Category Archives: Quantum Gravity

A Week in Canada

It’s been a quiet couple of weeks on the blog, something which often indicates that it’s been anything but quiet off the blog. Such was indeed the case recently.

For one thing, I was in Canada last week. I had been kindly invited to give two talks at the University of Western Ontario, one of Canada’s leading universities for science. One of the talks, the annual Nerenberg lecture (in memory of Professor Morton Nerenberg) is intended for the general public, so I presented a lecture on The 2013 Nobel Prize: The 50-Year Quest for the Higgs Boson. While I have given a talk on this subject before (an older version is on-line) I felt some revisions would be useful. The other talk was for members of the applied mathematics department, which hosts a diverse group of academics. Unlike a typical colloquium for a physics department, where I can assume that the vast majority of the audience has had university-level quantum mechanics, this talk required me to adjust my presentation for a much broader scientific audience than usual.  I followed, to an extent, my website’s series on Fields and Particles and on How the Higgs Field Works, both of which require first-year university math and physics, but nothing more. Preparation of the two talks, along with travel, occupied most of my free time over recent days, so I haven’t been able to write, or even respond to readers’ questions, unfortunately.

I also dropped in at Canada’s Perimeter Institute on Friday, when it was hosting a small but intense one-day workshop on the recent potentially huge discovery by the BICEP2 experiment of what appears to be a signature of gravitational waves from the early universe. This offered me an opportunity to hear some of the world’s leading experts talking about the recent measurement and its potential implications (if it is correct, and if the simplest interpretation of it is correct). Alternative explanations of the experiment’s results were also mentioned. Also, there was a lot of discussion about the future, both the short-term and the long-term. Quite a few measurements will be made in the next six to twelve months that will shed further light on the BICEP2 measurement, and on its moderate conflict with the simplest interpretation of certain data from the Planck satellite.  Further down the line, a very important step will be to reduce the amount of B-mode polarization that arises from the gravitational lensing of E-mode polarization, a method called “delensing”; this will make it easier to observe the B-mode polarization from gravitational waves (which is what we’re interested in) even at rather small angular scales (high “multipoles”).   Looking much further ahead, we will be hearing a lot of discussion about huge new space-based gravitational wave detectors such as BBO [Big Bang Observatory].  (Actually the individual detectors are quite small, but they are spaced at great distances.) These can potentially measure gravitational waves whose wavelength is comparable to the size of the Earth’s orbit or even larger, which is still much smaller than those apparently detected by BICEP2 in the polarization of the cosmic microwave background. Anyway, assuming what BICEP2 has really done is discover gravitational waves from the very early universe, this subject now a very exciting future and there is lots to do, to discuss and to plan.

I wish I could promise to provide a blog post summarizing carefully what I learned at the conference. But unfortunately, that brings me to the other reason blogging has been slow. While I was away, I learned that the funding situation for science in the United States is even worse than I expected. Suffice it to say that this presents a crisis that will interfere with blogging work, at least for a while.

Which Parts of the Big Bang Theory are Reliable, and Why?

Familiar throughout our international culture, the “Big Bang” is well-known as the theory that scientists use to describe and explain the history of the universe. But the theory is not a single conceptual unit, and there are parts that are more reliable than others.

It’s important to understand that the theory — a set of equations describing how the universe (more precisely, the observable patch of our universe, which may be a tiny fraction of the universe) changes over time, and leading to sometimes precise predictions for what should, if the theory is right, be observed by humans in the sky — actually consists of different periods, some of which are far more speculative than others.  In the more speculative early periods, we must use equations in which we have limited confidence at best; moreover, data relevant to these periods, from observations of the cosmos and from particle physics experiments, is slim to none. In more recent periods, our confidence is very, very strong.

In my “History of the Universe” article [see also my related articles on cosmic inflation, on the Hot Big Bang, and on the pre-inflation period; also a comment that the Big Bang is an expansion, not an explosion!], the following figure appears, though without the colored zones, which I’ve added for this post. The colored zones emphasize what we know, what we suspect, and what we don’t know at all.

