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  • richardmitnick 4:07 pm on June 20, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Conjectures about gravity, Cosmic censorship conjecture, , Naked singularity in a four-dimensional universe, , , , Singularities, String Theory, Then Stephen said ‘You want to bet?’, Weak gravity   

    From Quanta: “Where Gravity Is Weak and Naked Singularities Are Verboten’ 

    Quanta Magazine
    Quanta Magazine

    June 20, 2017
    Natalie Wolchover

    Mike Zeng for Quanta Magazine

    Physicists have wondered for decades whether infinitely dense points known as singularities can ever exist outside black holes, which would expose the mysteries of quantum gravity for all to see. Singularities — snags in the otherwise smooth fabric of space and time where Albert Einstein’s classical gravity theory breaks down and the unknown quantum theory of gravity is needed — seem to always come cloaked in darkness, hiding from view behind the event horizons of black holes. The British physicist and mathematician Sir Roger Penrose conjectured in 1969 that visible or “naked” singularities are actually forbidden from forming in nature, in a kind of cosmic censorship. But why should quantum gravity censor itself?

    Roger Penrose in Berkeley, California, in 1978, nine years after proposing the cosmic censorship conjecture. George M. Bergman, Berkeley. Source: Archives of the Mathematisches Forschungsinstitut Oberwolfach

    Now, new theoretical calculations provide a possible explanation for why naked singularities do not exist — in a particular model universe, at least. The findings indicate that a second, newer conjecture about gravity, if it is true, reinforces Penrose’s cosmic censorship conjecture by preventing naked singularities from forming in this model universe. Some experts say the mutually supportive relationship between the two conjectures increases the chances that both are correct. And while this would mean singularities do stay frustratingly hidden, it would also reveal an important feature of the quantum gravity theory that eludes us.

    “It’s pleasing that there’s a connection” between the two conjectures, said John Preskill of the California Institute of Technology, who in 1991 bet Stephen Hawking that the cosmic censorship conjecture would fail (though he actually thinks it’s probably true).

    The new work, reported in May in Physical Review Letters by Jorge Santos and his student Toby Crisford at the University of Cambridge and relying on a key insight by Cumrun Vafa of Harvard University, unexpectedly ties cosmic censorship to the 2006 weak gravity conjecture [JHEP], which asserts that gravity must always be the weakest force in any viable universe, as it is in ours. (Gravity is by far the weakest of the four fundamental forces; two electrons electrically repel each other 1 million trillion trillion trillion times more strongly than they gravitationally attract each other.) Santos and Crisford were able to simulate the formation of a naked singularity in a four-dimensional universe with a different space-time geometry than ours. But they found that if another force exists in that universe that affects particles more strongly than gravity, the singularity becomes cloaked in a black hole. In other words, where a perverse pinprick would otherwise form in the space-time fabric, naked for all the world to see, the relative weakness of gravity prevents it.

    Santos and Crisford are running simulations now to test whether cosmic censorship is saved at exactly the limit where gravity becomes the weakest force in the model universe, as initial calculations suggest. Such an alliance with the better-established cosmic censorship conjecture would reflect very well on the weak gravity conjecture. And if weak gravity is right, it points to a deep relationship between gravity and the other quantum forces, potentially lending support to string theory over a rival theory called loop quantum gravity. The “unification” of the forces happens naturally in string theory, where gravity is one vibrational mode of strings and forces like electromagnetism are other modes. But unification is less obvious in loop quantum gravity, where space-time is quantized in tiny volumetric packets that bear no direct connection to the other particles and forces. “If the weak gravity conjecture is right, loop quantum gravity is definitely wrong,” said Nima Arkani-Hamed, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study who co-discovered the weak gravity conjecture.

    The new work “does tell us about quantum gravity,” said Gary Horowitz, a theoretical physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

    The Naked Singularities

    In 1991, Preskill and Kip Thorne, both theoretical physicists at Caltech, visited Stephen Hawking at Cambridge. Hawking had spent decades exploring the possibilities packed into the Einstein equation, which defines how space-time bends in the presence of matter, giving rise to gravity. Like Penrose and everyone else, he had yet to find a mechanism by which a naked singularity could form in a universe like ours. Always, singularities lay at the centers of black holes — sinkholes in space-time that are so steep that no light can climb out. He told his visitors that he believed in cosmic censorship. Preskill and Thorne, both experts in quantum gravity and black holes (Thorne was one of three physicists who founded the black-hole-detecting LIGO experiment), said they felt it might be possible to detect naked singularities and quantum gravity effects. “There was a long pause,” Preskill recalled. “Then Stephen said, ‘You want to bet?’”

    The bet had to be settled on a technicality and renegotiated in 1997, after the first ambiguous exception cropped up. Matt Choptuik, a physicist at the University of British Columbia who uses numerical simulations to study Einstein’s theory, showed that a naked singularity can form in a four-dimensional universe like ours when you perfectly fine-tune its initial conditions. Nudge the initial data by any amount, and you lose it — a black hole forms around the singularity, censoring the scene. This exceptional case doesn’t disprove cosmic censorship as Penrose meant it, because it doesn’t suggest naked singularities might actually form. Nonetheless, Hawking conceded the original bet and paid his debt per the stipulations, “with clothing to cover the winner’s nakedness.” He embarrassed Preskill by making him wear a T-shirt featuring a nearly-naked lady while giving a talk to 1,000 people at Caltech. The clothing was supposed to be “embroidered with a suitable concessionary message,” but Hawking’s read like a challenge: “Nature Abhors a Naked Singularity.”

    The physicists posted a new bet online, with language to clarify that only non-exceptional counterexamples to cosmic censorship would count. And this time, they agreed, “The clothing is to be embroidered with a suitable, truly concessionary message.”

    The wager still stands 20 years later, but not without coming under threat. In 2010, the physicists Frans Pretorius and Luis Lehner discovered a mechanism [Physical Review Letters]for producing naked singularities in hypothetical universes with five or more dimensions. And in their May paper, Santos and Crisford reported a naked singularity in a classical universe with four space-time dimensions, like our own, but with a radically different geometry. This latest one is “in between the ‘technical’ counterexample of the 1990s and a true counterexample,” Horowitz said. Preskill agrees that it doesn’t settle the bet. But it does change the story.

    Lucy Reading-Ikkanda/Quanta Magazine

    The Tin Can Universe

    The new discovery began to unfold in 2014, when Horowitz, Santos and Benson Way found that naked singularities could exist in a pretend 4-D universe called “anti-de Sitter” (AdS) space whose space-time geometry is shaped like a tin can. This universe has a boundary — the can’s side — which makes it a convenient testing ground for ideas about quantum gravity: Physicists can treat bendy space-time in the can’s interior like a hologram that projects off of the can’s surface, where there is no gravity. In universes like our own, which is closer to a “de Sitter” (dS) geometry, the only boundary is the infinite future, essentially the end of time. Timeless infinity doesn’t make a very good surface for projecting a hologram of a living, breathing universe.

    Despite their differences, the interiors of both AdS and dS universes obey Einstein’s classical gravity theory — everywhere outside singularities, that is. If cosmic censorship holds in one of the two arenas, some experts say you might expect it to hold up in both.

    Horowitz, Santos and Way were studying what happens when an electric field and a gravitational field coexist in an AdS universe. Their calculations suggested that cranking up the energy of the electric field on the surface of the tin can universe will cause space-time to curve more and more sharply around a corresponding point inside, eventually forming a naked singularity. In their recent paper, Santos and Crisford verified the earlier calculations with numerical simulations.

    But why would naked singularities exist in 5-D and in 4-D when you change the geometry, but never in a flat 4-D universe like ours? “It’s like, what the heck!” Santos said. “It’s so weird you should work on it, right? There has to be something here.”

    Weak Gravity to the Rescue

    In 2015, Horowitz mentioned the evidence for a naked singularity in 4-D AdS space to Cumrun Vafa, a Harvard string theorist and quantum gravity theorist who stopped by Horowitz’s office. Vafa had been working to rule out large swaths of the 10^500 different possible universes that string theory naively allows. He did this by identifying “swamplands”: failed universes that are too logically inconsistent to exist. By understanding patterns of land and swamp, he hoped to get an overall picture of quantum gravity.

    Working with Arkani-Hamed, Luboš Motl and Alberto Nicolis in 2006, Vafa proposed the weak gravity conjecture as a swamplands test. The researchers found that universes only seemed to make sense when particles were affected by gravity less than they were by at least one other force. Dial down the other forces of nature too much, and violations of causality and other problems arise. “Things were going wrong just when you started violating gravity as the weakest force,” Arkani-Hamed said. The weak-gravity requirement drowns huge regions of the quantum gravity landscape in swamplands.

    Jorge Santos (left) and Toby Crisford of the University of Cambridge have found an unexpected link between two conjectures about gravity.
    Courtesy of Jorge Santos

    Weak gravity and cosmic censorship seem to describe different things, but in chatting with Horowitz that day in 2015, Vafa realized that they might be linked. Horowitz had explained Santos and Crisford’s simulated naked singularity: When the researchers cranked up the strength of the electric field on the boundary of their tin-can universe, they assumed that the interior was classical — perfectly smooth, with no particles quantum mechanically fluctuating in and out of existence. But Vafa reasoned that, if such particles existed, and if, in accordance with the weak gravity conjecture, they were more strongly coupled to the electric field than to gravity, then cranking up the electric field on the AdS boundary would cause sufficient numbers of particles to arise in the corresponding region in the interior to gravitationally collapse the region into a black hole, preventing the naked singularity.

    Subsequent calculations by Santos and Crisford supported Vafa’s hunch; the simulations they’re running now could verify that naked singularities become cloaked in black holes right at the point where gravity becomes the weakest force. “We don’t know exactly why, but it seems to be true,” Vafa said. “These two reinforce each other.”

    Quantum Gravity

    The full implications of the new work, and of the two conjectures, will take time to sink in. Cosmic censorship imposes an odd disconnect between quantum gravity at the centers of black holes and classical gravity throughout the rest of the universe. Weak gravity appears to bridge the gap, linking quantum gravity to the other quantum forces that govern particles in the universe, and possibly favoring a stringy approach over a loopy one. Preskill said, “I think it’s something you would put on your list of arguments or reasons for believing in unification of the forces.”

    However, Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute, one of the developers of loop quantum gravity, has pushed back, arguing that if weak gravity is true, there might be a loopy reason for it. And he contends that there is a path to unification [J.Phys.A] of the forces within his theory — a path that would need to be pursued all the more vigorously if the weak gravity conjecture holds.

    Given the apparent absence of naked singularities in our universe, physicists will take hints about quantum gravity wherever they can find them. They’re as lost now in the endless landscape of possible quantum gravity theories as they were in the 1990s, with no prospects for determining through experiments which underlying theory describes our world. “It is thus paramount to find generic properties that such quantum gravity theories must have in order to be viable,” Santos said, echoing the swamplands philosophy.

    Weak gravity might be one such property — a necessary condition for quantum gravity’s consistency that spills out and affects the world beyond black holes. These may be some of the only clues available to help researchers feel their way into the darkness.

    See the full article here .

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    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.

  • richardmitnick 9:56 am on June 8, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , , , Nautlius, , , Sean Carroll at Caltech, String Theory, Will Quantum Mechanics Swallow Relativity   

    From Nautilus: “Will Quantum Mechanics Swallow Relativity?” 



    June 8, 2017
    By Corey S. Powell
    Illustration by Nicholas Garber

    The contest between gravity and quantum physics takes a new turn.

    It is the biggest of problems, it is the smallest of problems.

    At present physicists have two separate rulebooks explaining how nature works. There is general relativity, which beautifully accounts for gravity and all of the things it dominates: orbiting planets, colliding galaxies, the dynamics of the expanding universe as a whole. That’s big. Then there is quantum mechanics, which handles the other three forces—electromagnetism and the two nuclear forces. Quantum theory is extremely adept at describing what happens when a uranium atom decays, or when individual particles of light hit a solar cell. That’s small.

    Now for the problem: Relativity and quantum mechanics are fundamentally different theories that have different formulations. It is not just a matter of scientific terminology; it is a clash of genuinely incompatible descriptions of reality.

    The conflict between the two halves of physics has been brewing for more than a century—sparked by a pair of 1905 papers by Einstein, one outlining relativity and the other introducing the quantum—but recently it has entered an intriguing, unpredictable new phase. Two notable physicists have staked out extreme positions in their camps, conducting experiments that could finally settle which approach is paramount.

    Basically you can think of the division between the relativity and quantum systems as “smooth” versus “chunky.” In general relativity, events are continuous and deterministic, meaning that every cause matches up to a specific, local effect. In quantum mechanics, events produced by the interaction of subatomic particles happen in jumps (yes, quantum leaps), with probabilistic rather than definite outcomes. Quantum rules allow connections forbidden by classical physics. This was demonstrated in a much-discussed recent experiment, in which Dutch researchers defied the local effect. They showed two particles—in this case, electrons—could influence each other instantly, even though they were a mile apart. When you try to interpret smooth relativistic laws in a chunky quantum style, or vice versa, things go dreadfully wrong.

    Relativity gives nonsensical answers when you try to scale it down to quantum size, eventually descending to infinite values in its description of gravity. Likewise, quantum mechanics runs into serious trouble when you blow it up to cosmic dimensions. Quantum fields carry a certain amount of energy, even in seemingly empty space, and the amount of energy gets bigger as the fields get bigger. According to Einstein, energy and mass are equivalent (that’s the message of e=mc2), so piling up energy is exactly like piling up mass. Go big enough, and the amount of energy in the quantum fields becomes so great that it creates a black hole that causes the universe to fold in on itself. Oops.

    Craig Hogan, a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Chicago and the director of the Center for Particle Astrophysics at Fermilab, is reinterpreting the quantum side with a novel theory in which the quantum units of space itself might be large enough to be studied directly. Meanwhile, Lee Smolin, a founding member of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada, is seeking to push physics forward by returning back to Einstein’s philosophical roots and extending them in an exciting direction.

    To understand what is at stake, look back at the precedents. When Einstein unveiled general relativity, he not only superseded Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity; he also unleashed a new way of looking at physics that led to the modern conception of the Big Bang and black holes, not to mention atomic bombs and the time adjustments essential to your phone’s GPS. Likewise, quantum mechanics did much more than reformulate James Clerk Maxwell’s textbook equations of electricity, magnetism, and light. It provided the conceptual tools for the Large Hadron Collider, solar cells, all of modern microelectronics.

