Category Archives: Physics

Did BICEP2 Detect Gravitational Waves Directly or Indirectly?

A few weeks ago there was (justified) hullabaloo following the release of results from the BICEP2 experiment, which (if correct as an experiment, and if correctly interpreted) may indicate the detection of gravitational waves that were generated at an extremely early stage in the universe (or at least in its current phase)… during a (still hypothetical but increasingly plausible) stage known as cosmic inflation.  (Here’s my description of the history of the early universe as we currently understand it, and my cautionary tale on which parts of the history are well understood (and why) and which parts are not.)

During that wild day or two following the announcement, a number of scientists stated that this was “the first direct observation of gravitational waves”.  Others, including me, emphasized that this was an “indirect observation of gravitational waves.”  I’m sure many readers noticed this discrepancy.  Who was right?

No one was wrong, not on this point anyway.  It was a matter of perspective. Since I think some readers would be interested to understand this point, here’s the story, and you can make your own judgment. Continue reading

The Amazing Feat of Quantum Tunneling

Our quantum world has many odd and counter-intuitive features.  One of these is “tunneling” — the ability of objects to pass through walls, escape from traps, and slip under mountains into the next valley.   We don’t encounter this effect in daily life; objects we’re used to are so incredibly unlikely to tunnel from one place to another that we will never hear of one doing the apparently impossible.   But in the atomic and subatomic realms, even in various types of modern technology, tunneling is an essential and commonplace feature of the quantum reality in which we live.

I’ve written a short article about this phenomenon, which you can read here, emphasizing the central role that tunneling plays in the world’s most powerful microscopes.  It should be suitable for anyone who has read a little about atoms.

This article lays the groundwork for a discussion of how tunneling could someday, in the distant future, end the universe as we know it.  It also prepares the way for a more advanced post about how a single physics theory (i.e., a set of equations designed to describe some aspect of nature) may have multiple `vacua’ (i.e. multiple solutions that each represent different ways that the universe could be configured — what empty space could be like, and what types of fields, forces and particles could be found in the universe — over long periods of time.)  If that’s confusing, stay tuned for a few days; I’ll soon explain it.

Dog Brains and Fishing Line: 2 Fun Articles

Nothing about quantum physics today, but … wait, everything is made using quantum physics…

Could you imagine getting a dog to sit absolutely still, while fully awake and listening to voices, for as much as 8 minutes? Researchers trained dogs to do it, then put them in an MRI [Magnetic Resonance Imaging] machine to obtain remarkable studies of how dogs’ brains react to human voices and other emotional forms of human expression. [MRI is all about magnetic fields, protons, spin, and resonance; particle physics!! more on that another time, perhaps.]   The authors claim this is the first study of its type to compare human brains to those of a non-primate species. Here’s something from the scientific article’s abstract:

We presented dogs and humans with the same set of vocal and non-vocal stimuli to search for functionally analogous voice-sensitive cortical regions. We demonstrate that voice areas exist in dogs and that they show a similar pattern to anterior temporal voice areas in humans. Our findings also reveal that sensitivity to vocal emotional valence cues engages similarly located non-primary auditory regions in dogs and humans… 

So it seems, as dog owners have long suspected, that we’re not just imagining that our best friends are aware of our moods; they really are similar to us in some important ways.

Here’s a BBC article: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-26276660

Once you’re done with that, would you like to build up your muscles?  No exercise needed, just call the University of Texas at Dallas.  They’ve found that “ordinary fishing line and sewing thread can be cheaply converted to powerful artificial muscles.  The new muscles can lift 100 times more weight and generate 100 times higher mechanical power than a human muscle of the same length and weight… The muscles are powered thermally by temperature changes, which can be produced electrically, by the absorption of light or by the chemical reaction of fuels.”  [Quantum Physics = cool!!] The quotation above is from an interesting press release from the university, reporting the research which was just published in the journal Science.  I recommend the press release because it mentions several interesting possible applications, including robotics technology  and clothing that adjusts to temperature.  Here’s also a nice article by Anna Kuchment (who’s on Twitter here):

http://www.utdallas.edu/news/2014/2/21-28701_Researchers-Create-Powerful-Muscles-From-Fishing-L_story-wide.html

Though evolution left us with many wonderful abilities, it does seem that, year by year, humans are becoming less and less practically useful.   But at least our dogs will comfort us in our obsolescence.

