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?

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.

 

Could the Higgs Decay to New Z-like Particles?

Today I’m continuing with my series, begun last Tuesday (click here for more details on the project), on the possibility that the Higgs particle discovered 18 months ago might decay in unexpected ways.

I’ve finished an article describing how we can, with current and with future Large Hadron Collider [LHC] data, look for a Higgs particle decaying to two new spin one particles, somewhat similar to the Z particle, but with smaller mass and much weaker interactions with ordinary matter.  [For decays to spin zero particles, click here.] Just using existing published plots on LHC events with two lepton/anti-lepton pairs, my colleagues and I, in our recent paper, were able to put strong limits on this scenario: for certain masses, decays to the new particles can occur in at most one in a few thousand Higgs particles.  The ATLAS and CMS experiments could certainly do better, perhaps even to the point of making a discovery with existing data, if this process is occurring in nature.

The Higgs could decay to two new spin-one particles, here labelled ZD, which in turn could each produce a lepton/anti-lepton pair.  The resulting signature would be spectacular, but neither ATLAS nor CMS has done a optimizal search for this signal covering the full allowed ZD mass range.

The Higgs could decay to two new spin-one particles, here labelled ZD, which in turn could each produce a lepton/anti-lepton pair (e = electron, μ = muon). The resulting signature would be spectacular, but neither ATLAS nor CMS has yet published an optimal search for this signal across the full allowed ZD mass range.

You might wonder how particle physicists could have missed a particle with a mass lower than that of the Z particle; wouldn’t we already have observed it? A clue as to how this can occur: it took much longer to discover the muon neutrino than the muon, even though the neutrino has a much lower mass. Similarly, it took much longer to discover the Higgs particle than the top quark, even though the Higgs has a lower mass. Why did this happen?

It happened because muon neutrinos interact much more weakly with ordinary matter than do muons, and are therefore much harder to produce, measure and study than are muons. Something similar is true of the Higgs particle compared to the top quark; although the top quark is nearly 50% heavier than the Higgs, the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] produces 20 times as many top quarks and anti-quarks as Higgs particles, and the signature of a top quark is usually more distinctive. So new low-mass particles to which the Higgs particle can perhaps decay could easily have been missed, if they interact much more weakly with ordinary matter than do the Z particle, top quark, bottom quark, muon, etc.

The muon neutrino was discovered not because these neutrinos were directly produced in collisions of ordinary matter but rather because muons were first produced, and these then decayed to muon neutrinos (plus an electron and an electron anti-neutrino).  Similarly, new particles may be discovered not because we produce them directly in ordinary matter collisions, but because, as in the above figure, we first produce a Higgs particle in proton-proton collisions at the LHC, and the Higgs may then in turn decay to them.

I should emphasize that direct searches for these types of new particles are taking place, using both old and new data from a variety of particle physics machines (here’s one example.) But it is often the case that these direct searches are not powerful enough to find the new particles, at least not soon, and therefore they may first show up in unexpected exotic decays of the Higgs… especially since the LHC has already produced a million Higgs particles, most of them at the ATLAS and CMS experiments, with a smaller fraction at LHCb.

I hope that some ATLAS and CMS experimenters are looking for this signal… and that we’ll hear results at the upcoming Moriond conference.

X-Rays From Dark Matter? A Little Hint For You To Enjoy

Well it’s not much to write home about, and I’m not going to write about it in detail right now, but the Resonaances blog has done so (and he’s asking for your traffic, so please click):

A team of six astronomers reports that when they examine the light (more specifically, the X-rays) coming from clusters of galaxies around the sky, and account for all the X-ray emission lines [light emitted in extremely narrow bands by atoms or their nuclei] they know about, there’s an excess of photons [particles of light] with energy E=(3.55-3.57)+/-0.03 keV, a “weak unidentified emission line”, that can’t easily be explained.  What could it be?