    What emerges from the dustup could be nothing less than a third revolution in modern physics, with staggering implications. It could tell us where the laws of nature came from, and whether the cosmos is built on uncertainty or whether it is fundamentally deterministic, with every event linked definitively to a cause.

    THE MAN WITH THE HOLOMETER: Craig Hogan, a theoretical astrophysicist at Fermilab, has built a device to measure what he sees as the exceedingly fine graininess of space. “I’m hoping for an experimental result that forces people to focus the theoretical thinking in a different direction,” Hogan says.The Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, the University of Chicago

    A Chunky Cosmos

    Hogan, champion of the quantum view, is what you might call a lamp-post physicist: Rather than groping about in the dark, he prefers to focus his efforts where the light is bright, because that’s where you are most likely to be able to see something interesting. That’s the guiding principle behind his current research. The clash between relativity and quantum mechanics happens when you try to analyze what gravity is doing over extremely short distances, he notes, so he has decided to get a really good look at what is happening right there. “I’m betting there’s an experiment we can do that might be able to see something about what’s going on, about that interface that we still don’t understand,” he says.

    A basic assumption in Einstein’s physics—an assumption going all the way back to Aristotle, really—is that space is continuous and infinitely divisible, so that any distance could be chopped up into even smaller distances. But Hogan questions whether that is really true. Just as a pixel is the smallest unit of an image on your screen and a photon is the smallest unit of light, he argues, so there might be an unbreakable smallest unit of distance: a quantum of space.

    In Hogan’s scenario, it would be meaningless to ask how gravity behaves at distances smaller than a single chunk of space. There would be no way for gravity to function at the smallest scales because no such scale would exist. Or put another way, general relativity would be forced to make peace with quantum physics, because the space in which physicists measure the effects of relativity would itself be divided into unbreakable quantum units. The theater of reality in which gravity acts would take place on a quantum stage.

    Hogan acknowledges that his concept sounds a bit odd, even to a lot of his colleagues on the quantum side of things. Since the late 1960s, a group of physicists and mathematicians have been developing a framework called string theory to help reconcile general relativity with quantum mechanics; over the years, it has evolved into the default mainstream theory, even as it has failed to deliver on much of its early promise. Like the chunky-space solution, string theory assumes a fundamental structure to space, but from there the two diverge. String theory posits that every object in the universe consists of vibrating strings of energy. Like chunky space, string theory averts gravitational catastrophe by introducing a finite, smallest scale to the universe, although the unit strings are drastically smaller even than the spatial structures Hogan is trying to find.

    Chunky space does not neatly align with the ideas in string theory—or in any other proposed physics model, for that matter. “It’s a new idea. It’s not in the textbooks; it’s not a prediction of any standard theory,” Hogan says, sounding not the least bit concerned. “But there isn’t any standard theory right?”

    If he is right about the chunkiness of space, that would knock out a lot of the current formulations of string theory and inspire a fresh approach to reformulating general relativity in quantum terms. It would suggest new ways to understand the inherent nature of space and time. And weirdest of all, perhaps, it would bolster an au courant notion that our seemingly three-dimensional reality is composed of more basic, two-dimensional units. Hogan takes the “pixel” metaphor seriously: Just as a TV picture can create the impression of depth from a bunch of flat pixels, he suggests, so space itself might emerge from a collection of elements that act as if they inhabit only two dimensions.

    Like many ideas from the far edge of today’s theoretical physics, Hogan’s speculations can sound suspiciously like late-night philosophizing in the freshman dorm. What makes them drastically different is that he plans to put them to a hard experimental test. As in, right now.

    Starting in 2007, Hogan began thinking about how to build a device that could measure the exceedingly fine graininess of space. As it turns out, his colleagues had plenty of ideas about how to do that, drawing on technology developed to search for gravitational waves. Within two years Hogan had put together a proposal and was working with collaborators at Fermilab, the University of Chicago, and other institutions to build a chunk-detecting machine, which he more elegantly calls a “holometer.” (The name is an esoteric pun, referencing both a 17th-century surveying instrument and the theory that 2-D space could appear three-dimensional, analogous to a hologram.)

    Beneath its layers of conceptual complexity, the holometer is technologically little more than a laser beam, a half-reflective mirror to split the laser into two perpendicular beams, and two other mirrors to bounce those beams back along a pair of 40-meter-long tunnels. The beams are calibrated to register the precise locations of the mirrors. If space is chunky, the locations of the mirrors would constantly wander about (strictly speaking, space itself is doing the wandering), creating a constant, random variation in their separation. When the two beams are recombined, they’d be slightly out of sync, and the amount of the discrepancy would reveal the scale of the chunks of space.

    For the scale of chunkiness that Hogan hopes to find, he needs to measure distances to an accuracy of 10-18 meters, about 100 million times smaller than a hydrogen atom, and collect data at a rate of about 100 million readings per second. Amazingly, such an experiment is not only possible, but practical. “We were able to do it pretty cheaply because of advances in photonics, a lot of off the shelf parts, fast electronics, and things like that,” Hogan says. “It’s a pretty speculative experiment, so you wouldn’t have done it unless it was cheap.” The holometer is currently humming away, collecting data at the target accuracy; he expects to have preliminary readings by the end of the year.

    Hogan has his share of fierce skeptics, including many within the theoretical physics community. The reason for the disagreement is easy to appreciate: A success for the holometer would mean failure for a lot of the work being done in string theory. Despite this superficial sparring, though, Hogan and most of his theorist colleagues share a deep core conviction: They broadly agree that general relativity will ultimately prove subordinate to quantum mechanics. The other three laws of physics follow quantum rules, so it makes sense that gravity must as well.

    For most of today’s theorists, though, belief in the primacy of quantum mechanics runs deeper still. At a philosophical—epistemological—level, they regard the large-scale reality of classical physics as a kind of illusion, an approximation that emerges from the more “true” aspects of the quantum world operating at an extremely small scale. Chunky space certainly aligns with that worldview.

    Hogan likens his project to the landmark Michelson-Morley experiment of the 19th century, which searched for the aether—the hypothetical substance of space that, according to the leading theory of the time, transmitted light waves through a vacuum. The experiment found nothing; that perplexing null result helped inspire Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which in turn spawned the general theory of relativity and eventually turned the entire world of physics upside down. Adding to the historical connection, the Michelson-Morley experiment also measured the structure of space using mirrors and a split beam of light, following a setup remarkably similar to Hogan’s.

    “We’re doing the holometer in that kind of spirit. If we don’t see something or we do see something, either way it’s interesting. The reason to do the experiment is just to see whether we can find something to guide the theory,” Hogan says. “You find out what your theorist colleagues are made of by how they react to this idea. There’s a world of very mathematical thinking out there. I’m hoping for an experimental result that forces people to focus the theoretical thinking in a different direction.”

    Whether or not he finds his quantum structure of space, Hogan is confident the holometer will help physics address its big-small problem. It will show the right way (or rule out the wrong way) to understand the underlying quantum structure of space and how that affects the relativistic laws of gravity flowing through it.


    The Black Hole Resolution

    Here on Earth, the clash between the top-down and bottom-up views of physics is playing out in academic journals and in a handful of complicated experimental apparatuses. Theorists on both sides concede that neither pure thought nor technologically feasible tests may be enough to break the deadlock, however. Fortunately, there are other places to look for a more definitive resolution. One of the most improbable of these is also one of the most promising—an idea embraced by physicists almost regardless of where they stand ideologically.

    “Black hole physics gives us a clean experimental target to look for,” says Craig Hogan, a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Chicago and the director of the Center for Particle Astrophysics at Fermilab. “The issues around quantum black holes are important,” agrees Lee Smolin, a founding member of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada.

    Black holes? Really? Granted, these objects are more commonly associated with questions than with answers. They are not things you can create in the laboratory, or poke and prod with instruments, or even study up close with a space probe. Nevertheless, they are the only places in the universe where Hogan’s ideas unavoidably smash into Smolin’s and, more importantly, where the whole of quantum physics collides with general relativity in a way that is impossible to ignore.

    At the outer boundary of the black hole—the event horizon—gravity is so extreme that even light cannot escape, making it an extreme test of how general relativity behaves. At the event horizon, atomic-scale events become enormously stretched out and slowed down; the horizon also divides the physical world into two distinct zones, inside and outside. And there is a very interesting meeting place in terms of the size of a black hole. A stellar-mass black hole is about the size of Los Angeles; a black hole with the mass of the Earth would be roughly the size of a marble. Black holes literally bring the big-small problem in physics home to the human scale.

    The importance of black holes for resolving that problem is the reason why Stephen Hawking and his cohorts debate about them so often and so vigorously. It turns out that we don’t actually need to cozy up close to black holes in order to run experiments with them. Quantum theory implies that a single particle could potentially exist both inside and outside the event horizon, which makes no sense. There is also the question of what happens to information about things that fall into a black hole; the information seems to vanish, even though theory says that information cannot be destroyed. Addressing these contradictions is forcing theoretical physicists to grapple more vigorously than ever before with the interplay of quantum mechanics and general relativity.

    Best of all, the answers will not be confined to the world of theory. Astrophysicists have increasingly sophisticated ways to study the region just outside the event horizon by monitoring the hot, brilliant clouds of particles that swirl around some black holes. An even greater breakthrough is just around the corner: the Event Horizon Telescope. This project is in the process of linking together about a dozen radio dishes from around the world, creating an enormous networked telescope so powerful that it will be able to get a clear look at Sagittarius A*, the massive black hole that resides in the center of our galaxy. Soon, possibly by 2020, the Event Horizon Telescope should deliver its first good portraits. What they show will help constrain the theories of black holes, and so offer telling clues about how to solve the big-small problem.

    Human researchers using football stadium-size radio telescopes, linked together into a planet-size instrument, to study a star-size black hole, to reconcile the subatomic-and-cosmic-level enigma at the heart of physics … if it works, the scale of the achievement will be truly unprecedented.

    Event Horizon Telescope Array

    Event Horizon Telescope map

    The locations of the radio dishes that will be part of the Event Horizon Telescope array. Image credit: Event Horizon Telescope sites, via University of Arizona at https://www.as.arizona.edu/event-horizon-telescope.

    Arizona Radio Observatory
    Arizona Radio Observatory/Submillimeter-wave Astronomy (ARO/SMT)

    Atacama Pathfinder EXperiment (APEX)

    CARMA Array no longer in service
    Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy (CARMA)

    Atacama Submillimeter Telescope Experiment (ASTE)
    Atacama Submillimeter Telescope Experiment (ASTE)

    Caltech Submillimeter Observatory
    Caltech Submillimeter Observatory (CSO)

    IRAM NOEMA interferometer
    Institut de Radioastronomie Millimetrique (IRAM) 30m

    James Clerk Maxwell Telescope interior, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA
    James Clerk Maxwell Telescope interior, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA

    Large Millimeter Telescope Alfonso Serrano
    Large Millimeter Telescope Alfonso Serrano

    CfA Submillimeter Array Hawaii SAO
    Submillimeter Array Hawaii SAO

    ESO/NRAO/NAOJ ALMA Array, Chile

    Future Array/Telescopes

    Plateau de Bure interferometer
    Plateau de Bure interferometer

    South Pole Telescope SPTPOL
    South Pole Telescope SPTPOL


    THE SYNTHESIZER: Black holes are the only place where the whole of quantum physics collides with general relativity in a way that is impossible to ignore. An artist’s impression shows the surroundings of the supermassive black hole at the heart of the active galaxy in the southern constellation of Centaurus. Observations at a European Southern Observatory in Chile have revealed not only the torus of hot dust around the black hole but also a wind of cool material in the polar regions. ESO/M. Kornmesser

    A Really, Really Big Show

    If you are looking for a totally different direction, Smolin of the Perimeter Institute is your man. Where Hogan goes gently against the grain, Smolin is a full-on dissenter: “There’s a thing that Richard Feynman told me when I was a graduate student. He said, approximately, ‘If all your colleagues have tried to demonstrate that something’s true and failed, it might be because that thing is not true.’ Well, string theory has been going for 40 or 50 years without definitive progress.”

    And that is just the start of a broader critique. Smolin thinks the small-scale approach to physics is inherently incomplete. Current versions of quantum field theory do a fine job explaining how individual particles or small systems of particles behave, but they fail to take into account what is needed to have a sensible theory of the cosmos as a whole. They don’t explain why reality is like this, and not like something else. In Smolin’s terms, quantum mechanics is merely “a theory of subsystems of the universe.”

    A more fruitful path forward, he suggests, is to consider the universe as a single enormous system, and to build a new kind of theory that can apply to the whole thing. And we already have a theory that provides a framework for that approach: general relativity. Unlike the quantum framework, general relativity allows no place for an outside observer or external clock, because there is no “outside.” Instead, all of reality is described in terms of relationships between objects and between different regions of space. Even something as basic as inertia (the resistance of your car to move until forced to by the engine, and its tendency to keep moving after you take your foot off the accelerator) can be thought of as connected to the gravitational field of every other particle in the universe.

    That last statement is strange enough that it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider it more closely. Consider a thought problem, closely related to the one that originally led Einstein to this idea in 1907. What if the universe were entirely empty except for two astronauts. One of them is spinning, the other is stationary. The spinning one feels dizzy, doing cartwheels in space. But which one of the two is spinning? From either astronaut’s perspective, the other is the one spinning. Without any external reference, Einstein argued, there is no way to say which one is correct, and no reason why one should feel an effect different from what the other experiences.

    The distinction between the two astronauts makes sense only when you reintroduce the rest of the universe. In the classic interpretation of general relativity, then, inertia exists only because you can measure it against the entire cosmic gravitational field. What holds true in that thought problem holds true for every object in the real world: The behavior of each part is inextricably related to that of every other part. If you’ve ever felt like you wanted to be a part of something big, well, this is the right kind of physics for you. It is also, Smolin thinks, a promising way to obtain bigger answers about how nature really works, across all scales.

    “General relativity is not a description of subsystems. It is a description of the whole universe as a closed system,” he says. When physicists are trying to resolve the clash between relativity and quantum mechanics, therefore, it seems like a smart strategy for them to follow Einstein’s lead and go as big as they possibly can.

    Smolin is keenly aware that he is pushing against the prevailing devotion to small-scale, quantum-style thinking. “I don’t mean to stir things up, it just kind of happens that way. My role is to think clearly about these difficult issues, put my conclusions out there, and let the dust settle,” he says genially. “I hope people will engage with the arguments, but I really hope that the arguments lead to testable predictions.”