 

Happy (Chilly) New Year

Welcome 2014! And quite a start to the year, with a cold snap that rivals anything we’ve seen in two decades. I don’t remember cold like this since the horrid winter of 1994, when the Northeastern U.S. saw snowstorms and extreme cold that alternated back and forth for weeks. Of course, when I was a child in the 1970s, such chills happened a lot more often; I remember a number of New England mornings where I awoke to a thermometer reading of -20ºFahrenheit (-29ºCelsius) [244 Kelvin].

The scariest negative temperature numbers that one hears about from the media are associated with the “wind chill”, which is a number that is supposed to measure how cold the air “feels” to your skin.  But “wind chill” is a rather subjective and controversial measure — there’s no unique way to define it, since you’ll feel differently depending on how much exposed skin you have, on your body weight, on your age and conditioning, etc.  By contrast, the temperature measured by a thermometer is defined independent of how humans feel, and experts agree on what it is and means. Oh sure, people use different scales to measure it: Fahrenheit (F), Centigrade or Celsius (C), and Kelvin (K).  But the differences are no more than the distinction between meters and feet, or between kilograms and pounds; it’s straightforward, if a bit annoying, to convert from one to the other.

So everyone agrees the temperature is and feels extremely cold, But is it, from the point of nature, really that much colder than usual? To say it another way: it was 84ºF (29ºC) in southern Florida yesterday.  How much warmer is that than the -40ºF (-40ºC) that was registered in the cold Minnesota morning?

Well, you might first think: wow, it’s a difference of 124ºF (69ºC), which sounds like a huge difference.  But is it really so huge? Continue reading

Quantum Field Theory, String Theory, and Predictions (Part 6)

For More Advanced Non-Experts

[This is part 6 of a series, which begins here.]

I’ve explained in earlier posts how we can calculate many things in the quantum field theory that is known as the “Standard Model” of particle physics, itself an amalgam of three, simpler quantum field theories.

When forces are “weak”, in the technical sense, calculations can generally be done by a method of successive approximation (called “perturbation theory”).  When forces are very “strong”, however, this method doesn’t work. Specifically, for processes involving the strong nuclear force, in which the distances involved are larger than a proton and the energies smaller than the mass-energy of a proton, some other method is needed.  (See Figure 1 of Part 5.)

One class of methods involves directly simulating, using a computer, the behavior of the quantum field theory equations for the strong nuclear force. More precisely, we simulate in a simplified version of the real world, the imaginary world shown in Figure 1 below, where

  • the weak nuclear force and the electromagnetic force are turned off,
  • the electron, muon, tau, neutrinos, W, Z and Higgs particles are ignored
  • the three heavier types of quarks are also ignored

(See Figure 4 of Part 4 for more details.)  This makes the calculations a lot simpler.  And their results allow us, for instance, to understand why quarks and anti-quarks and gluons form the more complex particles called hadrons, of which protons and neutrons are just a couple of examples. Unfortunately, computer simulations still are nowhere near powerful enough for the calculation of some of the most interesting processes in nature… and won’t be for a long time.

Fig 1:

Fig 1: The idealized, imaginary world whose quantum field theory is used to make computer simulations of the real-world strong-nuclear force.

Another method I mentioned involves the use of an effective quantum field theory which describes the “objects” that the original theory produces at low energy. But that only works if you know what those objects are; in the real world [and the similar imaginary world of Figure 1] we know from experiment that those objects are pions and other low-mass hadrons, but generally we don’t know what they are.

This brings us to today’s story.  Our success with the Standard Model might give you the impression that we basically understand quantum field theory and how to make predictions using it, with a few exceptions. But this would be far, far from the truth. As far as we can tell, much (if not most) of quantum field theory remains deeply mysterious. Continue reading

A Celebration of Two Careers

This week I’m at Stanford University, where I went to graduate school, attending a conference celebrating the illustrious careers of two great physicists, Renata Kallosh and Steve Shenker.

KalloshenkerColorPhotosBWBackground

Kallosh is one of the world’s experts on black holes, supersymmetry,  cosmic inflation (that period, still conjectural but gaining acceptance, during which the universe is suspected to have expanded at an unbelievable rapid rate), and “quantization” (i.e., on how to define quantum field theories and quantum gravity theories so that they actually make mathematical sense — which is not easy to do correctly). Much of her work concerns supersymmetry and its application to quantum gravity and to superstring theory. Her technical expertise and her inventiveness are legendary, as is her friendly enthusiasm. I’ve known her since I was a graduate student; she was one of a number of famous scientists from the former Soviet Union who came to the United States around 1988-1989.  Aside from just interacting with her within Stanford’s small community of theoretical physics students, postdocs and faculty, I also attended two courses that she taught on advanced topics, one on supersymmetry and one on quantization.

