How Do You Make a Baby Cartoon Wormhole In a Lab?

This post is a continuation of the previous one, which you should read first…

Now, what exactly are these wormholes that certain physicists claim to be trying to make or, at least, simulate? In this post I’ll explain what the scientists did to bring the problem within reach of our still-crude quantum computers. [I am indebted to Juan Maldacena, Daniel Jafferis and Brian Swingle for conversations that improved my understanding.]

An important point from last post: a field theory with quarks and gluons, such as we find in the real world or such as we might find in all sorts of imaginary worlds, is related by the Maldacena conjecture to strings (including quantum gravity) moving around in more dimensions than the three we’re used to. One of these dimensions, the “radial dimension”, is particularly important. As in the previous post, it will play a central role here.

Einstein-Rosen Bridge (ER) vs. Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Entanglement (EPR)

It’s too bad that Einstein didn’t live long enough to learn that two of his famous but apparently unrelated papers actually describe the same thing, at least in the context of Maldacena’s conjecture. As Maldacena and Lenny Susskind explored in this paper, the Maldacena conjecture suggests that ER is the same as EPR, at least in some situations.

We begin with two identical black holes in the context of a string theory on the same curved space that appears in the Maldacena conjecture. These two black holes can be joined at the hip — well, at the horizon, really — in such a way as to form a bridge. It is not really a bridge in spacetime in the way you might imagine a wormhole to be, in the sense that you can’t cross the bridge; even if you move at the speed of light, the bridge will collapse before you get to the other side. Such is the simplest Einstein-Rosen bridge — a non-traversable wormhole.

What, according to the Maldacena conjecture, is this bridge from the point of view of an equivalent field theory setting? The answer is almost fixed by the symmetries of the problem. Take two identical field theories that would each, separately, be identical to one of the two black holes in the corresponding string theory. These two theories do not affect each other in any way; their particles move around in separate universes, never interacting. Despite this, we can link them together, forming a metaphorical bridge, in the most quantum sense you can imagine — we entangle them as much as we can. What does this mean?

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Physicists Discover String Theory and Extra Dimensions in a Laboratory!

With a headline like that, you probably think this is a parody. But in fact, I’m dead serious. Not only that, the discovery was made in the 1960s.  Due to an accident of history, the physicists involved just didn’t realize it back then.

That said, there are profound problems with this headline.  But the headlines we’ve seen this week, along the lines that “Physicists create a baby wormhole in the laboratory”, are actually WORSE than this one. 

It is more accurate to say that “string theory and extra dimensions were discovered experimentally in the 1960s” than to say that “a baby wormhole was created in a lab in the early 2020s.” 

And now I’m going to show you why. As you’ll see in this post and the next, the two claims are related.

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The Standard Model More Deeply: Gluons and the Math of Quark “Color”

For readers who want to dig deeper; this is the second post of two, so you should read the previous one if you haven’t already. (Readers who would rather avoid the math may prefer this post.)

In a recent post I described, for the general reader and without using anything more than elementary fractions, how we know that each type of quark comes in three “colors” — a name which refers not to something that you can see by eye, but rather to the three “versions” of strong nuclear charge. In the post previous to today’s, I went into more detail about how the math of “color” works; you’ll need to read that post first, and since I will sometimes refer to its figures, you may want to keep in handy in another tab.

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A Big Think Made of Straw: Bad Arguments Against Future Colliders

Here’s a tip.  If you read an argument either for or against a successor to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in which the words “string theory” or “string theorists” form a central part of the argument, then you can conclude that the author (a) doesn’t understand the science of particle physics, and (b) has an absurd caricature in mind concerning the community of high energy physicists.  String theory and string theorists have nothing to do with whether such a collider should or should not be built.

Such an article has appeared on Big Think. It’s written by a certain Thomas Hartsfield.  My impression, from his writing and from what I can find online, is that most of what he knows about particle physics comes from reading people like Ethan Siegel and Sabine Hossenfelder. I think Dr. Hartsfield would have done better to leave the argument to them. 

An Army Made of Straw

Dr. Hartsfield’s article sets up one straw person after another. 