History of the Universe, taken from my article with the same title, with added color-coded measures of how confident we can be in its accuracy.  In each colored zone, the degree of confidence and the observational/experimental source of that confidence is indicated. Three different possible starting points for the "Big Bang" are noted at the bottom; different scientists may mean different things by the term.

History of the Universe, taken from my article with the same title, with added color-coded measures of how confident we can be in our understanding. In each colored zone, the degree of confidence and the observational/experimental source of that confidence is indicated. Three different possible starting points for the “Big Bang” are noted at the bottom; note that individual scientists may mean different things by the term.

Notice that in the figure, I don’t measure time from the start of the universe.  That’s because I don’t know how or when the universe started (and in particular, the notion that it started from a singularity, or worse, an exploding “cosmic egg”, is simply an over-extrapolation to the past and a misunderstanding of what the theory actually says.) Instead I measure time from the start of the Hot Big Bang in the observable patch of the universe.  I also don’t even know precisely when the Hot Big Bang started, but the uncertainty on that initial time (relative to other events) is less than one second — so all the times I’ll mention, which are much longer than that, aren’t affected by this uncertainty.

I’ll now take you through the different confidence zones of the Big Bang, from the latest to the earliest, as indicated in the figure above.

Continue reading

Did The Universe Really Begin With a Singularity?

Did the universe begin with a singularity?  A point in space and/or a moment in time where everything in the universe was crushed together, infinitely hot and infinitely densely packed?

Doesn’t the Big Bang Theory say so?

Well, let me ask you a question. Did you begin with a singularity?

Let’s see. Some decades ago, you were smaller. And then before that, you were even smaller. At some point you could fit inside your mother’s body, and if we follow time backwards, you were even much smaller than that.

If we follow your growth curve back, it would be very natural — if we didn’t know anything about biology, cells, and human reproduction — to assume that initially you were infinitesimally small… that you were created from a single point!

But that would be wrong. The mistake is obvious — it doesn’t make sense to assume that the period of rapid growth that you went through as a tiny embryo was the simple continuation of a process that extends on and on into the past, back until you were infinitely small.  Instead, there was a point where something changed… the growth began not from a point but from a single object of definite size: a fertilized egg.

The notion that the Universe started with a Big Bang, and that this Big Bang started from a singularity — a point in space and/or a moment in time where the universe was infinitely hot and dense — is not that different, really, from assuming humans begin their lives as infinitely small eggs. It’s about over-extrapolating into the past. Continue reading

If It Holds Up, What Might BICEP2′s Discovery Mean?

Well, yesterday was quite a day, and I’m still sifting through the consequences.

First things first.  As with all major claims of discovery, considerable caution is advised until the BICEP2 measurement has been verified by some other experiment.   Moreover, even if the measurement is correct, one should not assume that the interpretation in terms of gravitational waves and inflation is correct; this requires more study and further confirmation.

The media is assuming BICEP2′s measurement is correct, and that the interpretation in terms of inflation is correct, but leading scientists are not so quick to rush to judgment, and are thinking things through carefully.  Scientists are cautious not just because they’re trained to be thoughtful and careful but also because they’ve seen many claims of discovery withdrawn or discredited; discoveries are made when humans go where no one has previously gone, with technology that no one has previously used — and surprises, mistakes, and misinterpretations happen often.

But in this post, I’m going to assume assume assume that BICEP2′s results are correct, or essentially correct, and are being correctly interpreted.  Let’s assume that [here's a primer on yesterday's result that defines these terms]

  • they really have detected “B-mode polarization” in the “CMB” [Cosmic Microwave Background, the photons (particles of light) that are the ancient, cool glow leftover from the Hot Big Bang]
  • that this B-mode polarization really is a sign of gravitational waves generated during a brief but dramatic period of cosmic inflation that immediately preceded the Hot Big Bang,

Then — IF BICEP2′s results were basically right and were being correctly interpreted concerning inflation — what would be the implications?

Well… Wow…  They’d really be quite amazing. Continue reading

A Primer On Today’s Events

The obvious questions and their brief answers, for those wanting to know what’s going on today. If you already know roughly what’s going on and want the bottom line, read the answer to the last question.

