20.09.13

"The revelation that particle interactions, the most basic events in nature, may be consequences of geometry significantly advances a decades-long effort to reformulate quantum field theory, the body of laws describing elementary particles and their interactions. Interactions that were previously calculated with mathematical formulas thousands of terms long can now be described by computing the volume of the corresponding jewel-like “amplituhedron,” which yields an equivalent one-term expression.

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The amplituhedron itself does not describe gravity. But Arkani-Hamed and his collaborators think there might be a related geometric object that does. Its properties would make it clear why particles appear to exist, and why they appear to move in three dimensions of space and to change over time.

Because “we know that ultimately, we need to find a theory that doesn’t have” unitarity and locality, Bourjaily said, “it’s a starting point to ultimately describing a quantum theory of gravity.”

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Stephen Parke and Tommy Taylor, theorists at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, took that statement as a challenge. Using a few mathematical tricks, they managed to simplify the 2-gluon to 4-gluon amplitude calculation from several billion terms to a 9-page-long formula, which a 1980s supercomputer could handle. Then, based on a pattern they observed in the scattering amplitudes of other gluon interactions, Parke and Taylor guessed a simple one-term expression for the amplitude. It was, the computer verified, equivalent to the 9-page formula. In other words, the traditional machinery of quantum field theory, involving hundreds of Feynman diagrams worth thousands of mathematical terms, was obfuscating something much simpler. As Bourjaily put it: “Why are you summing up millions of things when the answer is just one function?”

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String theory, a framework that treats particles as invisibly small, vibrating strings, is one candidate for a theory of quantum gravity that seems to hold up in black hole situations, but its relationship to reality is unproven — or at least confusing. Recently, a strange duality has been found between string theory and quantum field theory, indicating that the former (which includes gravity) is mathematically equivalent to the latter (which does not) when the two theories describe the same event as if it is taking place in different numbers of dimensions. No one knows quite what to make of this discovery. But the new amplituhedron research suggests space-time, and therefore dimensions, may be illusory anyway.

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