    At first blush, Smolin’s ideas sound like a formidable starting point for concrete experimentation. Much as all of the parts of the universe are linked across space, they may also be linked across time, he suggests. His arguments led him to hypothesize that the laws of physics evolve over the history of the universe. Over the years, he has developed two detailed proposals for how this might happen. His theory of cosmological natural selection, which he hammered out in the 1990s, envisions black holes as cosmic eggs that hatch new universes. More recently, he has developed a provocative hypothesis about the emergence of the laws of quantum mechanics, called the principle of precedence—and this one seems much more readily put to the test.

    Smolin’s principle of precedence arises as an answer to the question of why physical phenomena are reproducible. If you perform an experiment that has been performed before, you expect the outcome will be the same as in the past. (Strike a match and it bursts into flame; strike another match the same way and … you get the idea.) Reproducibility is such a familiar part of life that we typically don’t even think about it. We simply attribute consistent outcomes to the action of a natural “law” that acts the same way at all times. Smolin hypothesizes that those laws actually may emerge over time, as quantum systems copy the behavior of similar systems in the past.

    One possible way to catch emergence in the act is by running an experiment that has never been done before, so there is no past version (that is, no precedent) for it to copy. Such an experiment might involve the creation of a highly complex quantum system, containing many components that exist in a novel entangled state. If the principle of precedence is correct, the initial response of the system will be essentially random. As the experiment is repeated, however, precedence builds up and the response should become predictable … in theory. “A system by which the universe is building up precedent would be hard to distinguish from the noises of experimental practice,” Smolin concedes, “but it’s not impossible.”

    Although precedence can play out at the atomic scale, its influence would be system-wide, cosmic. It ties back to Smolin’s idea that small-scale, reductionist thinking seems like the wrong way to solve the big puzzles. Getting the two classes of physics theories to work together, though important, is not enough, either. What he wants to know—what we all want to know—is why the universe is the way it is. Why does time move forward and not backward? How did we end up here, with these laws and this universe, not some others?

    The present lack of any meaningful answer to those questions reveals that “there’s something deeply wrong with our understanding of quantum field theory,” Smolin says. Like Hogan, he is less concerned about the outcome of any one experiment than he is with the larger program of seeking fundamental truths. For Smolin, that means being able to tell a complete, coherent story about the universe; it means being able to predict experiments, but also to explain the unique properties that made atoms, planets, rainbows, and people. Here again he draws inspiration from Einstein.

    “The lesson of general relativity, again and again, is the triumph of relationalism,” Smolin says. The most likely way to get the big answers is to engage with the universe as a whole.

    And the Winner Is …

    If you wanted to pick a referee in the big-small debate, you could hardly do better than Sean Carroll, an expert in cosmology, field theory, and gravitational physics at Caltech. He knows his way around relativity, he knows his way around quantum mechanics, and he has a healthy sense of the absurd: He calls his personal blog Preposterous Universe.

    Right off the bat, Carroll awards most of the points to the quantum side. “Most of us in this game believe that quantum mechanics is much more fundamental than general relativity is,” he says. That has been the prevailing view ever since the 1920s, when Einstein tried and repeatedly failed to find flaws in the counterintuitive predictions of quantum theory. The recent Dutch experiment demonstrating an instantaneous quantum connection between two widely separated particles—the kind of event that Einstein derided as “spooky action at a distance”—only underscores the strength of the evidence.

    Taking a larger view, the real issue is not general relativity versus quantum field theory, Carroll explains, but classical dynamics versus quantum dynamics. Relativity, despite its perceived strangeness, is classical in how it regards cause and effect; quantum mechanics most definitely is not. Einstein was optimistic that some deeper discoveries would uncover a classical, deterministic reality hiding beneath quantum mechanics, but no such order has yet been found. The demonstrated reality of spooky action at a distance argues that such order does not exist.

    “If anything, people under-appreciate the extent to which quantum mechanics just completely throws away our notions of space and locality [the notion that a physical event can affect only its immediate surroundings]. Those things simply are not there in quantum mechanics,” Carroll says. They may be large-scale impressions that emerge from very different small-scale phenomena, like Hogan’s argument about 3-D reality emerging from 2-D quantum units of space.

    Despite that seeming endorsement, Carroll regards Hogan’s holometer as a long shot, though he admits it is removed from his area of research. At the other end, he doesn’t think much of Smolin’s efforts to start with space as a fundamental thing; he regards the notion as absurd as trying to argue that air is more fundamental than atoms. As for what kind of quantum system might take physics to the next level, Carroll remains broadly optimistic about string theory, which he says “seems to be a very natural extension of quantum field theory.” In all these ways, he is true to the mainstream, quantum-based thinking in modern physics.

    Yet Carroll’s ruling, while almost entirely pro-quantum, is not purely an endorsement of small-scale thinking. There are still huge gaps in what quantum theory can explain. “Our inability to figure out the correct version of quantum mechanics is embarrassing,” he says. “And our current way of thinking about quantum mechanics is simply a complete failure when you try to think about cosmology or the whole universe. We don’t even know what time is.” Both Hogan and Smolin endorse this sentiment, although they disagree about what to do in response. Carroll favors a bottom-up explanation in which time emerges from small-scale quantum interactions, but declares himself “entirely agnostic” about Smolin’s competing suggestion that time is more universal and fundamental. In the case of time, then, the jury is still out.

    No matter how the theories shake out, the large scale is inescapably important, because it is the world we inhabit and observe. In essence, the universe as a whole is the answer, and the challenge to physicists is to find ways to make it pop out of their equations. Even if Hogan is right, his space-chunks have to average out to the smooth reality we experience every day. Even if Smolin is wrong, there is an entire cosmos out there with unique properties that need to be explained—something that, for now at least, quantum physics alone cannot do.

    By pushing at the bounds of understanding, Hogan and Smolin are helping the field of physics make that connection. They are nudging it not just toward reconciliation between quantum mechanics and general relativity, but between idea and perception. The next great theory of physics will undoubtedly lead to beautiful new mathematics and unimaginable new technologies. But the best thing it can do is create deeper meaning that connects back to us, the observers, who get to define ourselves as the fundamental scale of the universe.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    Welcome to Nautilus. We are delighted you joined us. We are here to tell you about science and its endless connections to our lives. Each month we choose a single topic. And each Thursday we publish a new chapter on that topic online. Each issue combines the sciences, culture and philosophy into a single story told by the world’s leading thinkers and writers. We follow the story wherever it leads us. Read our essays, investigative reports, and blogs. Fiction, too. Take in our games, videos, and graphic stories. Stop in for a minute, or an hour. Nautilus lets science spill over its usual borders. We are science, connected.

  • richardmitnick 9:30 am on June 8, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , Ludwig Boltzmann, Microstates, , , String Theory, The Crisis of the Multiverse   

    From Nautilus: “The Crisis of the Multiverse” 



    June 8, 2017
    Ben Freivogel

    Physicists have always hoped that once we understood the fundamental laws of physics, they would make unambiguous predictions for physical quantities. We imagined that the underlying physical laws would explain why the mass of the Higgs particle must be 125 gigaelectron-volts, as was recently discovered, and not any other value, and also make predictions for new particles that are yet to be discovered.

    CERN CMS Higgs Event

    CERN ATLAS Higgs Event

    For example, we would like to predict what kind of particles make up the dark matter.

    These hopes now appear to have been hopelessly naïve. Our most promising fundamental theory, string theory, does not make unique predictions. It seems to contain a vast landscape of solutions, or “vacua,” each with its own values of the observable physical constants. The vacua are all physically realized within an enormous eternally inflating multiverse.

    Has the theory lost its mooring to observation? If the multiverse is large and diverse enough to contain some regions where dark matter is made out of light particles and other regions where dark matter is made out of heavy particles, how could we possibly predict which one we should see in our own region? And indeed many people have criticized the multiverse concept on just these grounds. If a theory makes no predictions, it ceases to be physics.

    But an important issue tends to go unnoticed in debates over the multiverse. Cosmology has always faced a problem of making predictions. The reason is that all our theories in physics are dynamical: The fundamental physical laws describe what will happen, given what already is. So, whenever we make a prediction in physics, we need to specify what the initial conditions are. How do we do that for the entire universe? What sets the initial initial conditions? This is science’s version of the old philosophical question of First Cause.

    The multiverse offers an answer. It is not the enemy of prediction, but its friend.

    The main idea is to make probabilistic predictions. By calculating what happens frequently and what happens rarely in the multiverse, we can make statistical predictions for what we will observe. This is not a new situation in physics. We understand an ordinary box of gas in the same way. Although we cannot possibly keep track of the motion of all the individual molecules, we can make extremely precise predictions for how the gas as a whole will behave. Our job is to develop a similar statistical understanding of events in the multiverse.

    This understanding could take one of three forms. First, the multiverse, though very large, might be able to explore only a finite number of different states, just like an ordinary box of gas. In this case we know how to make predictions, because after a while the multiverse forgets about the unknown initial conditions. Second, perhaps the multiverse is able to explore an infinite number of different states, in which case it never forgets its initial conditions, and we cannot make predictions unless we know what those conditions are. Finally, the multiverse might explore an infinite number of different states, but the exponential expansion of space effectively erases the initial conditions.

    NEVER ENOUGH TIME: Synchronizing clocks is impossible to do in an infinite universe, which in turn undercuts the ability of physics to make predictions. Matteo Ianeselli / Wikimedia Commons

    In many ways, the first option is the most agreeable to physicists, because it extends our well-established statistical techniques. Unfortunately, the predictions we arrive at disagree violently with observations. The second option is very troubling, because our existing laws are incapable of providing the requisite initial conditions. It is the third possibility that holds the most promise for yielding sensible predictions.

    But this program has encountered severe conceptual obstacles. At root, our problems arise because the multiverse is an infinite expanse of space and time. These infinities lead to paradoxes and puzzles wherever we turn. We will need a revolution in our understanding of physics in order to make sense of the multiverse.

    The first option for making statistical predictions in cosmology goes back to a paper by the Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann in 1895. Although it turns out to be wrong, in its failure we find the roots of our current predicament.

    Boltzmann’s proposal was a bold extrapolation from his work on understanding gases. To specify completely the state of a gas would require specifying the exact position of every molecule. That is impossible. Instead, what we can measure—and would like to make predictions for—is the coarse-grained properties of the box of gas, such as the temperature and the pressure.

    A key simplification allows us to do this. As the molecules bounce around, they will arrange and rearrange themselves in every possible way they can, thus exploring all their possible configurations, or “microstates.” This process will erase the memory of how the gas started out, allowing us to ignore the problem of initial conditions. Since we can’t keep track of where all the molecules are, and anyway their positions change with time, we assume that any microstate is equally likely.

    This gives us a way to calculate how likely it is to find the box in a given coarse-grained state, or “macrostate”: We simply count the fraction of microstates consistent with what we know about the macrostate. So, for example, it is more likely that the gas is spread uniformly throughout the box rather than clumped in one corner, because only very special microstates have all of the gas molecules in one region of the box.

    For this procedure to work, the total number of microstates, while very large, must be finite. Otherwise the system will never be able to explore all its states. In a box of gas, this finitude is guaranteed by the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics. Because the position of each molecule cannot be specified exactly, the gas has only a finite number of distinct configurations.

    Gases that start off clumpy for some reason will spread out, for a simple reason: It is statistically far more likely for their molecules to be uniformly distributed rather than clustered. If the molecules begin in a fairly improbable configuration, they will naturally evolve to a more probable one as they bounce around randomly.

    Yet our intuition about gases must be altered when we consider huge spans of time. If we leave the gas in the box for long enough, it will explore some unusual microstates. Eventually all of the particles will accidentally cluster in one corner of the box.

    With this insight, Boltzmann launched into his cosmological speculations. Our universe is intricately structured, so it is analogous to a gas that clusters in one corner of a box—a state that is far from equilibrium. Cosmologists generally assume it must have begun that way, but Boltzmann pointed out that, over the vastness of the eons, even a chaotic universe will randomly fluctuate into a highly ordered state. Attributing the idea to his assistant, known to history only as “Dr. Schuetz,” Boltzmann wrote:

    “It may be said that the world is so far from thermal equilibrium that we cannot imagine the improbability of such a state. But can we imagine, on the other side, how small a part of the whole universe this world is? Assuming the universe is great enough, the probability that such a small part of it as our world should be in its present state, is no longer small.”

    “If this assumption were correct, our world would return more and more to thermal equilibrium; but because the whole universe is so great, it might be probable that at some future time some other world might deviate as far from thermal equilibrium as our world does at present.”

    It is a compelling idea. What a shame that it is wrong.

    The trouble was first pointed out by the astronomer and physicist Sir Arthur Eddington in 1931, if not earlier. It has to do with what are now called “Boltzmann brains.” Suppose the universe is like a box of gas and, most of the time, is in thermal equilibrium—just a uniform, undifferentiated gruel. Complex structures, including life, arise only when there are weird fluctuations. At these moments, gas assembles into stars, our solar system, and all the rest. There is no step-by-step process that sculpts it. It is like a swirling cloud that, all of a sudden, just so happens to take the shape of a person.

    The problem is a quantitative one. A small fluctuation that makes an ordered structure in a small part of space is far, far more likely than a large fluctuation that forms ordered structures over a huge region of space. In Boltzmann and Schuetz’s theory, it would be far, far more likely to produce our solar system without bothering to make all of the other stars in the universe. Therefore, the theory conflicts with observation: It predicts that typical observers should see a completely blank sky, without stars, when they look up at night.

    Taking this argument to an extreme, the most common type of observer in this theory is one that requires the minimal fluctuation away from equilibrium. We imagine this as an isolated brain that survives just long enough to notice it is about to die: the so-called Boltzmann brain.

    If you take this type of theory seriously, it predicts that we are just some very special Boltzmann brains who have been deluded into thinking that we are observing a vast, homogeneous universe. At the next instant our delusions are extremely likely to be shattered, and we will discover that there are no other stars in the universe. If our state of delusion lasts long enough for this article to appear, you can safely discard the theory.

    What are we to conclude? Evidently, the whole universe is not like a box of gas after all. A crucial assumption in Boltzmann’s argument is that there are only a finite (if very large) number of molecular configurations. This assumption must be incorrect. Otherwise, we would be Boltzmann brains.

