems we solve, the more new questions arise. So, you don’t even know the right questions to ask until you solve the previous questions. Interestingly, some of the biggest spin-offs of our efforts to find the most fundamental theory of nature are in pure mathematics.

    Do you think string theory will ultimately unify the forces of nature?

    Yes, but I don’t think we’ll have a final answer in my lifetime. The journey has been worth it, even if it did take some unusual twists and turns. I’m convinced that, in other intelligent civilizations throughout the galaxy, similar discoveries will occur, or already have occurred, in a different sequence than ours. We’ll find the same result and reach the same conclusions as other civilizations, but we’ll get there by a very different route.

    See the full article here .

    five-ways-keep-your-child-safe-school-shootings

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    The California Institute of Technology (commonly referred to as Caltech) is a private research university located in Pasadena, California, United States. Caltech has six academic divisions with strong emphases on science and engineering. Its 124-acre (50 ha) primary campus is located approximately 11 mi (18 km) northeast of downtown Los Angeles. “The mission of the California Institute of Technology is to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education. We investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology in a singularly collegial, interdisciplinary atmosphere, while educating outstanding students to become creative members of society.”

    Caltech campus

     
  • richardmitnick 2:46 pm on February 19, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Edward Witten, ,   

    From Quanta Magazine: “A Physicist’s Physicist Ponders the Nature of Reality” Edward Witten 

    Quanta Magazine
    Quanta Magazine

    FOR L.Z. OF HP AND RUTGERS. I HOPE HE SEES IT.

    November 28, 2017 [Just found this. Did I miss it in November? I would not have skipped it.]
    Natalie Wolchover

    1
    Edward Witten in his office at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

    Among the brilliant theorists cloistered in the quiet woodside campus of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, Edward Witten stands out as a kind of high priest. The sole physicist ever to win the Fields Medal, mathematics’ premier prize, Witten is also known for discovering M-theory, the leading candidate for a unified physical “theory of everything.” A genius’s genius, Witten is tall and rectangular, with hazy eyes and an air of being only one-quarter tuned in to reality until someone draws him back from more abstract thoughts.

    During a visit this fall, I spotted Witten on the Institute’s central lawn and requested an interview; in his quick, alto voice, he said he couldn’t promise to be able to answer my questions but would try. Later, when I passed him on the stone paths, he often didn’t seem to see me.

    Physics luminaries since Albert Einstein, who lived out his days in the same intellectual haven, have sought to unify gravity with the other forces of nature by finding a more fundamental quantum theory to replace Einstein’s approximate picture of gravity as curves in the geometry of space-time. M-theory, which Witten proposed in 1995, could conceivably offer this deeper description, but only some aspects of the theory are known. M-theory incorporates within a single mathematical structure all five versions of string theory, which renders the elements of nature as minuscule vibrating strings. These five string theories connect to each other through “dualities,” or mathematical equivalences. Over the past 30 years, Witten and others have learned that the string theories are also mathematically dual to quantum field theories — descriptions of particles moving through electromagnetic and other fields that serve as the language of the reigning “Standard Model” of particle physics. While he’s best known as a string theorist, Witten has discovered many new quantum field theories and explored how all these different descriptions are connected. His physical insights have led time and again to deep mathematical discoveries.

    Researchers pore over his work and hope he’ll take an interest in theirs. But for all his scholarly influence, Witten, who is 66, does not often broadcast his views on the implications of modern theoretical discoveries. Even his close colleagues eagerly suggested questions they wanted me to ask him.

    When I arrived at his office at the appointed hour on a summery Thursday last month, Witten wasn’t there. His door was ajar. Papers covered his coffee table and desk — not stacks, but floods: text oriented every which way, some pages close to spilling onto the floor. (Research papers get lost in the maelstrom as he finishes with them, he later explained, and every so often he throws the heaps away.) Two girls smiled out from a framed photo on a shelf; children’s artwork decorated the walls, one celebrating Grandparents’ Day. When Witten arrived minutes later, we spoke for an hour and a half about the meaning of dualities in physics and math, the current prospects of M-theory, what he’s reading, what he’s looking for, and the nature of reality. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

    Physicists are talking more than ever lately about dualities, but you’ve been studying them for decades. Why does the subject interest you?