You may want to start by reading my History of the Universe articles, or at least having them available for reference.

The expectation is that today we’re going to hear from the BICEP2 experiment.

  • What is BICEP2?

BICEP2, located at the South Pole, is an experiment that looks out into the sky to study the polarization of the electromagnetic waves that are the echo of the Hot Big Bang; these waves are called the “cosmic microwave background”.

  • What are electromagnetic waves?

Electromagnetic waves are waves in the electric and magnetic fields that are present everywhere in space.  Visible light is an electromagnetic wave, as are X-rays, radio waves, and microwaves; the only difference between these types of electromagnetic waves is how fast they wiggle and how long the distance is from one wave crest to the next.   Continue reading

Brane Waves

The first day of the conference celebrating theoretical physicist Joe Polchinski (see also yesterday’s post) emphasized the broad impact of his research career.  Thursday’s talks, some on quantum gravity and others on quantum field theory, were given by

  • Juan Maldacena, on his latest thinking on the relation between gravity, geometry and the entropy of quantum entanglement;
  • Igor Klebanov, on some fascinating work in which new relations have been found between some simple quantum field theories and a very poorly understood and exotic theory, known as Vassiliev theory (a theory that has more fields than a field theory but fewer than a string theory);
  • Raphael Bousso, on his recent attempts to prove the so-called “covariant entropy bound”, another relation between entropy and geometry, that Bousso conjectured over a decade ago;
  • Henrietta Elvang, on the resolution of a puzzle involving the relation between a supersymmetric field theory and a gravitational description of that same theory;
  • Nima Arkani-Hamed, about his work on the amplituhedron, a set of geometric objects that allow for the computation of particle scattering in various quantum field theories (and who related how one of Polchinski’s papers on quantum field theory was crucial in convincing him to stay in the field of high-energy physics);
  • Yours truly, in which I quickly reviewed my papers with Polchinski relating string theory and quantum field theory, emphasizing what an amazing experience it is to work with him; then I spoke briefly about my most recent Large Hadron Collider [LHC] research (#1,#2), and concluded with some provocative remarks about what it would mean if the LHC, having found the last missing particle of the Standard Model (i.e. the Higgs particle), finds nothing more.

The lectures have been recorded, so you will soon be able to find them at the KITP site and listen to any that interest you.

There were also two panel discussions. One was about the tremendous impact of Polchinski’s 1995 work on D-branes on quantum field theory (including particle physics, nuclear physics and condensed matter physics), on quantum gravity (especially through black hole physics), on several branches of mathematics, and on string theory. It’s worth noting that every talk listed above was directly or indirectly affected by D-branes, a trend which will continue in most of Friday’s talks.  There was also a rather hilarious panel involving his former graduate students, who spoke about what it was like to have Polchinski as an advisor. (Sorry, but the very funny stories told at the evening banquet were not recorded. [And don't ask me about them, because I'm not telling.])

Let me relate one thing that Eric Gimon, one of Polchinski’s former students, had to say during the student panel. Gimon, a former collaborator of mine, left academia some time ago and now works in the private sector. When it was his turn to speak, he asked, rhetorically, “So, how does calculating partition functions in K3 orientifolds” (which is part of what Gimon did as a graduate student) “prepare you for the real world?” How indeed, you may wonder. His answer: “A sense of pertinence.” In other words, an ability to recognize which aspects of a puzzle or problem are nothing but distracting details, and which ones really matter and deserve your attention. It struck me as an elegant expression of what it means to be a physicist.

Celebrating a Great Brane

Today and tomorrow I’m at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, on the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara, attending a conference celebrating the career of one of the world’s great theoretical physicists, Joe Polchinski. Polchinski has shown up on this website a couple of times already (here, here and here).  And in yesterday’s post (on string/M theory) I mentioned him, because of his game-changing work from 1995 on “D-branes”, objects that arise in string theory. His paper on the subject has over 2000 citations! And now it’s such a classic that people rarely actually cite it anymore, just as they don’t cite Feynman’s paper on Feynman diagrams; its ideas have surely been used by at least double that number of papers.

Polchinski’s also very well-known for his work on quantum gravity, black holes, cosmic [i.e. astronomically large] strings, and quantum field theory.

Between 2000 and 2006, I had the extraordinary privilege to write four papers with Polchinski, all of them aimed at clarifying the relationship between string theory and quantum field theory. This was the longest collaboration of my career, and a very successful one. Because of this, I have the honor to give one of the talks today at the conference. So I’m going to cut my post short now, and tell you more about what’s happening at the conference when my duty is done.

But I will perhaps tease you with one cryptic remark. Although D-branes arise in string theory, that’s not the only place you’ll find them.  As we learned in 1998-2000, there’s a perspective from which protons and neutrons themselves are D-branes. From that point of view, we’re made out of these things.

Someday — not today — I’ll explain that comment. But it’s one of many reasons why Polchinski’s work on D-branes is so important.

Quantum Field Theory, String Theory and Predictions (Part 9)

Today I continue with my series of posts on fields, strings and predictions.

During the 1980s, as I discussed in the previous post in this series, string theorists learned that of all the possible string theories that one could imagine, there were only five that were mathematically consistent.

What they learned in the first half of the 1990s, culminating in early 1995, is that all five string theories are actually little corners of a single, more encompassing, and still somewhat mysterious theory. In other words, after 30 years of studying various types of theories with strings in them, they ended up with just one!

On the one hand, that sort of sounds like a flop — all that work, by all those people, over two decades, and all we got for our efforts was one new theory?

On the other hand, it’s very tempting to think that the reason that everyone ended up converging on the same theory is that maybe it’s the only consistent theory of quantum gravity! At this point there’s no way to know for sure, but so far there’s no evidence against that possibility.  Certainly its a popular idea among string theorists.

This unique theory is called “M theory” today; we don’t know a better name, because we don’t really know what it is. We don’t know what it describes in general. We don’t know a principle by which to define it. Sometimes it is called “string/M theory” to remind us that it is string theory in certain corners.

Fig. 1: M theory is a set of equations that, depending on how they are used, can describe all known consistent  string theories and 11-dimensional supergravity, as well as many more complex and harder to understand things.  Only at the corners does it give the relatively simple string theories described in my previous post.

Fig. 1: A famous but very schematic image of M theory, which is a set of equations that, depending on how they are used, can describe universes whose particles and forces are given by any one of the known consistent string theories or by 11-dimensional supergravity.   Only at the corners does it give the relatively simple string theories described in my previous post.  More generally, away from the corners, it describes much more complicated and poorly understood types of worlds.

Note that M theory is very different in one key respect from quantum field theory.  As I described in the second post in this series, “quantum field theory” is the term that describes the general case; “a quantum field theory” is a specific example within the infinite number of “quantum field theories”. But there’s no analogue of this distinction for M theory. M theory is (as far as anyone can discern) a unique theory; it is both the general and the specific case.  There is no category of “M theories”. However, this uniqueness, while remarkable, is not quite as profound as it might sound… for a reason I’ll return to in a future post.

Incidentally, the relationship between the five apparently very different string theories that appear in M theory is similar to the surprising relationships among various field theories that I described in this post. It’s not at all obvious that each string theory is related to the other four… which is why it took some time, and a very roundabout route involving the study of black holes and their generalizations to black strings and black branes, for this relationship to become clear.

But as it did become clear, it was realized that “M theory” (or “string/M theory”, as it is sometimes called) is not merely, or even mainly, a theory of strings; it’s much richer than that. In one corner it is actually a theory with 10 spatial (11 space-time) dimensions; this is a theory with membranes rather than strings, one which we understand poorly. And in all of its corners, the theory has more than just strings; it has generalizations of membranes, called “branes” in general. [Yes, the joke's been made already; the experts in this subject had indeed been brane-less for years.] Particles are zero-dimensional points; strings are one-dimensional wiggly lines; membranes are two-dimensional surfaces. In the ordinary three spatial dimensions we can observe, that’s all we’ve got. But in superstring theory, with nine spatial dimensions, one doesn’t stop there. There are three-dimensional branes, called three-branes for short; there are four-branes, five-branes, and on up to eight-branes. [There are even nine-branes too, which are really just a way of changing all of space. The story is rich and fascinating both physically and mathematically.] The pattern of the various types of branes — specifically, which ones are found in which corners of M theory, and the phenomena that occur when they intersect one another — is a fantastically elegant story that was worked out in the early-to-mid 1990s.

A brane on which a fundamental string can end is called a “D-brane”. Joe Polchinski is famous for having not only co-discovered these objects in the 1980s but for having recognized, in mid-1995, the wide-ranging role they play in the way the five different string theories are related to each other. I still remember vividly the profound effect that his 1995 paper had on the field. A postdoctoral researcher at the time, I was attending bi-weekly lectures by Ed Witten on the new developments of that year. I recall that at the lecture following Polchinski’s paper, Witten said something to the effect that everything he’d said in his presentations so far needed to be rethought. And over the next few months, it was.

DBranes

Fig. 2: In addition to fundamental strings (upper left), string theories can have D-branes, such as the D string (or D1-brane) shown at lower left, the D particle (or D0 brane) shown at lower right, or the D2-branes shown at right. There are also D3, D4, D5, D6, D7, D8 and D9 branes, along with NS5-branes, but since they have more than two spatial dimensions I can’t hope to draw them. There are no strings or D-branes, but there are M2-branes and M5- branes, in the 11-dimensional corner of M theory. A D-brane is an object where a fundamental string can end; therefore, in the presence of D-branes, a closed string can break into an open string with both ends on a D-brane (center and right).

The fact that string/M theory is more than just a theory of strings is strikingly similar to something known about quantum field theory for decades. Although quantum field theory was invented to understand particles in the context of Einstein’s special relativity, it turns out that it often describes more than particles. Field theory in three spatial dimensions can have string-like objects (often called “flux tubes”) and membrane-like objects (often called “domain walls”) and particle-like blobs (“magnetic monopoles”, “baryons”, and other structures). The simplest quantum field theories — those for which successive approximation works — are mainly theories of particles.  But flux tubes and domain walls and magnetic monopoles, which can’t be described in terms of particles, can show up even in those theories. So the complexities of M theory are perhaps not surprising. Yet it took physicists almost two decades to recognize that “branes” of various sorts are ubiquitous and essential in string/M theory. (We humans are pretty slow.)

Notably, there are contexts in which M theory exhibits no string-like objects at all. It’s the same with particles and fields; simple field theories have particles, but most field theories aren’t simple, and many complicated field theories don’t have particles. It can happen that the particles that would be observed in experiments may have nothing to do with the fields that appear in the equations of the theory; this was something I alluded to in this article. I also earlier described scale-invariant quantum field theories, which don’t have particles. Quantum field theories on curved space-time don’t have simple, straightforward notions of particles either. Quantum field theory is complex and rich and subtle, and we don’t fully understand it; I wrote seven posts about it in this series, and did little more than scratch the surface. String/M theory is even more complicated, so it will surely be quite a while before we understand it. But specifically, what this means is that what I told you in my last article about “simple superstring theories” is simply not always true. And that means that the first “vague prediction of string theory” that I described might not be reliable… no more than overall predictions of simple field theory, all of which are true in the context of simple field theories, but some of which are often false in more complex ones.

By the way, those of you who’ve read about string theory may wonder: where is supersymmetry in my discussion? Historically, in all these developments, the mathematics and physics of supersymmetry played an important role in making it easier to study and confirm the existence of these branes within string/M theory. However, the branes are present in the theory even when supersymmetry isn’t exact. One must not confuse the technically useful role of supersymmetry in clarifying how string/M theory works for a requirement that supersymmetry has to be an exact (or nearly-exact) symmetry for string/M theory to make sense at all. It’s just a lot harder to study string/M theory in the absence supersymmetry… something which is also true, though to a somewhat lesser extent, of quantum field theory.

To be continued… next, how are quantum field theory and M theory similar and different?