Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Triviality is not trivial

OK, starting with a pun is probably not the wisest course of action, but there is truth in it as well.

When you followed the various public discussiosn on the Higgs then you will probably have noticed the following: Though finding it, most physicists are not really satisfied with it. Some are even repelled by it. In fact, most of us are convinced that the Higgs is only a first step towards something bigger. Why is this so? Well, there are a number of reasons, from purely aesthetic ones to deeply troubling ones. As the latter also affect my own research, I will write about a particular annoying nuisance: The triviality referred to in the title.

To really understand this problem, I have to paint a somewhat bigger picture, before coming back to the Higgs. Let me start: As a theoretician, I can (artificially) distinguish between something I call classical physics, and something I call quantum physics.

Classical physics is any kind of physics which is fully predictive: If I know the start conditions with sufficient precision, I can predict the outcome as precisely as desired. Newton's law of gravity, and even the famous general theory of relativity belong to this class of classical physics.

Quantum physics is different. Quantum phenomena introduce a fundamental element of chance into physics. We do not know why this is so, but it is very well established experimentally. In fact, the computer you use to read this would not work without it. As a consequence, in quantum physics we cannot predict what will happen, even if we know the start as good as possible. The only thing we can do is make very reliable statements of how probable a certain outcome is.

All kinds of known particle physics are quantum physics, and have this element of chance. This is also experimentally very well established.

The connection between classical physics and quantum physics is the following: I can turn any kind of classical system into a quantum system by adding the element of chance, which we also call quantum fluctuations. This does not necessarily go the other way around. We know theories where quantum effects are so deeply ingrained that we cannot remove them without destroying the theory entirely.

Let me return to the Higgs. For the Higgs part in the standard model, we can write down a classical system. When we then want to analyze what happens at a particle physics experiment, we have to add the quantum fluctuations. And here enters the concept of triviality.

Adding quantum fluctuations is not necessarily a small effect. Indeed, quantum fluctuations can profoundly and completely alter the nature of a theory. One possible outcome of adding quantum fluctuations is that the theory becomes trivial. This technical term means the following: If I add quantum fluctuations to a theory, the resulting theory will describe particles which do not interact, no matter how complicated they do in the classical version. Hence, a trivial quantum theory describes nothing interesting. What is really driving this phenomena depends on the theory at hand. The important thing is that it can happen.

For the Higgs part of the standard model, there is the strong suspicion that it is trivial, though we do not have a full proof for (or against) it. Since we cannot solve the theory entirely, we cannot (yet) be sure. The only thing we can say is that if we add only a part of the quantum fluctuations, only a part of the so-called radiative corrections, the theory makes still sense. Hence it is not trivial to decide whether the theory is trivial, to reiterate the pun.

Assuming that the theory is trivial, can we escape it? Yes, this is possible: Adding something to a trivial theory can always make a theory non-trivial. So, if we knew for sure that the Higgs theory is trivial, we would know for sure that there is something else. On the other hand, trivial theories are annoying for a theoretician, because you either have nothing or have to remove artificially part of the quantum fluctuations. This is what annoys me right now with the Higgs. Especially as I have to deal with it in my own research.

Thus, this is one out of the many reasons people would prefer to discover soon more than 'just' the Higgs.