    People keep finding new facets of dualities. Dualities are interesting because they frequently answer questions that are otherwise out of reach. For example, you might have spent years pondering a quantum theory and you understand what happens when the quantum effects are small, but textbooks don’t tell you what you do if the quantum effects are big; you’re generally in trouble if you want to know that. Frequently dualities answer such questions. They give you another description, and the questions you can answer in one description are different than the questions you can answer in a different description.

    What are some of these newfound facets of dualities?

    It’s open-ended because there are so many different kinds of dualities. There are dualities between a gauge theory [a theory, such as a quantum field theory, that respects certain symmetries] and another gauge theory, or between a string theory for weak coupling [describing strings that move almost independently from one another] and a string theory for strong coupling. Then there’s AdS/CFT duality, between a gauge theory and a gravitational description. That duality was discovered 20 years ago, and it’s amazing to what extent it’s still fruitful. And that’s largely because around 10 years ago, new ideas were introduced that rejuvenated it. People had new insights about entropy in quantum field theory — the whole story about “it from qubit.”

    That’s the idea that space-time and everything in it emerges like a hologram out of information stored in the entangled quantum states of particles.

    Yes. Then there are dualities in math, which can sometimes be interpreted physically as consequences of dualities between two quantum field theories. There are so many ways these things are interconnected that any simple statement I try to make on the fly, as soon as I’ve said it I realize it didn’t capture the whole reality. You have to imagine a web of different relationships, where the same physics has different descriptions, revealing different properties. In the simplest case, there are only two important descriptions, and that might be enough. If you ask me about a more complicated example, there might be many, many different ones.

    Given this web of relationships and the issue of how hard it is to characterize all duality, do you feel that this reflects a lack of understanding of the structure, or is it that we’re seeing the structure, only it’s very complicated?

    I’m not certain what we should hope for. Traditionally, quantum field theory was constructed by starting with the classical picture [of a smooth field] and then quantizing it. Now we’ve learned that there are a lot of things that happen that that description doesn’t do justice to. And the same quantum theory can come from different classical theories. Now, Nati Seiberg [a theoretical physicist who works down the hall] would possibly tell you that he has faith that there’s a better formulation of quantum field theory that we don’t know about that would make everything clearer. I’m not sure how much you should expect that to exist. That would be a dream, but it might be too much to hope for; I really don’t know.

    There’s another curious fact that you might want to consider, which is that quantum field theory is very central to physics, and it’s actually also clearly very important for math. But it’s extremely difficult for mathematicians to study; the way physicists define it is very hard for mathematicians to follow with a rigorous theory. That’s extremely strange, that the world is based so much on a mathematical structure that’s so difficult.

    2
    Jean Sweep for Quanta Magazine

    What do you see as the relationship between math and physics?

    I prefer not to give you a cosmic answer but to comment on where we are now. Physics in quantum field theory and string theory somehow has a lot of mathematical secrets in it, which we don’t know how to extract in a systematic way. Physicists are able to come up with things that surprise the mathematicians. Because it’s hard to describe mathematically in the known formulation, the things you learn about quantum field theory you have to learn from physics.

    I find it hard to believe there’s a new formulation that’s universal. I think it’s too much to hope for. I could point to theories where the standard approach really seems inadequate, so at least for those classes of quantum field theories, you could hope for a new formulation. But I really can’t imagine what it would be.

    You can’t imagine it at all?