[A keV is 1000 eV; an eV is an electron-volt, an amount of energy typical of chemical reactions.  Note that physicists and astronomers commonly use the word "light" to refer not just to "visible light" -- the light you can see -- but to all electromagnetic waves, no matter what their frequency. ]

Well first: is this emission line really there?  The astronomers claim to detect it in several ways, but “the detection is at the limit of the current instrument capabilities and subject to significant modeling uncertainties” — in other words, it requires some squinting — so they are cautious in their statements.

Second: if it’s really there, what’s it due to?  Well, the most exciting and least likely possibility is that it’s from dark matter particles decaying to a photon with the above-mentioned energy plus a second, unobserved, particle — perhaps a neutrino, perhaps something else.   I’ll let Resonaances explain the sterile neutrino hypothesis, in which the dark matter particles are kind of like neutrinos — they’re fermions, like neutrinos, and they are connected to neutrinos in some way, though they aren’t as directly affected by the weak nuclear force.

But before you get excited, note that the authors state: “However, based on the cluster masses and distances, the line in Perseus is much brighter than expected in this model, significantly deviating from other subsamples.”  In other words: don’t get excited, because something very funny is going on in the Perseus cluster, and until that’s understood, the data can’t be said to be particularly consistent with a dark matter hypothesis.

One more anomaly — one more hint of dark matter — to put on the pile of weak and largely unrelated hints that we’ve already got!  I don’t suggest losing sleep over it… at least not until it’s confirmed by other groups and the Perseus cluster’s odd emissions are explained.

More Examples of Possible Unexpected Higgs Decays

As I explained on Tuesday, I’m currently writing articles for this website that summarize the results of a study, on which I’m one of thirteen co-authors, of various types of decays that the newly-discovered Higgs particle might exhibit, with a focus on measurements that could be done now with 2011-2012 Large Hadron Collider [LHC] data, or very soon with 2015-2018 data.  See Tuesday’s post for an explanation of what this is all about.

On Tuesday I told you I’d created a page summarizing what we know about possible Higgs decays to two new spin-zero particles, which in turn decay to quark pairs or lepton pairs according to our general expectation that heavier particles are preferred in spin-zero-particle decays. A number of theories (including models with more Higgs particles, certain non-minimal supersymmetric models, some Little Higgs models, and various dark matter models) predict this possibility.

Today I’ve added to that page (starting below figure 4) to include possible Higgs decays to two new spin-zero particles which in turn decay to gluon or photon pairs, according to our general expectation that, if the new spin-zero particles don’t interact very strongly with quarks or leptons, then they will typically decay to the force particles, with a rate roughly related to the strengths of the corresponding forces.  While fewer known theories directly predict this possibility compared to the one in the previous paragraph, the ease of looking for Higgs particles decaying to four photons motivates an attempt to do so in current data.

I have a few other classes of Higgs particle exotic decays to cover, so more articles on this subject will follow shortly!

Unexpected Decays of the Higgs Particle: What We Found

A few weeks ago, I reported on the completion of a large project, with which I’ve been personally involved, to investigate how particle physicists at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] could be searching, not only in the future but even right now, for possible “Exotic Decays” of the newly-discovered Higgs particle .

By the term “exotic decays” (also called “non-Standard-Model [non-SM] Decays”), we mean “decays of this particle that are not expected to occur unless there’s something missing from the Standard Model (the set of equations we use to describe the known elementary particles and forces and the simplest possible type of Higgs field and its particle).”  I’ve written extensively on this website about this possibility (see herehere,  hereherehereherehere and here), though mostly in general terms. In our recent paper on Exotic Decays, we have gone into nitty-gritty detail… the sort of detail only an expert could love.  This week I’m splitting the difference, providing a detailed and semi-technical overview of the results of our work.  This includes organized lists of some of the decays we’re most likely to run across, and suggestions regarding the ones most promising to look for (which aren’t always the most common ones.)

Before I begin, let me again mention the twelve young physicists who were co-authors on this work, all of whom are pre-tenure and several of whom are still not professors yet.  [ When New Scientist reported on our work, they unfortunately didn't even mention, much less list, my co-authors.] They are (in alphabetical order): David Curtin, Rouven Essig, Stefania Gori, Prerit Jaiswal, Andrey Katz, Tao Liu, Zhen Liu, David McKeen, Jessie Shelton, Ze’ev Surujon, Brock Tweedie, and Yi-Ming Zhong. Continue reading

The Black Hole’s Tale

[Inspiration strikes in odd ways and at strange times.  Don't ask me why I wrote this, because I've no idea.  In any case I hope some of you enjoy it; and the science behind it is described here.]

Quantum Theory claims: “All tales are told!”
But gravity demurs; for Einstein’s bold
Equations show that black holes tell no tales
And keep their secrets hidden deep within.

So it remained til nineteen seventy-four
When Hawking’s striking calculation showed
That black holes aren’t exactly black: they glow!
They shrink, wither, and in a flash they die
And take their hidden secrets to their graves,
Killing Quantum Theory as they go.

And if you disagreed, and did believe
that black holes’ tales are written in their glow,
No matter; this kills Quantum Theory too,
For once inside, a story can’t come out,
And copying puts a quantum world in doubt.

Thus Hawking argued that he’d made it clear
That Quantum Theory had to be revised.
“But not so fast” cried Susskind and ‘t Hooft,
For Quantum Theory’s cleverer than you think;
T’was twenty years ago the claim was made
That black holes may be complementary:
While those who venture in do find the tales
Are written clearly in the black hole’s deep,
Those outside have a very different view.
They think the stories rest upon the edge
And later end up written in the sky.

So strange this sounds! And yet, it has been shown
That in a quantum world of certain type
The information stored within a space
Can also seem to be upon its face!

Consensus grew that Quantum Theory’s safe
And even Hawking painfully agreed
The argument was strong; nine years ago
He publicly announced his change of heart.

But still it wasn’t yet precisely clear
Just how it is that black holes disappear
Without undoing Quantum Theory’s base;
And then the AMPS collaboration found,
While trying to ensure the case was sound,
The complementary black hole in fact
Could not exist! At least not as we thought,
For when the tale’s half written in the sky
The black hole’s inside could no longer be,
And anyone who reached the edge would die.

“Firewall”, the cry rose from the crowd;
And troubling it was; such walls would flout
The principles that Einstein had set out
To underpin his theory of space and time
And gravity — the very one we used
To show black holes exist, and find them too.

So something’s wrong! But what? What must we change?
Which principle is it that we must revise?
Which equation fails, and in what guise?
Confusion spreads across the blackened skies…

Proposals have been made, but none is firm.
Among them Hawking’s recent; he suggests
A black hole’s even less black than he thought:
Not only does it faintly glow, it leaks
Like politicians, whispering its tales
In code; and thus whatever is inside
Gets out! Though in a highly scrambled form.
(So do not try to enter and return!)
These holes aren’t complementary; instead
Their inner stories are somehow released
Before the holes that store them are deceased.

But be not sure; for Hawking’s story’s vague
And many others have suggested ways
That current controversy may be stemmed.
Yet none of them seem likely soon to lift
The murky darkness that still makes us blind
And hides the truth from all of humankind.

© Matt Strassler February 5, 2014

How Black is a Black Hole? An Introduction to the Paradoxes

Following on Thursday’s post and yesterday’s about black holes, specifically about Hawking’s recent vague proposal that was so widely (but rather misleadingly) reported in the media, and about the back-story which explains why there’s so much confusion about black holes among scientists interested in quantum gravity, and why Hawking made his suggestion in the first place, I’ve been motivated to write up a new introduction to the black hole information paradox.  This should provide the basic knowledge and the context that I’m sure many of you are looking for.  Please take a look and send comments!