    DON’T WAKE ME UP: Hibernation thought-experiments reveal a deep paradox with probability in an infinite multiverse. Twentieth Century Fox-Film Corporation / Photofest

    So, we must seek a new approach to making predictions in cosmology. The second option on our list is that the universe has an infinite number of states available to it. Then the tools that Boltzmann developed are no longer useful in calculating the probability of different things happening.

    But then we’re back to the problem of initial conditions. Unlike a finite box of gas, which forgets about its initial conditions as the molecules scramble themselves, a system with an infinite number of available states cannot forget its initial conditions, because it takes an infinite time to explore all of its available states. To make predictions, we would need a theory of initial conditions. Right now, we don’t have one. Whereas our present theories take the prior state of the universe as an input, a theory of initial conditions would have to give this state as an output. It would thus require a profound shift in the way physicists think.

    The multiverse offers a third way—that is part of its appeal. It allows us to make cosmological predictions in a statistical way within the current theoretical framework of physics. In the multiverse, the volume of space grows indefinitely, all the while producing expanding bubbles with a variety of states inside. Crucially, the predictions do not depend on the initial conditions. The expansion approaches a steady-state behavior, with the expanding high-energy state continually expanding and budding off lower-energy regions. The overall volume of space is growing, and the number of bubbles of every type is growing, but the ratio (and the probabilities) remain fixed.

    The basic idea of how to make predictions in such a theory is simple. We count how many observers in the multiverse measure a physical quantity to have a given value. The probability of our observing a given outcome equals the proportion of observers in the multiverse who observe that outcome.

    For instance, if 10 percent of observers live in regions of the multiverse where dark matter is made out of light particles (such as axions), while 90 percent of observers live in regions where dark matter is made out of heavy particles (which, counterintuitively, are called WIMPs), then we have a 10 percent chance of discovering that dark matter is made of light particles.

    The very best reason to believe this type of argument is that Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas at Austin used it to successfully predict the value of the cosmological constant a decade before it was observed. The combination of a theoretically convincing motivation with Weinberg’s remarkable success made the multiverse idea attractive enough that a number of researchers, including me, have spent years trying to work it out in detail.

    The major problem we faced is that, since the volume of space grows without bound, the number of observers observing any given thing is infinite, making it difficult to characterize which events are more or less likely to occur. This amounts to an ambiguity in how to characterize the steady-state behavior, known as the measure problem.

    Roughly, the procedure to make predictions goes as follows. We imagine that the universe evolves for a large but finite amount of time and count all of the observations. Then we calculate what happens when the time becomes arbitrarily large. That should tell us the steady-state behavior. The trouble is that there is no unique way to do this, because there is no universal way to define a moment in time. Observers in distant parts of spacetime are too far apart and accelerating away from each other too fast to be able to send signals to each other, so they cannot synchronize their clocks. Mathematically, we can choose many different conceivable ways to synchronize clocks across these large regions of space, and these different choices lead to different predictions for what types of observations are likely or unlikely.

    One prescription for synchronizing clocks tells us that most of the volume will be taken up by the state that expands the fastest. Another tells us that most of the volume will be taken up by the state the decays the slowest. Worse, many of these prescriptions predict that the vast majority of observers are Boltzmann brains. A problem we thought we had eliminated came rushing back in.

    When Don Page at the University of Alberta pointed out the potential problems with Boltzmann brains in a paper in 2006, Raphael Bousso at U.C. Berkeley and I were thrilled to realize that we could turn the problem on its head. We found we could use Boltzmann brains as a tool—a way to decide among differing prescriptions for how to synchronize clocks. Any proposal that predicts that we are Boltzmann brains must perforce be wrong. We were so excited (and worried that someone else would have the same idea) that we wrote our paper in just two days after Page’s paper appeared. Over the course of several years, persistent work by a relatively small group of researchers succeeded in using these types of tests to eliminate many proposals and to form something of a consensus in the field on a nearly unique solution to the measure problem. We felt that we had learned how to tame the frightening infinities of the theory.

    Just when things were looking good, we encountered a conceptual problem that I see no escape from within our current understanding: the end-of-time problem. Put simply, the theory predicts that the universe is on the verge of self-destruction.

    The issue came into focus via a thought experiment suggested by Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Vitaly Vanchurin at the University of Michigan in Duluth. This experiment is unusual even by the standards of theoretical physics. Suppose that you flip a coin and do not see the result. Then you are put into a cryogenic freezer. If the coin came up heads, the experimenters wake you up after one year. If the coin came up tails, the experimenters instruct their descendants to wake you up after 50 billion years. Now suppose you have just woken up and have a chance to bet whether you have been asleep for 1 year or 50 billion years. Common sense tells us that the odds for such a bet should be 50/50 if the coin is fair.

    But when we apply our rules for how to do calculations in an eternally expanding universe, we find that you should bet that you only slept for one year. This strange effect occurs because the volume of space is exponentially expanding and never stops. So the number of sleeper experiments beginning at any given time is always increasing. A lot more experiments started a year ago than 50 billion years ago, so most of the people waking up today were asleep for a short time.

    The scenario may sound extreme, even silly. But that’s just because the conditions we are dealing with in cosmology are extreme, involving spans of times and volumes of space that are outside human experience. You can understand the problem by thinking about a simpler scenario that is mathematically identical. Suppose that the population of Earth doubles every 30 years—forever. From time to time, people perform these sleeper experiments, except now the subjects sleep either for 1 year or for 100 years. Suppose that every day 1 percent of the population takes part.

    Now suppose you are just waking up in your cryogenic freezer and are asked to bet how long you were asleep. On the one hand, you might argue that obviously the odds are 50/50. On the other, on any given day, far more people wake up from short naps than from long naps. For example, in the year 2016, sleepers who went to sleep for a short time in 2015 will wake up, as will sleepers who began a long nap in 1916. But since far more people started the experiment in 2015 than in 1916 (always 1 percent of the population), the vast majority of people who wake up in 2016 slept for a short time. So it might be natural to guess that you are waking from a short nap.

    The fact that two logical lines of argument yield contradictory answers tells us that the problem is not well-defined. It just isn’t a sensible problem to calculate probabilities under the assumption that the human population grows exponentially forever, and indeed it is impossible for the population to grow forever. What is needed in this case is some additional information about how the exponential growth stops.

    Consider two options. In the first, one day no more babies are born, but every sleeper experiment that has begun eventually finishes. In the second, a huge meteor suddenly destroys the planet, terminating all sleeper experiments. You will find that in option one, half of all observers who ever wake up do so from short naps, while in option two, most observers who ever wake up do so from short naps. It’s dangerous to take a long nap in the second option, because you might be killed by a meteor while sleeping. Therefore, when you wake up, it’s reasonable to bet that you most likely took a short nap. Once the theory becomes well-defined by making the total number of people finite, probability questions have unique, sensible answers.

    In eternal expansion, more sleepers wake up from short naps. Bousso, Stefan Leichenauer at Berkeley, Vladimir Rosenhaus at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, and I pointed out that these strange results have a simple physical interpretation: The reason that more sleepers wake up from short naps is that living in an eternally expanding universe is dangerous, because one can run into the end of time. Once we realized this, it became clear that this end-of-time effect was an inherent characteristic of the recipe we were using to calculate probabilities, and it is there whether or not anyone actually decides to undertake these strange sleeper experiments. In fact, given the parameters that define our universe, we calculated that there is about a 50 percent probability of encountering the end of time in the next 5 billion years.

    To be clear about the conclusion: No one thinks that time suddenly ends in spacetimes like ours, let alone that we should be conducting peculiar hibernation experiments. Instead, the point is that our recipe for calculating probabilities accidentally injected a novel type of catastrophe into the theory. This problem indicates that we are missing major pieces in our understanding of physics over large distances and long times.

    To put it all together: Theoretical and observational evidence suggests that we are living in an enormous, eternally expanding multiverse where the constants of nature vary from place to place. In this context, we can only make statistical predictions.

    If the universe, like a box of gas, can exist in only a finite number of available states, theory predicts that we are Boltzmann brains, which conflicts with observations, not to mention common sense. If, on the contrary, the universe has an infinite number of available states, then our usual statistical techniques are not predictive, and we are stuck. The multiverse appears to offer a middle way. The universe has an infinite number of states available, avoiding the Boltzmann brain problem, yet approaches a steady-state behavior, allowing for a straightforward statistical analysis. But then we still find ourselves making absurd predictions. In order to make any of these three options work, I think we will need a revolutionary advance in our understanding of physics.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    Welcome to Nautilus. We are delighted you joined us. We are here to tell you about science and its endless connections to our lives. Each month we choose a single topic. And each Thursday we publish a new chapter on that topic online. Each issue combines the sciences, culture and philosophy into a single story told by the world’s leading thinkers and writers. We follow the story wherever it leads us. Read our essays, investigative reports, and blogs. Fiction, too. Take in our games, videos, and graphic stories. Stop in for a minute, or an hour. Nautilus lets science spill over its usual borders. We are science, connected.

  • richardmitnick 7:02 pm on December 2, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , String Theory   

    From Ethan Siegel: “What every layperson should know about string theory” 

    From Ethan Siegel


    The idea that instead of 0-dimensional particles, it’s 1-dimensional strings that fundamentally make up the Universe is at the core of string theory. Image credit: flickr user Trailfan, via https://www.flickr.com/photos/7725050@N06/631503428.

    If you’ve ever wondered just why it has piqued the interest of so many, have a look inside.

    “I just think too many nice things have happened in string theory for it to be all wrong. Humans do not understand it very well, but I just don’t believe there is a big cosmic conspiracy that created this incredible thing that has nothing to do with the real world.” -Edward Witten

    It’s one of the most brilliant, controversial and unproven ideas in all of physics: string theory. At the heart of string theory is the thread of an idea that’s run through physics for centuries, that at some fundamental level, all the different forces, particles, interactions and manifestations of reality are tied together as part of the same framework. Instead of four independent fundamental forces — strong, electromagnetic, weak and gravitational — there’s one unified theory that encompasses all of them. In many regards, string theory is the best contender for a quantum theory of gravitation, which just happens to unify at the highest-energy scales. Although there’s no experimental evidence for it, there are compelling theoretical reasons to think it might be true. A year ago, the top living string theorist, Ed Witten, wrote a piece on what every physicist should know about string theory. Here’s what that means, translated for non-physicists.

    The difference between standard quantum field theory interactions (L), for point-like particles, and string theory interactions (R), for closed strings. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Kurochka.

    When it comes to the laws of nature, it’s remarkable how many similarities there are between seemingly unrelated phenomena. The way that two massive bodies gravitate, according to Newton’s laws, is almost identical to the way that electrically charged particles attract-or-repel. The way a pendulum oscillates is completely analogous to the way a mass on a spring moves back-and-forth, or the way a planet orbits a star. Gravitational waves, water waves and light waves all share remarkably similar features, despite arising from fundamentally different physical origins. And in the same vein, although most don’t realize it, the quantum theory of a single particle and how you’d approach a quantum theory of gravity are similarly analogous.

    A Feynman diagram representing electron-electron scattering, which requires summing over all the possible histories of the particle-particle interactions. Image credit: Dmitri Fedorov.

    he way quantum field theory works is that you take a particle and you perform a mathematical “sum over histories.” You can’t just calculate where the particle was and where it is and how it got to be there, since there’s an inherent, fundamental quantum uncertainty to nature. Instead, you add up all the possible ways it could have arrived at its present state, appropriately weighted probabilistically, and that’s how you calculate the state of a single particle. Because Einstein’s General Relativity isn’t concerned with particles but rather the curvature of spacetime, you don’t average over all possible histories of a particle, but rather over all possible spacetime geometries.

    Gravity, governed by Einstein, and everything else (strong, weak and electromagnetic interactions), governed by quantum physics, are the two independent rules known to govern everything in our Universe. Image credit: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

    Working in three spatial dimensions is very difficult, but if you go down to one dimension, things become very simple. The only possible one-dimensional surfaces are an open string, where there are two separate, unattached ends, or a closed string, where the two ends are attached to form a loop. In addition, the spatial curvature — so complicated in three dimensions — becomes trivial. So what we’re left with, if we want to add in matter, is a set of scalar fields (just like certain types of particles) and the cosmological constant (which acts just like a mass term): a beautiful analogy.

    The extra degrees of freedom a particle gains from being in multiple dimensions don’t play much of a role; so long as you can define a momentum vector, that’s the main dimension that matters. In one dimension, therefore, quantum gravity looks just like a free quantum particle in any arbitrary number of dimensions. The next step is to incorporate interactions, and to go from a free particle with no scattering amplitudes or cross-sections to one that can play a physical role, coupled to the Universe.

    A graph with trivalent vertices is a key component of constructing the path integral relevant for 1-D quantum gravity. Image credit: Phys. Today 68, 11, 38 (2015).

    Graphs, like the one above, allow us to describe the physical concept of action in quantum gravity. If we write down all the possible combinations of such graphs and sum over them — applying the same laws like conservation of momentum that we always enforce — we can complete the analogy. Quantum gravity in one dimension is very much like a single particle interacting in any number of dimensions.

    The probability of finding a quantum particle at any particular location is never 100%; the probability is spread out over both space and time. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Maschen.

    The next step would be to move from one spatial dimension to 3+1 dimensions: where the Universe has three spatial dimensions and one time dimension. But doing it for gravity may be very challenging. Instead, there might be a better approach in working in the opposite direction. Instead of calculating how a single particle (a zero-dimensional entity) behaves in any number of dimensions, maybe we could calculate how a string, whether open or closed (a one-dimensional entity) behaves. And then, from that, we can look for analogies to a more complete theory of quantum gravity in a more realistic number of dimensions.

    Feynman diagrams (top) are based off of point particles and their interactions. Converting them into their string theory analogues (bottom) gives rise to surfaces which can have non-trivial curvature. Image credit: Phys. Today 68, 11, 38 (2015).

    Instead of points and interactions, we immediately start working with surfaces. And once you have a true, multi-dimensional surface, that surface can be curved in non-trivial ways. You start getting very interesting behavior out; behavior that just might be at the root of the spacetime curvature we experience in our Universe as General Relativity. While 1D quantum gravity gave us quantum field theory for particles in a possibly curved spacetime, it didn’t describe gravitation itself. The subtle piece of the puzzle that was missing? There was no correspondence between operators, or the functions that represent quantum mechanical forces and properties, and states, or how the particles and their properties evolve over time. But if we move from point-like particles to string-like entities, that correspondence shows up.

    Deforming the spacetime metric can be represented by the fluctuation (labelled ‘p’), and if you apply it to the string analogues, it describes a spacetime fluctuation and corresponds to a quantum state of the string. Image credit: Phys. Today 68, 11, 38 (2015).

    There’s a real operator-state correspondence, where a fluctuation in the spacetime metric (i.e., an operator) automatically represents a state in the quantum mechanical description of a string’s properties. So you can get a quantum theory of gravity in spacetime from string theory. But that’s not all you get: you also get quantum gravity unified with the other particles and forces in spacetime, the ones that correspond to the other operators in the field theory of the string. There’s also the operator that describes the spacetime geometry’s fluctuations, and the other quantum states of the string. The biggest news about string theory is that it can give you a working quantum theory of gravity.

    Brian Greene presenting on String Theory. Image credit: NASA/Goddard/Wade Sisler.

    That doesn’t mean it’s a foregone conclusion, however, that string theory is the path to quantum gravity. The great hope of string theory is that these analogies will hold up at all scales, and that there will be an unambiguous, one-to-one mapping of the string picture onto the Universe we observe around us. Right now, there are only a few sets of dimensions that the string/superstring picture is self-consistent in, and the most promising one doesn’t give us the four-dimensional gravity of Einstein, but rather a 10-dimensional Brans-Dicke theory of gravity. In order to recover the gravity of our Universe, you must “get rid of” six dimensions and take the Brans-Dicke coupling constant, ω, to infinity. How this happens remains an open challenge for string theory.

    A 2-D projection of a Calabi-Yau manifold, one popular method of compactifying the extra, unwanted dimensions of String Theory. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Lunch.

    But string theory offers a path to quantum gravity, and if we make the judicious choices of “the math works out this way,” we can get both General Relativity and the Standard Model out of it. It’s the only idea, to date, that gives us this, and that’s why it’s so hotly pursued. No matter whether you tout string theory’s successes or failure, or how you feel about its lack of verifiable predictions, it will no doubt remain one of the most active areas of theoretical physics research, and at the core of a great many physicists’ dreams of an ultimate theory.

    See the full article here .

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    “Starts With A Bang! is a blog/video blog about cosmology, physics, astronomy, and anything else I find interesting enough to write about. I am a firm believer that the highest good in life is learning, and the greatest evil is willful ignorance. The goal of everything on this site is to help inform you about our world, how we came to be here, and to understand how it all works. As I write these pages for you, I hope to not only explain to you what we know, think, and believe, but how we know it, and why we draw the conclusions we do. It is my hope that you find this interesting, informative, and accessible,” says Ethan

  • richardmitnick 7:18 am on September 16, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , String Theory   

    From Quanta: “The Strange Second Life of String Theory” 

    Quanta Magazine
    Quanta Magazine

    September 15, 2016
    K.C. Cole

    String theory has so far failed to live up to its promise as a way to unite gravity and quantum mechanics.
    At the same time, it has blossomed into one of the most useful sets of tools in science.

    Renee Rominger/Moonrise Whims for Quanta Magazine

    String theory strutted onto the scene some 30 years ago as perfection itself, a promise of elegant simplicity that would solve knotty problems in fundamental physics — including the notoriously intractable mismatch between Einstein’s smoothly warped space-time and the inherently jittery, quantized bits of stuff that made up everything in it.

    It seemed, to paraphrase Michael Faraday, much too wonderful not to be true: Simply replace infinitely small particles with tiny (but finite) vibrating loops of string. The vibrations would sing out quarks, electrons, gluons and photons, as well as their extended families, producing in harmony every ingredient needed to cook up the knowable world. Avoiding the infinitely small meant avoiding a variety of catastrophes. For one, quantum uncertainty couldn’t rip space-time to shreds. At last, it seemed, here was a workable theory of quantum gravity.

    Even more beautiful than the story told in words was the elegance of the math behind it, which had the power to make some physicists ecstatic.

    To be sure, the theory came with unsettling implications. The strings were too small to be probed by experiment and lived in as many as 11 dimensions of space. These dimensions were folded in on themselves — or “compactified” — into complex origami shapes. No one knew just how the dimensions were compactified — the possibilities for doing so appeared to be endless — but surely some configuration would turn out to be just what was needed to produce familiar forces and particles.

    For a time, many physicists believed that string theory would yield a unique way to combine quantum mechanics and gravity. “There was a hope. A moment,” said David Gross, an original player in the so-called Princeton String Quartet, a Nobel Prize winner and permanent member of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “We even thought for a while in the mid-’80s that it was a unique theory.”

    And then physicists began to realize that the dream of one singular theory was an illusion. The complexities of string theory, all the possible permutations, refused to reduce to a single one that described our world. “After a certain point in the early ’90s, people gave up on trying to connect to the real world,” Gross said. “The last 20 years have really been a great extension of theoretical tools, but very little progress on understanding what’s actually out there.”

    Many, in retrospect, realized they had raised the bar too high. Coming off the momentum of completing the solid and powerful “standard model” of particle physics in the 1970s, they hoped the story would repeat — only this time on a mammoth, all-embracing scale. “We’ve been trying to aim for the successes of the past where we had a very simple equation that captured everything,” said Robbert Dijkgraaf, the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. “But now we have this big mess.”

    Like many a maturing beauty, string theory has gotten rich in relationships, complicated, hard to handle and widely influential. Its tentacles have reached so deeply into so many areas in theoretical physics, it’s become almost unrecognizable, even to string theorists. “Things have gotten almost postmodern,” said Dijkgraaf, who is a painter as well as mathematical physicist.

    The mathematics that have come out of string theory have been put to use in fields such as cosmology and condensed matter physics — the study of materials and their properties. It’s so ubiquitous that “even if you shut down all the string theory groups, people in condensed matter, people in cosmology, people in quantum gravity will do it,” Dijkgraaf said.

    “It’s hard to say really where you should draw the boundary around and say: This is string theory; this is not string theory,” said Douglas Stanford, a physicist at the IAS. “Nobody knows whether to say they’re a string theorist anymore,” said Chris Beem, a mathematical physicist at the University of Oxford. “It’s become very confusing.”

    String theory today looks almost fractal. The more closely people explore any one corner, the more structure they find. Some dig deep into particular crevices; others zoom out to try to make sense of grander patterns. The upshot is that string theory today includes much that no longer seems stringy. Those tiny loops of string whose harmonics were thought to breathe form into every particle and force known to nature (including elusive gravity) hardly even appear anymore on chalkboards at conferences. At last year’s big annual string theory meeting, the Stanford University string theorist Eva Silverstein was amused to find she was one of the few giving a talk “on string theory proper,” she said. A lot of the time she works on questions related to cosmology.

    Even as string theory’s mathematical tools get adopted across the physical sciences, physicists have been struggling with how to deal with the central tension of string theory: Can it ever live up to its initial promise? Could it ever give researchers insight into how gravity and quantum mechanics might be reconciled — not in a toy universe, but in our own?

    “The problem is that string theory exists in the landscape of theoretical physics,” said Juan Maldacena, a mathematical physicist at the IAS and perhaps the most prominent figure in the field today. “But we still don’t know yet how it connects to nature as a theory of gravity.” Maldacena now acknowledges the breadth of string theory, and its importance to many fields of physics — even those that don’t require “strings” to be the fundamental stuff of the universe — when he defines string theory as “Solid Theoretical Research in Natural Geometric Structures.”

    An Explosion of Quantum Fields

    One high point for string theory as a theory of everything came in the late 1990s, when Maldacena revealed that a string theory including gravity in five dimensions was equivalent to a quantum field theory in four dimensions. This “AdS/CFT” duality appeared to provide a map for getting a handle on gravity — the most intransigent piece of the puzzle — by relating it to good old well-understood quantum field theory.

    This correspondence was never thought to be a perfect real-world model. The five-dimensional space in which it works has an “anti-de Sitter” geometry, a strange M.C. Escher-ish landscape that is not remotely like our universe.

    But researchers were surprised when they dug deep into the other side of the duality. Most people took for granted that quantum field theories — “bread and butter physics,” Dijkgraaf calls them — were well understood and had been for half a century. As it turned out, Dijkgraaf said, “we only understand them in a very limited way.”

    These quantum field theories were developed in the 1950s to unify special relativity and quantum mechanics. They worked well enough for long enough that it didn’t much matter that they broke down at very small scales and high energies. But today, when physicists revisit “the part you thought you understood 60 years ago,” said Nima Arkani-Hamed, a physicist at the IAS, you find “stunning structures” that came as a complete surprise. “Every aspect of the idea that we understood quantum field theory turns out to be wrong. It’s a vastly bigger beast.”

    Researchers have developed a huge number of quantum field theories in the past decade or so, each used to study different physical systems. Beem suspects there are quantum field theories that can’t be described even in terms of quantum fields. “We have opinions that sound as crazy as that, in large part, because of string theory.”

    This virtual explosion of new kinds of quantum field theories is eerily reminiscent of physics in the 1930s, when the unexpected appearance of a new kind of particle — the muon — led a frustrated I.I. Rabi to ask: “Who ordered that?” The flood of new particles was so overwhelming by the 1950s that it led Enrico Fermi to grumble: “If I could remember the names of all these particles, I would have been a botanist.”

    Physicists began to see their way through the thicket of new particles only when they found the more fundamental building blocks making them up, like quarks and gluons. Now many physicists are attempting to do the same with quantum field theory. In their attempts to make sense of the zoo, many learn all they can about certain exotic species.

    Conformal field theories (the right hand of AdS/CFT) are a starting point. In the simplest type of conformal field theory, you start with a version of quantum field theory where “the interactions between the particles are turned off,” said David Simmons-Duffin, a physicist at the IAS. If these specific kinds of field theories could be understood perfectly, answers to deep questions might become clear. “The idea is that if you understand the elephant’s feet really, really well, you can interpolate in between and figure out what the whole thing looks like.”

    Like many of his colleagues, Simmons-Duffin says he’s a string theorist mostly in the sense that it’s become an umbrella term for anyone doing fundamental physics in underdeveloped corners. He’s currently focusing on a physical system that’s described by a conformal field theory but has nothing to do with strings. In fact, the system is water at its “critical point,” where the distinction between gas and liquid disappears. It’s interesting because water’s behavior at the critical point is a complicated emergent system that arises from something simpler. As such, it could hint at dynamics behind the emergence of quantum field theories.

    Beem focuses on supersymmetric field theories, another toy model, as physicists call these deliberate simplifications. “We’re putting in some unrealistic features to make them easier to handle,” he said. Specifically, they are amenable to tractable mathematics, which “makes it so a lot of things are calculable.”

    Toy models are standard tools in most kinds of research. But there’s always the fear that what one learns from a simplified scenario does not apply to the real world. “It’s a bit of a deal with the devil,” Beem said. “String theory is a much less rigorously constructed set of ideas than quantum field theory, so you have to be willing to relax your standards a bit,” he said. “But you’re rewarded for that. It gives you a nice, bigger context in which to work.”

    It’s the kind of work that makes people such as Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, wonder if the field has strayed too far from its early ambitions — to find, if not a “theory of everything,” at least a theory of quantum gravity. “Answering deep questions about quantum gravity has not really happened,” he said. “They have all these hammers and they go looking for nails.” That’s fine, he said, even acknowledging that generations might be needed to develop a new theory of quantum gravity. “But it isn’t fine if you forget that, ultimately, your goal is describing the real world.”

    It’s a question he has asked his friends. Why are they investigating detailed quantum field theories? “What’s the aspiration?” he asks. Their answers are logical, he says, but steps removed from developing a true description of our universe.

    nstead, he’s looking for a way to “find gravity inside quantum mechanics.” A paper he recently wrote with colleagues claims to take steps toward just that. It does not involve string theory.

    The Broad Power of Strings

    Perhaps the field that has gained the most from the flowering of string theory is mathematics itself. Sitting on a bench beside the IAS pond while watching a blue heron saunter in the reeds, Clay Córdova, a researcher there, explained how what seemed like intractable problems in mathematics were solved by imagining how the question might look to a string. For example, how many spheres could fit inside a Calabi-Yau manifold — the complex folded shape expected to describe how spacetime is compactified? Mathematicians had been stuck. But a two-dimensional string can wiggle around in such a complex space. As it wiggled, it could grasp new insights, like a mathematical multidimensional lasso. This was the kind of physical thinking Einstein was famous for: thought experiments about riding along with a light beam revealed E=mc2. Imagining falling off a building led to his biggest eureka moment of all: Gravity is not a force; it’s a property of space-time.

    The amplituhedron is a multi-dimensional object that can be used to calculate particle interactions. Physicists such as Chris Beem are applying techniques from string theory in special geometries where “the amplituhedron is its best self,” he says. Nima Arkani-Hamed

    Using the physical intuition offered by strings, physicists produced a powerful formula for getting the answer to the embedded sphere question, and much more. “They got at these formulas using tools that mathematicians don’t allow,” Córdova said. Then, after string theorists found an answer, the mathematicians proved it on their own terms. “This is a kind of experiment,” he explained. “It’s an internal mathematical experiment.” Not only was the stringy solution not wrong, it led to Fields Medal-winning mathematics. “This keeps happening,” he said.

    String theory has also made essential contributions to cosmology. The role that string theory has played in thinking about mechanisms behind the inflationary expansion of the universe — the moments immediately after the Big Bang, where quantum effects met gravity head on — is “surprisingly strong,” said Silverstein, even though no strings are attached.

    Still, Silverstein and colleagues have used string theory to discover, among other things, ways to see potentially observable signatures of various inflationary ideas. The same insights could have been found using quantum field theory, she said, but they weren’t. “It’s much more natural in string theory, with its extra structure.”

    Inflationary models get tangled in string theory in multiple ways, not least of which is the multiverse — the idea that ours is one of a perhaps infinite number of universes, each created by the same mechanism that begat our own. Between string theory and cosmology, the idea of an infinite landscape of possible universes became not just acceptable, but even taken for granted by a large number of physicists. The selection effect, Silverstein said, would be one quite natural explanation for why our world is the way it is: In a very different universe, we wouldn’t be here to tell the story.

    This effect could be one answer to a big problem string theory was supposed to solve. As Gross put it: “What picks out this particular theory” — the Standard Model — from the “plethora of infinite possibilities?”

    Silverstein thinks the selection effect is actually a good argument for string theory. The infinite landscape of possible universes can be directly linked to “the rich structure that we find in string theory,” she said — the innumerable ways that string theory’s multidimensional space-time can be folded in upon itself.

    Building the New Atlas

    At the very least, the mature version of string theory — with its mathematical tools that let researchers view problems in new ways — has provided powerful new methods for seeing how seemingly incompatible descriptions of nature can both be true. The discovery of dual descriptions of the same phenomenon pretty much sums up the history of physics. A century and a half ago, James Clerk Maxwell saw that electricity and magnetism were two sides of a coin. Quantum theory revealed the connection between particles and waves. Now physicists have strings.

    “Once the elementary things we’re probing spaces with are strings instead of particles,” said Beem, the strings “see things differently.” If it’s too hard to get from A to B using quantum field theory, reimagine the problem in string theory, and “there’s a path,” Beem said.

    In cosmology, string theory “packages physical models in a way that’s easier to think about,” Silverstein said. It may take centuries to tie together all these loose strings to weave a coherent picture, but young researchers like Beem aren’t bothered a bit. His generation never thought string theory was going to solve everything. “We’re not stuck,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like we’re on the verge of getting it all sorted, but I know more each day than I did the day before – and so presumably we’re getting somewhere.”

    Stanford thinks of it as a big crossword puzzle. “It’s not finished, but as you start solving, you can tell that it’s a valid puzzle,” he said. “It’s passing consistency checks all the time.”

    “Maybe it’s not even possible to capture the universe in one easily defined, self-contained form, like a globe,” Dijkgraaf said, sitting in Robert Oppenheimer’s many windowed office from when he was Einstein’s boss, looking over the vast lawn at the IAS, the pond and the woods in the distance. Einstein, too, tried and failed to find a theory of everything, and it takes nothing away from his genius.

    “Perhaps the true picture is more like the maps in an atlas, each offering very different kinds of information, each spotty,” Dijkgraaf said. “Using the atlas will require that physics be fluent in many languages, many approaches, all at the same time. Their work will come from many different directions, perhaps far-flung.”

    He finds it “totally disorienting” and also “fantastic.”

    Arkani-Hamed believes we are in the most exciting epoch of physics since quantum mechanics appeared in the 1920s. But nothing will happen quickly. “If you’re excited about responsibly attacking the very biggest existential physics questions ever, then you should be excited,” he said. “But if you want a ticket to Stockholm for sure in the next 15 years, then probably not.”

    See the full article here .

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    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.

  • richardmitnick 1:37 pm on August 4, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Miranda Cheng, Monstrous moonshine, , String Theory   

    From Quanta: “Moonshine Master Toys With String Theory” 

    Quanta Magazine
    Quanta Magazine

    August 4, 2016
    Natalie Wolchover

    The physicist-mathematician Miranda Cheng is working to harness a mysterious connection between string theory, algebra and number theory.

    Ilvy Njiokiktjien for Quanta Magazine

    After the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in Iceland in 2010, flight cancellations left Miranda Cheng stranded in Paris. While waiting for the ash to clear, Cheng, then a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University studying string theory, got to thinking about a paper that had recently been posted online. Its three coauthors had pointed out a numerical coincidence connecting far-flung mathematical objects. “That smells like another moonshine,” Cheng recalled thinking. “Could it be another moonshine?”

    She happened to have read a book about the “monstrous moonshine,” a mathematical structure that unfolded out of a similar bit of numerology: In the late 1970s, the mathematician John McKay noticed that 196,884, the first important coefficient of an object called the j-function, was the sum of one and 196,883, the first two dimensions in which a giant collection of symmetries called the monster group could be represented. By 1992, researchers had traced this farfetched (hence “moonshine”) correspondence to its unlikely source: string theory, a candidate for the fundamental theory of physics that casts elementary particles as tiny oscillating strings. The j-function describes the strings’ oscillations in a particular string theory model, and the monster group captures the symmetries of the space-time fabric that these strings inhabit.

    By the time of Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption, “this was ancient stuff,” Cheng said — a mathematical volcano that, as far as physicists were concerned, had gone dormant. The string theory model underlying monstrous moonshine was nothing like the particles or space-time geometry of the real world. But Cheng sensed that the new moonshine, if it was one, might be different. It involved K3 surfaces — the geometric objects that she and many other string theorists study as possible toy models of real space-time.

    By the time she flew home from Paris, Cheng had uncovered more evidence that the new moonshine existed. She and collaborators John Duncan and Jeff Harvey gradually teased out evidence of not one but 23 new moonshines: mathematical structures that connect symmetry groups on the one hand and fundamental objects in number theory called mock modular forms (a class that includes the j-function) on the other. The existence of these 23 moonshines, posited in their Umbral Moonshine Conjecture in 2012, was proved by Duncan and coworkers late last year.

    Meanwhile, Cheng, 37, is on the trail of the K3 string theory underlying the 23 moonshines — a particular version of the theory in which space-time has the geometry of a K3 surface. She and other string theorists hope to be able to use the mathematical ideas of umbral moonshine to study the properties of the K3 model in detail. This in turn could be a powerful means for understanding the physics of the real world where it can’t be probed directly — such as inside black holes. An assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam on leave from France’s National Center for Scientific Research, Cheng spoke with Quanta Magazine about the mysteries of moonshines, her hopes for string theory, and her improbable path from punk-rock high school dropout to a researcher who explores some of the most abstruse ideas in math and physics. An edited and condensed version of the conversation follows.

    Ilvy Njiokiktjien for Quanta Magazine

    QUANTA MAGAZINE: You do string theory on so-called K3 surfaces. What are they, and why are they important?

    MIRANDA CHENG: String theory says there are 10 space-time dimensions. Since we only perceive four, the other six must be curled up or “compactified” too small to see, like the circumference of a very thin wire. There’s a plethora of possibilities — something like 10^500 — for how the extra dimensions might be compactified, and it’s almost impossible to say which compactification is more likely to describe reality than the rest. We can’t possibly study the physical properties of all of them. So you look for a toy model. And if you like having exact results instead of approximated results, which I like, then you often end up with a K3 compactification, which is a middle ground for compactifications between too simple and too complicated. It also captures the key properties of Calabi-Yau manifolds [the most highly studied class of compactifications] and how string theory behaves when it’s compactified on them. K3 also has the feature that you can often do direct and exact computations with it.

    What does K3 actually look like?

    You can think of a flat torus, then you fold it so that there’s a line or corner of sharp edges. Mathematicians have a way to smooth it, and the result of smoothing a folded flat torus is a K3 surface.

    So you can figure out what the physics is in this setup, with strings moving through this space-time geometry?

    Yes. In the context of my Ph.D., I explored how black holes behave in this theory. Once you have the curled-up dimensions being K3-related Calabi-Yaus, black holes can form. How do these black holes behave — especially their quantum properties?

    So you could try to solve the information paradox—the long-standing puzzle of what happens to quantum information when it falls inside a black hole.

    Absolutely. You can ask about the information paradox or properties of various types of black holes, like realistic astrophysical black holes or supersymmetric black holes that come out of string theory. Studying the second type can shed light on your realistic problems because they share the same paradox. That’s why trying to understand string theory in K3 and the black holes that arise in that compactification should also shed light on other problems. At least, that’s the hope, and I think it’s a reasonable hope.

    Do you think string theory definitely describes reality? Or is it something you study purely for its own sake?

    I personally always have the real world at the back of my mind — but really, really, really back. I use it as sort of an inspiration for determining roughly the big directions I’m going in. But my day-to-day research is not aimed at solving the real world. I see it as differences in taste and style and personal capabilities. New ideas are needed in fundamental high-energy physics, and it’s hard to say where those new ideas will come from. Understanding the basic, fundamental structures of string theory is needed and helpful. You’ve got to start somewhere where you can compute things, and that leads, often, to very mathematical corners. The payoff to understanding the real world might be really long term, but that’s necessary at this stage.

    Have you always had a knack for physics and math?

    As a child in Taiwan I was more into literature — that was my big thing. And then I got into music when I was 12 or so — pop music, rock, punk. I was always very good at math and physics, but I wasn’t really interested in it. And I always found school insufferable and was always trying to find a way around it. I tried to make a deal with the teacher that I wouldn’t need to go into the class. Or I had months of sick leave while I wasn’t sick at all. Or I skipped a year here and there. I just don’t know how to deal with authority, I guess.

    And the material was probably too easy. I skipped two years, but that didn’t help. So then they moved me to a special class and that made it even worse, because everybody was very competitive, and I just couldn’t deal with the competition at all. Eventually I was super depressed, and I decided either I would kill myself or not go to school. So I stopped going to school when I was 16, and I also left home because I was convinced that my parents would ask me to go back to school and I really didn’t want to do that. So I started working in a record shop, and by that time I also played in a band, and I loved it.

    How did you get from there to string theory?

    Long story short, I got a little bit discouraged or bored. I wanted to do something else aside from music. So I tried to go back to university, but then I had the problem that I hadn’t graduated from high school. But before I quit school I was in a special class for kids who are really good in science. I could get in the university with this. So I thought, OK, great, I’ll just get into university first by majoring in physics or math, and then I can switch to literature. So I enrolled in the physics department, having a very on- and off-again relationship to it, going to class every now and then, and then trying to study literature, while still playing in the band. Then I realized I’m not good enough in literature. And also there was a very good teacher teaching quantum mechanics. Just once I went to his class and thought, that’s actually pretty cool. I started paying a bit more attention to my studies of math and physics, and I started to find peace in it. That’s what started to attract me about math and physics, because my other life in the band playing music was more chaotic somehow. It sucks a lot of emotions out of you. You’re always working with people, and the music is too much about life, about emotions — you have to give a lot of yourself to it. Math and physics seems to have this peaceful quiet beauty. This space of serenity.

    Then at the end of university I thought, well, let me just have one more year to study physics, then I’m really done with it and can move on with my life. So I decided to go to Holland to see the world and study some physics, and I got really into it there.

    You got your master’s at Utrecht under Nobel Prize-winning physicist Gerard ’t Hooft, and then you did your Ph.D. in Amsterdam. What drew you in?

    Working with [’t Hooft] was a big factor. But just learning more is also a big factor — to realize that there are so many interesting questions. That’s the big-picture part. But for me the day-to-day part is also important. The learning process, the thinking process, really the beauty of it. Every day you encounter some equations or some way of thinking, or this fact leads to that fact — I thought, well, this is pretty. Gerard is not a string theorist — he’s very open-minded about what the correct area of quantum gravity should be — so I got exposed to a few different options. I got attracted by string theory because it’s mathematically rigorous, and pretty.

    With the work you’re doing now, aside from the beauty, are you also drawn to the mystery of these connections between seemingly different parts of math and physics?

    The mystery part connects to the bad side of my character, which is the obsessive side. That’s one of the driving forces that I would call slightly negative from the human point of view, though not the scientist point of view. But there’s also the positive driving force, which is that I really enjoy learning different stuff and feeling how ignorant I am. I enjoy that frustration, like, “I know nothing about this subject; I really want to learn!” So that’s one motivation — to be at this boundary place between math and physics. Moonshine is a puzzle that might require inspirations from everywhere and knowledge from everywhere. And the beauty, certainly — it’s a beautiful story. It’s kind of hard to say why it is beautiful. It’s beautiful not the same way as a song is beautiful or a picture is beautiful.

    What’s the difference?

    Typically a song is beautiful because it triggers certain emotions. It resonates with part of your life. Mathematical beauty is not that. It’s something much more structured. It gives you a feeling of something much more permanent, and independent of you. It makes me feel small, and I like that.

    What is a moonshine, exactly?

    A moonshine relates representations of a finite symmetry group to a function with special symmetries [ways that you can transform the function without affecting its output]. Underlying this relationship, at least in the case of monstrous moonshine, is a string theory. String theory has two geometries. One is the “worldsheet” geometry. If you have a string — essentially a circle — moving in time, then you get a cylinder. That’s what we call the worldsheet geometry; it’s the geometry of the string itself. If you roll the cylinder and connect the two ends, you get a torus. The torus gives you the symmetry of the j-function. The other geometry in string theory is space-time itself, and its symmetry gives you the monster group.

    We don’t know yet, but these are educated guesses: To have a moonshine tells you that this theory has to have an algebraic structure [you have to be able to do algebra with its elements]. If you look at a theory and you ask what kind of particles you have at a certain energy level, this question is infinite, because you can go to higher and higher energies, and then this question goes on and on. In monstrous moonshine, this is manifested in the fact that if you look at the j-function, there are infinitely many terms that basically capture the energy of the particles. But we know there’s an algebraic structure underlying it — there’s a mechanism for how the lower energy states can be related to higher energy states. So this infinite question has a structure; it’s not just random.

    As you can imagine, having an algebraic structure helps you understand what the structure is that captures a theory — how, if you look at the lower energy states, they will tell you something about the higher energy states. And then it also gives you more tools to do computations. If you want to understand something at a high-energy level [such as inside black holes], then I have more information about it. I can compute what I want to compute for high-energy states using this low-energy data I already have in hand. That’s the hope.

    Umbral moonshine tells you that there should be a structure like this that we don’t understand yet. Understanding it more generally will force us to understand this algebraic structure. And that will lead to a much deeper understanding of the theory. That’s the hope.

    See the full article here .

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    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.

  • richardmitnick 5:14 pm on June 20, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Joseph Conlon, , , String Theory   

    From Physics Today: “Questions and answers with Joseph Conlon” String Theory 

    Physics Today bloc

    Physics Today

    17 June 2016
    Jermey N. A. Matthews

    Joseph Conlon. NO image credit.

    The apple didn’t fall far from the tree,” says University of Oxford theoretical physicist Joseph Conlon. The author of Why String Theory?, reviewed in this month’s issue of Physics Today, says that from an early age he was good at math—a critical skill for a string theorist—thanks to the influence of his father and uncle, both PhD mathematicians, and his mother, a physics teacher.


    By age 18 Conlon had earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the local University of Reading in the UK; he did it part-time, while still in secondary school. Conlon followed that up by obtaining his bachelor’s and PhD degrees in physics at the University of Cambridge. At Oxford, he now focuses on phenomenological applications of string theory to particle physics and cosmology. “One thing I certainly benefited from is that if you [pursue] a physics undergraduate degree, having already done a math undergraduate degree, then you don’t need to concentrate on the math; you can just concentrate on understanding the physics concepts,” says Conlon.

    For those who would question string theory’s validity because it can’t be experimentally tested, Conlon “presents a set of compelling arguments for the value of string theory while acknowledging its weaknesses and open challenges,” writes Gary Shiu in his Physics Today review. “Like courtroom juries, readers are encouraged to draw their own logical conclusions.” Conlon is also a cocreator of the public outreach website http://whystringtheory.com, which aims to be “a layman’s journey to the frontiers of physics.”

    Physics Today books editor Jermey Matthews and senior editor Steven Blau, a theoretical physicist by training, recently caught up with Conlon to discuss the book.

    PT: Why did you write the book?

    CONLON: It’s to answer the question I think lots of people are asking: Why are so many people working on string theory if this is something you can’t directly say is the true theory of the universe at the smallest possible scales?

    PT: So how would you answer the question “Why string theory?” for a nonexpert?

    CONLON: String theory has brought ideas and insights and results to so many different areas beyond its supposedly core area of quantum gravity. The analogy I use in the book is it’s like in a gold rush, you get rich by selling spades, rather than by finding nuggets. String theory has … been able to provide spades to lots of people across mathematics and theoretical physics in so many different topics. And this is why so many people are interested in it.

    PT: What inspired you to study string theory?

    CONLON: I guess it was a fairly natural thing for me to do, given my interests and inclinations at the time. When I was in Cambridge, I was training in particle theory, and I was trying to learn as much particle theory as I could. You take courses on quantum field theory, you take courses on the standard model, you take a course in string theory.

    The reason I wanted to carry on with the PhD in string theory was the feeling that lots of the standard model was carved out and understood in the 1970s and 1980s. String theory seemed more like something where I could get in and feel it wasn’t already done by the generation that came before.

    The Standard Model of elementary particles (more schematic depiction), with the three generations of matter, gauge bosons in the fourth column, and the Higgs boson in the fifth.
    The Standard Model of elementary particles (more schematic depiction), with the three generations of matter, gauge bosons in the fourth column, and the Higgs boson in the fifth

    PT: Were you ever tempted by any of the other alternative approaches to quantum gravity like loop quantum gravity or dynamic causal histories?

    CONLON: Not really. I was never really exposed to them. As an undergraduate, it wasn’t something I learned or particularly had the option of learning then. And I haven’t been particularly tempted since then. From quite early on in my work on string theory I’ve been more interested in connecting it to experiments and observation. It’s great that people work on the formal problems of quantum gravity, but it’s not really my style of physics.

    PT: As you were writing the book, was there something that you were hoping to be able to convey but said, “this is just too tough a nut to crack”? Did you have to leave anything on the table?

    CONLON: Yes. There was a series of results around 1995 that were very important, involving D-branes. I ended up covering this less than I thought I would. And it partly was because I felt it was hard to try and convey to a general reader what was important about them without just dropping into buzz words.

    PT: And, conversely, is there anything that you were particularly proud you were able to get across in simple language?

    CONLON: I guess you have to ask the readers that. There are things I learned about—for example, the monstrous moonshine [a mathematical theory involving symmetries and related to conformal field theories] is a topic which I learned more about in the process of writing the book. I enjoyed writing about that because I learned about it at a slightly more technical level. It was a discovery process for me, too.

    PT: According to the Physics Today review, your book also touches on “the sociology of string theory.” Was that your intention?

    CONLON: Yes. Science is always more interesting when it’s done by humans, rather than [being] just abstract results. There’s also [a danger] you can get in if you look at someone very big [successful] and you say, “Gosh, they’ve gotten all these fantastic results. I can never possibly be like them. I’ll never be smart enough.”

    But people are good at different things. Even though you might not be able to get the results that person did, you’ve got skills that they don’t have. I tried to convey that there are many, many different ways of being a good theoretical physicist. And part of that was by talking about the sociology, the different types of people who do the subject and do it successfully.

    PT: Was explaining string theory to the general public a particular itch you wanted to scratch, or are you interested in writing other popular books?

    CONLON: A bit of both. I thought string theory was being misrepresented, particularly in the general press, that there was this [notion] that string theory primarily was a theory of quantum gravity. And so string theory would then … compete with other theories of quantum gravity. And this is something I wanted to argue against because most people who work on string theory don’t focus on quantum gravity. That was the itch I wanted to scratch.

    The book was also a chance to kind of let go the other side of my brain [used to write research papers] … and just write freely.

    PT: What is your next project?

    CONLON: In the process of finishing the book, basically I stopped doing research for six to nine months. So for the next two or three years I just want to do research because I enjoy doing research. And then I think I would like to write another book. I don’t know yet what it would be on.

    PT: What books are you currently reading?

    CONLON: I’ve got two on the go. The longer one, which I’m about halfway through, is [Winston] Churchill’s series The Second World War (Houghton Mifflin, ca. 1948–ca. 1953). And then the sort of more easy reading is one by Apollo astronaut (and physicist) Walter Cunningham, The All-American Boys: An Insider’s Look at the U.S. Space Program (revised edition, iPicturebooks, 2010).

    See the full article here .

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    The mission of Physics Today is to be a unifying influence for the diverse areas of physics and the physics-related sciences.

    It does that in three ways:

    • by providing authoritative, engaging coverage of physical science research and its applications without regard to disciplinary boundaries;
    • by providing authoritative, engaging coverage of the often complex interactions of the physical sciences with each other and with other spheres of human endeavor; and
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  • richardmitnick 7:54 am on June 5, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , String Theory   

    From Science Alert: “Gravitational waves could reveal a stringy universe, say physicists” 


    Science Alert

    3 JUN 2016


    Time to brush up on your string theory?

    Back in February, physicists gave us one of the most exciting scientific discoveries of the century – the first direct evidence of gravitational waves.

    Gravitational wave Henze NASA
    Gravitational wave Henze NASA

    These waves are like ripples that expand after a major event in space, such as two black holes merging or the explosion of a massive star.

    The discovery gave us a whole new way of looking at the Universe, and that’s something two physicists in Spain are taking advantage of, by testing out another scientific hypothesis: string theory. And if their ideas are correct, it could fundamentally change our thinking about the nature of the Universe.

    First off, it’s important to understand how gravitational waves work. In the very early Universe, everything was much denser than it is now, which resulted in a great deal of light scattering. Those photon signals can be a big problem when it comes to peering deep into the Universe to look back in time, because there’s so much background noise to take into account.

    What makes gravitational waves special is that their movements don’t appear to be affected by interfering electrons and protons. In fact, gravitational waves might allow us to observe objects and events that don’t emit any light at all, including the cosmic ‘strings’ that underlie the famous string theory hypothesis.

    String theory aims to provide a unified approach to explaining the fundamental structure of the Universe. It suggests that cosmic strings – incredibly long and thin defects in the curvature of space and time – formed right after the Big Bang. Unfortunately, these cosmic strings are thought to have been obliterated many aeons ago, so find a large number of them, we’d have to go back to the earliest moments of the Universe.

    And that brings us back to gravitational waves. Physicists Isabel Fernandez-Nunez and Oleg Bulashenko of the University of Barcelona think that one could lead us to the other – gravitational waves could help us find cosmic strings.

    Fernandez-Nunez and Bulashenko started off by picturing a string as a sharp crease in space-time, and then calculated how a gravitational wave would pass through that crease. If we can find wave ripples that match these calculations, then we might have evidence of a cosmic string, they suggest.

    There are hurdles to overcome before we can test out their hypothesis, because right now, we don’t have the kind of technology to measure gravitational waves in the way that the pair’s hypothesis requires.

    [Here is what we have:
    LIGO map
    LIGO map

    Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo detector in Livingston, LA, USA
    Caltech/MIT   Advanced Ligo Hanford, WA, USA installation
    Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo detector in Livingston, LA, USA and Caltech/MIT Advanced Ligo Hanford, WA, USA, which work in tandem.

    ESA/LISA Pathfinder
    ESA/LISA Pathfinder spacecraft, prelude to ESA/LISA

    Future ESA/eLISA

    NASA/Fermi Telescope
    NASA/Fermi Telescope

    Event Horizon Telescope Array

    Event Horizon Telescope map
    Event Horizon Telescope map

    Arizona Radio Observatory
    Arizona Radio Observatory/Submillimeter-wave Astronomy (ARO/SMT)

    Atacama Pathfinder EXperiment (APEX)

    CARMA Array no longer in service
    Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy (CARMA)

    Atacama Submillimeter Telescope Experiment (ASTE)
    Atacama Submillimeter Telescope Experiment (ASTE)

    Caltech Submillimeter Observatory
    Caltech Submillimeter Observatory (CSO)

    IRAM NOEMA interferometer
    Institut de Radioastronomie Millimetrique (IRAM) 30m

    James Clerk Maxwell Telescope interior, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA
    James Clerk Maxwell Telescope interior, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA

    Large Millimeter Telescope Alfonso Serrano
    Large Millimeter Telescope Alfonso Serrano

    CfA Submillimeter Array Hawaii SAO
    Submillimeter Array Hawaii SAO

    Future Array/Telescopes

    ESO/NRAO/NAOJ ALMA Array, Chile

    Plateau de Bure interferometer
    Plateau de Bure interferometer

    South Pole Telescope SPTPOL
    South Pole Telescope SPTPOL]

    But these are still early days for gravitational wave astronomy, so scientists are still sharing ideas about how we might be able to make the most of this discovery.

    The researchers’ paper is available on pre-print website, arXiv.org, but has yet to be peer-reviewed by other astrophysicists, so we’ll have to wait and see what the community makes of their hypothesis before we can get too excited. That said, this isn’t the first time that scientists have speculated that gravitational waves could lead us to cosmic strings.

    B.S. Sathyaprakash from Cardiff University in the UK, who works at the observatory where gravitational waves were first measured, thinks a lot of new such discoveries could be just around the corner. “I am pretty confident that within the next three or four years we will be making detections one by one and ticking the boxes,” he told Tim Radford at The Guardian.

    Plus we’d also have to be very lucky to find a pattern of just the right intensity from our position on Earth.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 5:09 pm on February 5, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , String Theory,   

    From SA: “Taming Superconductors with String Theory” 

    Scientific American

    Scientific American

    February 4, 2016
    Kevin Hartnett, Quanta Magazine

    The physicist Subir Sachdev borrows tools from string theory to understand the puzzling behavior of superconductors.

    String theory was devised as a way to unite the laws of quantum mechanics with those of gravity [General Relativity], with the goal of creating the vaunted theory of everything.

    Subir Sachdev is taking the “everything” literally. He’s applying the mathematics of string theory to a major problem at the other end of physics — the behavior of a potentially revolutionary class of materials known as high-temperature superconductors.


    These materials are among the most promising and the most perplexing. Unlike regular superconductors, which need to be cooled almost to absolute zero (–273.15 degrees Celsius) to pass a frictionless current of electricity, high-temperature superconductors yield the same remarkable performance under more accommodating conditions. Since the first high-temperature superconductor was discovered in 1986, physicists have found other materials that exhibit superconductivity at successively higher temperatures, with the current record standing at –70 degrees Celsius.

    This progress has occurred despite the fact that physicists don’t understand how these superconductors work. Broadly speaking, many condensed-matter physicists study how electrons — the carriers of electrical current — move through a given material. In an ordinary conductor like copper or gold, the electrons flow through a lattice formed by the copper or gold atoms. In an insulator like diamond, electrons tend to stay put. In superconductors, electrons move through the underlying atomic lattice with no energy loss at all. For three decades, physicists have been unable to develop a comprehensive theory that explains how electrons in high-temperature superconductors behave.

    A particularly interesting question is how the behavior of the material changes with temperature — in particular, how conductors transition from ordinary to super as the temperature drops. Scientists call this a “quantum phase change,” with the two phases being the property of the material on either side of the transition temperature.

    Sachdev, a condensed-matter physicist at Harvard University, explains that the challenge is one of scale. A typical chunk of material has trillions upon trillions of electrons. When those electrons interact with one another — as they do in superconductors — they become impossible to keep track of. In some phases of matter, physicists have been able to overcome this scale issue by modeling swarms of electrons as quasiparticles, quantum excitations that behave a lot like individual particles. But the quasiparticle strategy doesn’t work in high-temperature superconductors, forcing physicists to look for another way to impose collective order on the behavior of electrons in these materials.

    In 2007 Sachdev had a startling insight: He realized that certain features of string theory correspond to the electron soup found in high-temperature superconductors. In the years since, Sachdev has developed models in string theory that offer ways to think about the electron behavior in high-temperature superconductors. He’s used these ideas to design real-world experiments with materials like graphene — a flat sheet of carbon atoms — which have properties in common with the materials that interest him.

    In a forthcoming paper in Science, he and his collaborators use methods borrowed from string theory to correctly predict experimental results related to the flow of heat and electrical charge in graphene. Now he hopes to apply his insights to high-temperature superconductors themselves.

    Quanta Magazine spoke with Sachdev about how the electrons in high-temperature superconductors are related to black holes, his recent success with graphene, and why the biggest name in condensed-matter physics is skeptical that the string-theory approach works at all. An edited and condensed version of the interview follows.

    QUANTA MAGAZINE: What’s going on inside a high-temperature superconductor?
    SUBIR SACHDEV: The difference between old materials and the new materials is that in older materials, electrons conduct electricity independent of one another. They obey the exclusion principle, which says electrons can’t occupy the same quantum state at the same time and that they move independently of one another. In the new materials that I, and many others, have been studying, it’s clear that this independent-electron model fails. The general picture is that they move cooperatively and, in particular, they’re entangled — their quantum properties are linked.

    This entanglement makes high-temperature superconductors much more complicated to model than regular superconductors. How have you been looking at the problem?
    Generally I approach this through the classification of the quantum phases of matter. Examples of simple quantum phases are simple metals like silver and gold, or simple insulators like diamonds. Many of these phases are well-understood and appear everywhere in our daily lives. Since we discovered high-temperature superconductors, and many other new materials, we’ve been trying to understand the other physical properties that can emerge when you have trillions of electrons obeying quantum principles and also interacting with each other. At the back of my mind is the hope that this broad attack on classifying quantum phases of matter will lead to a deeper understanding of high-temperature superconductors.

    How far have you gotten?
    There has been great progress in understanding the theory of quantum phase transitions, which involves taking two phases of quantum matter that are very different from each other and adjusting some parameter — say, pressure on a crystal — and asking what happens when the material goes from one phase to the other. There has been a huge amount of progress for a wide class of quantum phase transitions. We now understand many different kinds of phases we didn’t know existed before.

    But a full theory of how electrons behave in high-temperature superconductors has been difficult to develop. Why?
    If you have a single electron moving through a lattice, then you really only need to worry about the different positions that electron can occupy. Even though the number of positions is large, that pretty much is something you can handle on a computer.

    But once you start talking about many electrons, you have to think about it very differently. One way to think about it is to imagine that each site on the lattice can be either empty or full. With N sites it’s 2N, so the possibilities are unimaginably vast. In this vast set of possibilities, you have to classify what are reasonable things an electron would tend to do. That in a nutshell is why it’s a difficult problem.

    Returning to phase transitions, you’ve spent a lot of time studying what happens to a high-temperature superconductor when it grows too warm. At this point, it becomes a so-called “strange metal.” Why would understanding strange metals help you to understand high-temperature superconductors?
    If you start with a superconductor and raise the temperature, there’s a critical temperature at which the superconductivity disappears. Right above this temperature you get a type of metal that we call a strange metal because many of its properties are very different from ordinary metals. Now imagine reversing the path, so that the phase of a system is changing from a strange-metal state to a superconducting state as it goes below the critical temperature. If we’re going to determine the temperature at which this happens, we need to compare the energies of the quantum states on either side of the critical temperature. But strange metals look strange in every respect, and we have only the simplest models for their physical properties.

    What makes strange metals so different from other unique quantum phases?
    In certain phases, [quantum] excitations generally behave like new emergent particles. They are quasiparticles. Their inner structure is very complicated, but from the outside they look like ordinary particles. The quasiparticle theory of many-body states pretty much applies to all states we’ve discovered in the older materials.

    Strange metals are one of the most prominent cases we know where quasiparticle theory fails. That’s why it’s so much harder to study them, because this basic tool of many-body theory doesn’t apply.

    You had the idea that string theory might be useful for understanding quantum phases that lack quasiparticles, like strange metals. How is string theory useful in this setting?
    From my point of view, string theory was another powerful mathematical tool for understanding large numbers of quantum-entangled particles. In particular, there are certain phases of string theory in which you can imagine that the ends of strings are sticking to a surface. If you are an ant moving on the surface, you only see the ends of the string. To you, these ends look like particles, but really the particles are connected by a string that goes to an extra dimension. To you, these particles sitting on the surface will appear entangled, and it is the string in the extra dimension which is entangling the particles. It’s a different way of describing entanglement.

    Now you could imagine continuing that process, not just with two electrons, but with four, six, infinitely many electrons, looking at the different entangled states the electrons can form. This is closely connected to the classification of phases of matter. It’s a hierarchical description of entanglement, where each electron finds a partner, and then the pairs entangle with other pairs, and so on. You can build this hierarchical structure using the stringy description. So it is one approach to talking about the entanglement of trillions of electrons.

    This application of string theory to strange metals has some interesting implications. For instance, it’s led you to draw connections between strange metals and the properties of black holes. How do you get from one to the other?
    In the string-theory picture, [changing the density of electrons] corresponds to putting a charge on a black hole. Many people have been studying this in the last five years or so — trying to understand things about strange metals from the properties of charged black holes. I have a recent paper in which I actually found a certain artificial model of electrons moving on a lattice where many properties precisely match the properties of charged black holes.

    I’ve read that Philip Anderson, considered by many people to be the most-influential living condensed-matter physicist, is skeptical that string theory is really useful for understanding strange metals. Do you know if that’s true?
    I think that’s correct. He’s told me himself that he doesn’t believe any of this, but, you know, what can I say, he’s a brilliant man with his own point of view. I would say that when we first proposed the idea in 2007, it certainly sounded crazy. A lot of progress has been made since then. I have a new paper with Philip Kim and others where it turns out that with graphene, which is a slightly less-strange metal, many of the methods inspired by string theory have led to quantitative predictions that have been verified by experiments.

    I think that’s been one of the best successes of the string-theory methods so far. It literally works; you can get the numbers right. But graphene is a simple system, and whether these methods are going to work for high-temperature superconductors hasn’t yet been proven.

    Could you say more about why Anderson might be skeptical of the approach you’ve taken?
    If you go back and actually look at string-theory models, on the surface they look very different from the kinds of models you need for high-temperature superconductors. You look at the stringy models and their constituents, and it appears absurd that these are connected to the constituents of the high-temperature superconductors. But if you take the point of view that, OK, I’m not literally saying this model is going to be found in [high-temperature superconductors], this is just a model that helps me make progress on difficult issues, like how do materials without quasiparticles behave, string theory gives you examples of one of these materials that’s reliably solvable.

    How literally are you using string theory? Is it a direct application, or are you drawing inspiration from it?
    It’s closer to the inspiration side of things. Once you’ve solved the model, it gives you a lot of insight into other models that you may not be able to solve. After six or seven years of work closer to the string-theory side, we think we’ve learned a lot. For us the next step appears to be working in more realistic systems using inspiration we got from more solvable models.

    How might the string-theory models, plus the work on graphene, put you in a position to understand the properties of high-temperature superconductors?
    As you change the density of electrons in high-temperature superconductors, there’s a much more dramatic change in which the electrons go from a regime where it seems only a few electrons are mobile to one where all electrons are mobile. We’re understanding that there’s a special point called the optimal density where there seems to be a dramatic change in the quantum state of electrons. And right near this point is where the strange metal is also observed. We’re trying to work out microscopic theories of this special point where the quantum state changes, and stringy models can teach us a lot about such quantum-critical points. Once we have the full framework, we’re hopeful and optimistic that we can take many of the insights from graphene and apply them to this more complicated model. That’s where we are.

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  • richardmitnick 4:31 pm on January 13, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , String Theory   

    From Quanta: “String Theory Meets Loop Quantum Gravity” 

    Quanta Magazine
    Quanta Magazine

    January 12, 2016
    Sabine Hossenfelder

    Temp 1

    Eight decades have passed since physicists realized that the theories of quantum mechanics and gravity [Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity] don’t fit together, and the puzzle of how to combine the two remains unsolved. In the last few decades, researchers have pursued the problem in two separate programs — string theory and loop quantum gravity — that are widely considered incompatible by their practitioners. But now some scientists argue that joining forces is the way forward.

    Among the attempts to unify quantum theory and gravity, string theory has attracted the most attention. Its premise is simple: Everything is made of tiny strings. The strings may be closed unto themselves or have loose ends; they can vibrate, stretch, join or split. And in these manifold appearances lie the explanations for all phenomena we observe, both matter and space-time included.

    Loop quantum gravity, by contrast, is concerned less with the matter that inhabits space-time than with the quantum properties of space-time itself. In loop quantum gravity, or LQG, space-time is a network. The smooth background of Einstein’s theory of gravity is replaced by nodes and links to which quantum properties are assigned. In this way, space is built up of discrete chunks. LQG is in large part a study of these chunks.

    This approach has long been thought incompatible with string theory. Indeed, the conceptual differences are obvious and profound. For starters, LQG studies bits of space-time, whereas string theory investigates the behavior of objects within space-time. Specific technical problems separate the fields. String theory requires that space-time have 10 dimensions; LQG doesn’t work in higher dimensions. String theory also implies the existence of supersymmetry, in which all known particles have yet-undiscovered partners.

    Supersymmetry standard model
    Standard Model of Supersymmetry

    Supersymmetry isn’t a feature of LQG.

    These and other differences have split the theoretical physics community into deeply divergent camps. “Conferences have segregated,” said Jorge Pullin, a physicist at Louisiana State University and co-author of an LQG textbook. “Loopy people go to loopy conferences. Stringy people go to stringy conferences. They don’t even go to ‘physics’ conferences anymore. I think it’s unfortunate that it developed this way.”

    But a number of factors may be pushing the camps closer together. New theoretical findings have revealed potential similarities between LQG and string theory. A young generation of string theorists has begun to look outside string theory for methods and tools that might be useful in the quest to understand how to create a “theory of everything.” And a still-raw paradox involving black holes and information loss has given everyone a fresh dose of humility.

    Moreover, in the absence of experimental evidence for either string theory or LQG, mathematical proof that the two are in fact opposite sides of the same coin would bolster the argument that physicists are progressing toward the correct theory of everything. Combining LQG and string theory would truly make it the only game in town.

    An Unexpected Link

    An effort to solve some of LQG’s own internal problems has led to the first surprising link with string theory. Physicists who study LQG lack a clear understanding of how to zoom out from their network of space-time chunks and arrive at a large-scale description of space-time that dovetails with Einstein’s general theory of relativity — our best theory of gravity. More worrying still, their theory can’t reconcile the special case in which gravity can be neglected. It’s a malaise that befalls any approach reliant on chunking-up space-time: In Einstein’s theory of special relativity, an object will appear to contract depending on how fast an observer is moving relative to it. This contraction also affects the size of space-time chunks, which are then perceived differently by observers with different velocities. The discrepancy leads to problems with the central tenet of Einstein’s theory — that the laws of physics should be the same no matter what the observer’s velocity.

    “It’s difficult to introduce discrete structures without running into difficulties with special relativity,” said Pullin. In a brief paper he wrote in 2014 with frequent collaborator Rodolfo Gambini, a physicist at the University of the Republic in Montevideo, Uruguay, Pullin argued that making LQG compatible with special relativity necessitates interactions that are similar to those found in string theory.

    That the two approaches have something in common seemed likely to Pullin since a seminal discovery in the late 1990s by Juan Maldacena, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. Maldacena matched up a gravitational theory in a so-called anti-de Sitter (AdS) space-time with a field theory (CFT — the “C” is for “conformal”) on the boundary of the space-time. By using this AdS/CFT identification, the gravitational theory can be described by the better-understood field theory.

    The full version of the duality is a conjecture, but it has a well-understood limiting case that string theory plays no role in. Because strings don’t matter in this limiting case, it should be shared by any theory of quantum gravity. Pullin sees this as a contact point.

    Herman Verlinde, a theoretical physicist at Princeton University who frequently works on string theory, finds it plausible that methods from LQG can help illuminate the gravity side of the duality. In a recent paper, Verlinde looked at AdS/CFT in a simplified model with only two dimensions of space and one of time, or “2+1” as physicists say. He found that the AdS space can be described by a network like those used in LQG. Even though the construction presently only works in 2+1, it offers a new way to think about gravity. Verlinde hopes to generalize the model to higher dimensions. “Loop quantum gravity has been seen too narrowly. My approach is to be inclusive. It’s much more intellectually forward-looking,” he said.

    But even having successfully combined LQG methods with string theory to make headway in anti-de Sitter space, the question remains: How useful is that combination? Anti-de Sitter space-times have a negative cosmological constant (a number that describes the large-scale geometry of the universe); our universe has a positive one. We just don’t inhabit the mathematical construct that is AdS space.

    Verlinde is pragmatic. “One idea is that [for a positive cosmological constant] one needs a totally new theory,” he said. “Then the question is how different that theory is going to look. AdS is at the moment the best hint for the structure we are looking for, and then we have to find the twist to get a positive cosmological constant.” He thinks it’s time well spent: “Though [AdS] doesn’t describe our world, it will teach us some lessons that will guide us where to go.”

    Coming Together in a Black Hole

    Verlinde and Pullin both point to another chance for the string theory and loop quantum gravity communities to come together: the mysterious fate of information that falls into a black hole. In 2012, four researchers based at the University of California, Santa Barbara, highlighted an internal contradiction in the prevailing theory. They argued that requiring a black hole to let information escape would destroy the delicate structure of empty space around the black hole’s horizon, thereby creating a highly energetic barrier — a black hole “firewall.” This firewall, however, is incompatible with the equivalence principle that underlies general relativity, which holds that observers can’t tell whether they’ve crossed the horizon. The incompatibility roiled string theorists, who thought they understood black hole information and now must revisit their notebooks.

    But this isn’t a conundrum only for string theorists. “This whole discussion about the black hole firewalls took place mostly within the string theory community, which I don’t understand,” Verlinde said. “These questions about quantum information, and entanglement, and how to construct a [mathematical] Hilbert space – that’s exactly what people in loop quantum gravity have been working on for a long time.”

    Meanwhile, in a development that went unnoted by much of the string community, the barrier once posed by supersymmetry and extra dimensions has fallen as well. A group around Thomas Thiemann at Friedrich-Alexander University in Erlangen, Germany, has extended LQG to higher dimensions and included supersymmetry, both of which were formerly the territory of string theory.

    More recently, Norbert Bodendorfer, a former student of Thiemann’s who is now at the University of Warsaw, has applied methods of LQG’s loop quantization to anti-de Sitter space. He argues that LQG can be useful for the AdS/CFT duality in situations where string theorists don’t know how to perform gravitational computations. Bodendorfer feels that the former chasm between string theory and LQG is fading away. “On some occasions I’ve had the impression that string theorists knew very little about LQG and didn’t want to talk about it,” he said. “But [the] younger people in string theory, they are very open-minded. They are very interested what is going on at the interface.”

    “The biggest difference is in how we define our questions,” said Verlinde. “It’s more sociological than scientific, unfortunately.” He doesn’t think the two approaches are in conflict: “I’ve always viewed [string theory and loop quantum gravity] as parts of the same description. LQG is a method, it’s not a theory. It’s a method to think of quantum mechanics and geometry. It’s a method that string theorists can use and are actually using. These things are not incompatible.”

    Not everyone is so convinced. Moshe Rozali, a string theorist at the University of British Columbia, remains skeptical of LQG: “The reason why I personally don’t work on LQG is the issue with special relativity,” he said. “If your approach does not respect the symmetries of special relativity from the outset, then you basically need a miracle to happen at one of your intermediate steps.” Still, Rozali said, some of the mathematical tools developed in LQG might come in handy. “I don’t think that there is any likelihood that string theory and LQG are going to converge to some middle ground,” he said. “But the methods are what people normally care about, and these are similar enough; the mathematical methods could have some overlap.”

    Not everyone on the LQG side expects the two will merge either. Carlo Rovelli, a physicist at the University of Marseille and a founding father of LQG, believes his field ascendant. “The string planet is infinitely less arrogant than ten years ago, especially after the bitter disappointment of the non-appearance of supersymmetric particles,” he said. “It is possible that the two theories could be parts of a common solution … but I myself think it is unlikely. String theory seems to me to have failed to deliver what it had promised in the ’80s, and is one of the many ‘nice-idea-but-nature-is-not-like-that’ that dot the history of science. I do not really understand how can people still have hope in it.”

    For Pullin, declaring victory seems premature: “There are LQG people now saying, ‘We are the only game in town.’ I don’t subscribe to this way of arguing. I think both theories are vastly incomplete.”

    See the full article here .

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    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.

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