    No, I can’t. Traditionally it was thought that interacting quantum field theory couldn’t exist above four dimensions, and there was the interesting fact that that’s the dimension we live in. But one of the offshoots of the string dualities of the 1990s was that it was discovered that quantum field theories actually exist in five and six dimensions. And it’s amazing how much is known about their properties.

    I’ve heard about the mysterious (2,0) theory, a quantum field theory describing particles in six dimensions, which is dual to M-theory describing strings and gravity in seven-dimensional AdS space. Does this (2,0) theory play an important role in the web of dualities?

    Yes, that’s the pinnacle. In terms of conventional quantum field theory without gravity, there is nothing quite like it above six dimensions. From the (2,0) theory’s existence and main properties, you can deduce an incredible amount about what happens in lower dimensions. An awful lot of important dualities in four and fewer dimensions follow from this six-dimensional theory and its properties. However, whereas what we know about quantum field theory is normally from quantizing a classical field theory, there’s no reasonable classical starting point of the (2,0) theory. The (2,0) theory has properties [such as combinations of symmetries] that sound impossible when you first hear about them. So you can ask why dualities exist, but you can also ask why is there a 6-D theory with such and such properties? This seems to me a more fundamental restatement.

    Dualities sometimes make it hard to maintain a sense of what’s real in the world, given that there are radically different ways you can describe a single system. How would you describe what’s real or fundamental?

    What aspect of what’s real are you interested in? What does it mean that we exist? Or how do we fit into our mathematical descriptions?

    The latter.

    Well, one thing I’ll tell you is that in general, when you have dualities, things that are easy to see in one description can be hard to see in the other description. So you and I, for example, are fairly simple to describe in the usual approach to physics as developed by Newton and his successors. But if there’s a radically different dual description of the real world, maybe some things physicists worry about would be clearer, but the dual description might be one in which everyday life would be hard to describe.

    What would you say about the prospect of an even more optimistic idea that there could be one single quantum gravity description that really does help you in every case in the real world?

    Well, unfortunately, even if it’s correct I can’t guarantee it would help. Part of what makes it difficult to help is that the description we have now, even though it’s not complete, does explain an awful lot. And so it’s a little hard to say, even if you had a truly better description or a more complete description, whether it would help in practice.

    Are you speaking of M-theory?

    M-theory is the candidate for the better description.

    You proposed M-theory 22 years ago. What are its prospects today?

    Personally, I thought it was extremely clear it existed 22 years ago, but the level of confidence has got to be much higher today because AdS/CFT has given us precise definitions, at least in AdS space-time geometries. I think our understanding of what it is, though, is still very hazy. AdS/CFT and whatever’s come from it is the main new perspective compared to 22 years ago, but I think it’s perfectly possible that AdS/CFT is only one side of a multifaceted story. There might be other equally important facets.

    3
    Jean Sweep for Quanta Magazine

    What’s an example of something else we might need?

    Maybe a bulk description of the quantum properties of space-time itself, rather than a holographic boundary description. There hasn’t been much progress in a long time in getting a better bulk description. And I think that might be because the answer is of a different kind than anything we’re used to. That would be my guess.

    Are you willing to speculate about how it would be different?

    I really doubt I can say anything useful. I guess I suspect that there’s an extra layer of abstractness compared to what we’re used to. I tend to think that there isn’t a precise quantum description of space-time — except in the types of situations where we know that there is, such as in AdS space. I tend to think, otherwise, things are a little bit murkier than an exact quantum description. But I can’t say anything useful.

    The other night I was reading an old essay by the 20th-century Princeton physicist John Wheeler. He was a visionary, certainly. If you take what he says literally, it’s hopelessly vague. And therefore, if I had read this essay when it came out 30 years ago, which I may have done, I would have rejected it as being so vague that you couldn’t work on it, even if he was on the right track.

    You’re referring to Information, Physics, Quantum, Wheeler’s 1989 essay propounding the idea that the physical universe arises from information, which he dubbed “it from bit.” Why were you reading it?