Shenker is famous for a number of papers that significantly changed our understanding of quantum field theory, quantum gravity and string theory. His fame derives in part from his ability to extract deep insights about physics from just a few mathematical clues — often ones that only he recognizes as being clues in the first place. Shenker was a faculty member at Rutgers when I was a postdoctoral researcher there in the mid-90s. (He later moved to Stanford.)  I cannot count the profound lessons that I learned during those years from him (and the other Rutgers faculty), both at our daily group lunch, and in the lounge where several of the faculty and other postdocs would regularly gather in the mornings. And I was even fortunate enough to write a paper (on black holes and their entropy) together with him and another then-postdoc, Dan Kabat. Aside from his down-to-earth no-nonsense style, and his strong support of young people and their ideas, one thing I remember well about Shenker is that it was perilous to say anything interesting to him while walking back from lunch on a bitterly cold day. He would stop and think… and the rest of us would freeze.

In the wider world of the public, and especially the blogosphere, Kallosh and Shenker would probably be labelled as “string theorists.” Such terminology would be somewhat crude, for it would fail to capture the range and depth of their careers. Appropriately, the talks at the conference so far have ranged widely, including general attempts to make some sense of quantum gravity,  discussion of the information-loss problem of black holes (the so-called “firewall” problem), unexpected subtleties in how quantum field theory works (yes, we are still learning!), new ways of thinking about the physics of electrical conductors and insulators, and advances in our understanding of cosmic inflation. And there were even a couple of talks on string theory.  (That said, the long shadow of string theory, and its direct and indirect influence on many other subfields, can be palpably felt at this conference.  More on that subject another day.)

Since I’ve been so busy with Large Hadron Collider physics in recent years, and haven’t been following these subfields closely, it’s been a very educational conference for me.  I’ll describe some of the talks later in the week.

SEARCH day 1

The first day of the SEARCH workshop was focused on current and future measurements of the new Higgs particle discovered in 2012. A lot of the issues I’ve written about before (for instance here and here) and most of the updates were rather technical, so I won’t cover them today. But I thought it useful to take a look at what was said by Raman Sundrum and separately by Nima Arkani-Hamed, whom you’ve heard about many times (for instance, here and here), on the subject of the hierarchy problem and “naturalness”.

First, let me remind you of the issue. The hierarchy problem can be phrased in many ways. Here’s one. Here’s another: for a Standard Model Higgs (the simplest possible type of Higgs particle) to show up, without any other new particles or forces at the Large Hadron Collider, is … well, let’s say it’s completely shocking, with a caveat. Why?

  • Because every spin-zero particle (or particle-like object) that has ever been observed, in particle physics and in similar contexts within solids and fluids, has been accompanied by new phenomena at an energy scale comparable to the scalar’s mass-energy (E=mc2 energy).
  • And although we cannot calculate the mass of the Higgs particle using the Standard Model (the equations we use to predict the behavior of the known particles and forces) — the Higgs particle’s mass is something we put in to the equations, which is why we didn’t know, before the LHC, what it would be — there are many speculative theories that go beyond the Standard Model where the Higgs particle’s mass can be computed, or at least estimated. And in all of these cases, the Higgs particle is accompanied by other particles and forces that show up at scales comparable to the Higgs particle’s mass-energy.

This fact — that spin-zero particles like the Higgs are accompanied by other particles and forces at a similar energy range — isn’t a mystery. Particle physicists (and others who use quantum field theory, the type of math used in the Standard Model) understand why this should be true, and have for several decades. The jargon is that it is “natural” (not meaning “from nature”, but rather meaning “generically true”) for spin-zero particles to have other particles and forces around at comparable energy scales. (I’ll explain the argument another time.)

So to discover the Higgs particle at a mass-energy of 125 GeV, and no other new particles or phenomena below, say, 1000-2000 GeV or so, would fly in the face of what we’ve seen again and again in physics, both in past data and in calculations within speculative theories. In this sense, finding nothing except a Standard Model Higgs at the LHC would be shocking. (I say “would be” rather than “is” because the LHC is still young, and no overarching conclusions can yet be drawn from its current data.)

But — here’s the caveat — how bad is this shock? After all, somewhat surprising things do happen in nature all the time. Only astonishingly, spectacularly surprising things are very rare. Yes, it would be a very big shock if new particles and forces associated with the Higgs have a mass-energy a trillion trillion times higher than that of the Higgs. But what if they’re just a few times higher than would be natural, let’s say at 10,000 GeV — which would be out of reach of the LHC? Maybe that is a small enough shock that we shouldn’t pay it much attention.  Unfortunately, this is a judgment call; there’s no sharp answer to this question.

Raman Sundrum and his three options.

Raman Sundrum and his three options.

As Sundrum put it, there are (crudely) three logically distinct possibilities for what lies ahead:

  • No shock: The hierarchy problem is resolved naturally; the associated new particles will soon be seen at the LHC.
  • Mild shock: The hierarchy problem is resolved in a roughly natural way; most of the associated new particles will be a bit beyond the reach of the LHC, but perhaps one or more will be lightweight enough to be discovered during the lifetime of the LHC.
  • Severe shock: The hierarchy problem is not resolved naturally; any associated particles may lie far out of reach, though of course other particles (associated, say, with dark matter) might still show up at the LHC.

Arkani-Hamed made a similar distinction, but addressed the third case in more detail, breaking it up into two sub-cases.

  • The solution to the hierarchy problem is that it results from a bias (= selection effect = a form of the “anthropic principle”) ; the universe is huge, complex and diverse, with particles and forces that differ from place to place [sometimes called a "multiverse"], and most of that universe is inhospitable to life of any sort; the reason we live in an unusual part of that universe, with a lightweight unaccompanied scalar particle, is because this happens to be the only place (or one of very few places) that life could have evolved. A key test of this argument is to show that if the particles and forces of nature were much different from what we find them in our part of the universe, then our environment would become completely inhospitable — perhaps there would be no atoms, or no stars. It is controversial whether this test has been passed; good arguments can be made on both sides.
  • The solution to the hierarchy problem involves a completely novel mechanism.   Easy to say — but got any ideas?  Arkani-Hamed gave us two examples of mechanisms which he had studied that he couldn’t make work — but perhaps someone else can do better.  One is based on trying to apply notions related to self-organized criticality, but he was never able to make much progress.  Another is based on an idea of Ed Witten’s that perhaps our world is best understood as one that
    1. has two dimensions of space (not the obvious three)
    2. is supersymmetric (which seems impossible, but in three dimensions supersymmetry and gravity together imply that particles and their superpartner particles need not have equal masses)
    3. has extremely strong forces

    All of this seems completely contradictory with what we observe in our world. But! One of the important conceptual lessons from string theory [this is yet another example of something important that would not have been learned if people hadn't actually been studying string theory] is that when forces become very strong, making the physics extremely complicated to describe, it is possible that a better description of that world becomes available — and that in some special cases, this better description has one additional dimension of space and weaker forces. In short, Witten’s idea is that our way of understanding our world, with three spatial dimensions, no apparent superymmetry and no extremely strong forces, might actually be simply an alternative and simpler description of a supersymmetric world with only two spatial dimensions with an extremely strong force. Arkani-Hamed, trying to apply this to the hierarchy problem, noticed this idea makes a prediction, but he showed that the prediction is false in the Standard Model, and it seems impossible to add any collection of particles that would make it true.

    Nima Arkani-Hamed, waving his hands.

    A well-dressed Nima Arkani-Hamed, waving his hands.

Mass-ive Source of Confusion

One of the challenges for a person trying to explain physics to the non-expert — and for non-experts themselves — is that scientific language and concepts are often frustratingly confusing. Often two words are used for the same thing, sometimes words are used that are fundamentally misleading, and often a single word is used for two very different but related concepts. You’d think we’d clear this stuff up, but no one has organized a committee dedicated to streamlining and refining our terminology.

A deeply unfortunate case, the subject of today’s post, is the word “mass”. Mass was confusing before Einstein, and then Einstein came along and (accidentally) left the word mass with two different definitions… both of which you’ll see in first-year university textbooks. (Indeed, this confusion even extended to physicists more broadly, causing the famous particle physicist Lev Okun to make this issue into a cause celebre…) And it all has to do with how you interpret E = mc² — the only equation everybody knows — which relates the energy stored in an object to the mass of the object times the square of the universal speed limit c, also known as “the speed of light”.

Here are the two possible interpretations of this equation. Modern particle physicists (including me) only use the first interpretation. The purpose of this post is to alert you to this fact, and to point you to an article where I explain more carefully why we do it this way. Continue reading