  • The “100 billion” cost is just the first.  (No one is going to propose, much less build, a machine that costs 100 billion in today’s dollars.)  
  • It refers to “string theorists” as though they form the core of high-energy theoretical physics; you’d think that everyone who does theoretical particle physics is a slavish, mindless believer in the string theory god and its demigod assistant, supersymmetry.  (Many theoretical particle physicists don’t work on either one, and very few ever do string theory. Among those who do some supersymmetry research, it’s often just one in a wide variety of topics that they study. Supersymmetry zealots do exist, but they aren’t as central to the field as some would like you to believe.)
  • It makes loud but tired claims, such as “A giant particle collider cannot truly test supersymmetry, which can evolve to fit nearly anything.”  (Is this supposed to be shocking? It’s obvious to any expert. The same is true of dark matter, the origin of neutrino masses, and a whole host of other topics. Its not unusual for an idea to come with a parameter which can be made extremely small. Such an idea can be discovered, or made obsolete by other discoveries, but excluding it may take centuries. In fact this is pretty typical; so deal with it!)
  • “$100 billion could fund (quite literally) 100,000 smaller physics experiments.”  (Aside from the fact that this plays sleight-of-hand, mixing future dollars with present dollars, the argument is crude. When the Superconducting Supercollider was cancelled, did the money that was saved flow into thousands of physics experiments, or other scientific experiments?  No.  Congress sent it all over the place.)  
  • And then it concludes with my favorite, a true laugher: “The only good argument for the [machine] might be employment for smart people. And for string theorists.”  (Honestly, employment for string theorists!?!  What bu… rubbish. It might have been a good idea to do some research into how funding actually works in the field, before saying something so patently silly.)

Meanwhile, the article never once mentions the particle physics experimentalists and accelerator physicists.  Remember them?  The ones who actually build and run these machines, and actually discover things?  The ones without whom the whole enterprise is all just math?

Although they mostly don’t appear in the article, there are strong arguments both for and against building such a machine; see below.  Keep in mind, though, that any decision is still years off, and we may have quite a different perspective by the time we get to that point, depending on whether discoveries are made at the LHC or at other experimental facilities.  No one actually needs to be making this decision at the moment, so I’m not sure why Dr. Hartsfield feels it’s so crucial to take an indefensible position now.

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A Prediction from String Theory

(An advanced particle physics topic today…)

There have been various intellectual wars over string theory since before I was a graduate student. (Many people in my generation got caught in the crossfire.) But I’ve always taken the point of view that string theory is first and foremost a tool for understanding the universe, and it should be applied just like any other tool: as best as one can, to the widest variety of situations in which it is applicable. 

And it is a powerful tool, one that most certainly makes experimental predictions… even ones for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

These predictions have nothing to do with whether string theory will someday turn out to be the “theory of everything.” (That’s a grandiose term that means something far less grand, namely a “complete set of equations that captures the behavior of spacetime and all its types of particles and fields,” or something like that; it’s certainly not a theory of biology or economics, or even of semiconductors or proteins.)  Such a theory would, presumably, resolve the conceptual divide between quantum physics and general relativity, Einstein’s theory of gravity, and explain a number of other features of the world. But to focus only on this possible application of string theory is to take an unjustifiably narrow view of its value and role.

The issue for today involves the behavior of particles in an unfamiliar context, one which might someday show up (or may already have shown up and been missed) at the LHC or elsewhere. It’s a context that, until 1998 or so, no one had ever thought to ask about, and even if someone had, they’d have been stymied because traditional methods are useless. But then string theory drew our attention to this regime, and showed us that it has unusual features. There are entirely unexpected phenomena that occur there, ones that we can look for in experiments.

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A Catastrophic Weekend for Theoretical High Energy Physics

It is beyond belief that not only am I again writing a post about the premature death of a colleague whom I have known for decades, but that I am doing it about two of them. Over the past weekend, two of the world’s most influential and brilliant theoretical high-energy physicists — Steve Gubser of … Read more

In Memory of Joe Polchinski, the Brane Master

This week, the community of high-energy physicists — of those of us fascinated by particles, fields, strings, black holes, and the universe at large — is mourning the loss of one of the great theoretical physicists of our time, Joe Polchinski. It pains me deeply to write these words. Everyone who knew him personally will … Read more

Modern Physics: Increasingly Vacuous

One of the concepts that’s playing a big role in contemporary discussions of the laws of nature is the notion of “vacua”, the plural of the word “vacuum”. I’ve just completed an article about what vacua are, and what it means for a universe to have multiple vacua, or for a theory that purports to describe … Read more

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