    I’m trying to learn about what people are trying to say with the phrase “it from qubit.” Wheeler talked about “it from bit,” but you have to remember that this essay was written probably before the term “qubit” was coined and certainly before it was in wide currency. Reading it, I really think he was talking about qubits, not bits, so “it from qubit” is actually just a modern translation.

    Don’t expect me to be able to tell you anything useful about it — about whether he was right. When I was a beginning grad student, they had a series of lectures by faculty members to the new students about theoretical research, and one of the people who gave such a lecture was Wheeler. He drew a picture on the blackboard of the universe visualized as an eye looking at itself. I had no idea what he was talking about. It’s obvious to me in hindsight that he was explaining what it meant to talk about quantum mechanics when the observer is part of the quantum system. I imagine there is something we don’t understand about that.

    Observing a quantum system irreversibly changes it, creating a distinction between past and future. So the observer issue seems possibly related to the question of time, which we also don’t understand. With the AdS/CFT duality, we’ve learned that new spatial dimensions can pop up like a hologram from quantum information on the boundary. Do you think time is also emergent — that it arises from a timeless complete description?

    I tend to assume that space-time and everything in it are in some sense emergent. By the way, you’ll certainly find that that’s what Wheeler expected in his essay. As you’ll read, he thought the continuum was wrong in both physics and math. He did not think one’s microscopic description of space-time should use a continuum of any kind — neither a continuum of space nor a continuum of time, nor even a continuum of real numbers. On the space and time, I’m sympathetic to that. On the real numbers, I’ve got to plead ignorance or agnosticism. It is something I wonder about, but I’ve tried to imagine what it could mean to not use the continuum of real numbers, and the one logician I tried discussing it with didn’t help me.

    Do you consider Wheeler a hero?

    I wouldn’t call him a hero, necessarily, no. Really I just became curious what he meant by “it from bit,” and what he was saying. He definitely had visionary ideas, but they were too far ahead of their time. I think I was more patient in reading a vague but inspirational essay than I might have been 20 years ago. He’s also got roughly 100 interesting-sounding references in that essay. If you decided to read them all, you’d have to spend weeks doing it. I might decide to look at a few of them.

    Why do you have more patience for such things now?

    I think when I was younger I always thought the next thing I did might be the best thing in my life. But at this point in life I’m less persuaded of that. If I waste a little time reading somebody’s essay, it doesn’t seem that bad.

    Do you ever take your mind off physics and math?

    My favorite pastime is tennis. I am a very average but enthusiastic tennis player.

    In contrast to Wheeler, it seems like your working style is to come to the insights through the calculations, rather than chasing a vague vision.

    In my career I’ve only been able to take small jumps. Relatively small jumps. What Wheeler was talking about was an enormous jump. And he does say at the beginning of the essay that he has no idea if this will take 10, 100 or 1,000 years.

    And he was talking about explaining how physics arises from information.

    Yes. The way he phrases it is broader: He wants to explain the meaning of existence. That was actually why I thought you were asking if I wanted to explain the meaning of existence.

    I see. Does he have any hypotheses?

    No. He only talks about things you shouldn’t do and things you should do in trying to arrive at a more fundamental description of physics.

    Do you have any ideas about the meaning of existence?

    No. [Laughs.]

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    Formerly known as Simons Science News, Quanta Magazine is an editorially independent online publication launched by the Simons Foundation to enhance public understanding of science. Why Quanta? Albert Einstein called photons “quanta of light.” Our goal is to “illuminate science.” At Quanta Magazine, scientific accuracy is every bit as important as telling a good story. All of our articles are meticulously researched, reported, edited, copy-edited and fact-checked.

     
c
Compose new post
j
Next post/Next comment
k
Previous post/Previous comment
r
Reply
e
Edit
o
Show/Hide comments
t
Go to top
l
Go to login
h
Show/Hide help
shift + esc
Cancel
%d bloggers like this: