Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Acquiring a new field

I have recently started to look into a new field: Quantum gravity. In this entry, I would like to write a bit about how this happens, acquiring a new field. Such that you can get an idea what can lead a scientist to do such a thing. Of course, in future entries I will also write more about what I am doing, but it would be a bit early to do so right now.

Acquiring a new field in science is not something done lightly. One has always not enough time for the things one does already. And when you enter a new field, stuff is slow. You have to learn a lot of basics, need to get an overview of what has been done, and what is still open. Not to mention that you have to get used to a different jargon. Thus, one rarely does so lightly.

I have in the past written already one entry about how I came to do Higgs physics. This entry was written after the fact. I was looking back, and discussed my motivation how I saw it at that time. It will be an interesting thing to look back at this entry in a few years, and judge what is left of my original motivation. And how I feel about this knowing what happened since then. But for now, I only know the present. So, lets get to it.

Quantum gravity is the hypothetical quantum version of the ordinary theory of gravity, so-called general relativity. However, it has withstood quantization for a quite a while, though there has been huge progress in the last 25 years or so. If we could quantize it, its combination with the standard model and the simplest version of dark matter would likely be able to explain almost everything we can observe. Though even then a few open questions appear to remain.

But my interest in quantum gravity comes not from the promise of such a possibility. It has rather a quite different motivation. My interest started with the Higgs.

I have written many times that we work on an improvement in the way we look at the Higgs. And, by now, in fact of the standard model. In what we get, we see a clear distinction between two concepts: So-called gauge symmetries and global symmetries. As far as we understand the standard model, it appears that global symmetries determine how many particles of a certain type exists, and into which particles they can decay or be combined. Gauge symmetries, however, seem to be just auxiliary symmetries, which we use to make calculations feasible, and they do not have a direct impact on observations. They have, of course, an indirect impact. After all, in which theory which gauge symmetry can be used to facilitate things is different, and thus the kind of gauge symmetry is more a statement about which theory we work on.

Now, if you add gravity, the distinction between both appears to blur. The reason is that in gravity space itself is different. Especially, you can deform space. Now, the original distinction of global symmetries and gauge symmetries is their relation to space. A global symmetry is something which is the same from point to point. A gauge symmetry allows changes from point to point. Loosely speaking, of course.

In gravity, space is no longer fixed. It can itself be deformed from point to point. But if space itself can be deformed, then nothing can stay the same from point to point. Does then the concept of global symmetry still make sense? Or does all symmetries become just 'like' local symmetries? Or is there still a distinction? And what about general relativity itself? In a particular sense, it can be seen as a theory with a gauge symmetry of space. Makes this everything which lives on space automatically a gauge symmetry? If we want to understand the results of what we did in the standard model, where there is no gravity, in the real world, where there is gravity, then this needs to be resolved. How? Well, my research will hopefully answer this question. But I cannot do it yet.

These questions were already for some time in the back of my mind. A few years, I actually do not know how many exactly. As quantum gravity pops up in particle physics occasionally, and I have contact with several people working on it, I was exposed to this again and again. I knew, eventually, I will need to address it, if nobody else does. So far, nobody did.

But why now? What prompted me to start now with it? As so often in science, it were other scientists.

Last year at the end of November/beginning of December, I took part in a conference in Vienna. I had been invited to talk about our research. The meeting has a quite wide scope, and also present were several people, who work on black holes and quantum physics. In this area, one goes, in a sense, halfway towards quantum gravity: One has quantum particles, but they life in a classical gravity theory, but with strong gravitational effects. Which is usually a black hole. In such a setup, the deformations of space are fixed. And also non-quantum black holes can swallow stuff. This combination appears to make the following thing: Global symmetries appear to become meaningless, because everything associated with them can vanish in the black hole. However, keeping space deformations fixed means that local symmetries are also fixed. So they appear to become real, instead of auxiliary. Thus, this seems to be quite opposite to our result. And this, and the people doing this kind of research, challenged my view of symmetries. In fact, in such a half-way case, this effect seems to be there.

However, in a full quantum gravity theory, the game changes. Then also space deformations become dynamical. At the same time, black holes need no longer to have the characteristic to swallow stuff forever, because they become dynamical, too. They develop. Thus, to answer what happens really requires full quantum gravity. And because of this situation, I decided to start to work actively on quantum gravity. Because I needed to answer whether our picture of symmetries survive, at least approximately, when there is quantum gravity. And to be able to answer such challenges. And so it began.

Within the last six months, I have now worked through a lot of the basic stuff. I have now a rough idea of what is going on, and what needs to be done. And I think, I see a way how everything can be reconciled, and make sense. It will still need a long time to complete this, but I am very optimistic right now. So optimistic, in fact, that a few days back I gave my first talk, in which I discussed this issues including quantum gravity. It will still need time, before I have a first real result. But I am quite happy how thing progress.

And that is the story how I started to look at quantum gravity in earnest. If you want to join me in this endeavor: I am always looking for collaboration partners and, of course, students who want to do their thesis work on this subject 😁

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Why there won't be warp travel in times of global crises

One of the questions I get most often at outreach events is: "What is about warp travel?", or some other wording for faster-than-light travel. Something, which makes interstellar travel possible, or at least viable.

Well, the first thing I can say is that there is nothing which excludes it. Of course, within our well established theories of the world it is not possible. Neither the standard model of particle physics, nor general relativity, when constrained to the matter we know of, allows it. Thus, whatever describes warp travel, it needs to be a theory, which encompasses and enlarges what we know. Can a quantized combination of general relativity and particle physics do this? Perhaps, perhaps not. Many people think about it really hard. Mostly, we run afoul of causality when trying.

But these are theoretical ideas. And even if some clever team comes up with a theory which allows warp travel, this does not say that this theory is actually realized in nature. Just because we can make it mathematical consistent does not guarantee that it is realized. In fact, we have many, many more mathematical consistent theories than are realized in nature. Thus, it is not enough to just construct a theory of warp travel. Which, as noted, we failed so far to do.

No, what we need is to figure out that it really happens in nature. So far, this did not happen. Neither did we observe it in any human-made experiment, nor did we have any observation in nature which unambiguously point to it. And this is what makes it real hard.

You see, the universe is a tremendous place, which is unbelievable large, and essentially three times as old as the whole planet earth. Not to mention humanity. There happen extremely powerful events out there. This starts from quasars, effectively like a whole galactic core on fire, to black hole collisions and supernovas. These events put out an enormous amount of energy. Much, much more than even our sun generates. Hence, anything short of a big bang is happening all the time in the universe. And we see the results. The earth is hit constantly by particles with much, much higher energies than we can produce in any experiment. And this since earth came into being. Incidentally, this also tells us that nothing we can do at a particle accelerator can really be dangerous. Whatever we do there has happened so often in our Earth's atmosphere, it would have killed this planet long before humanity entered the scene. Only bad thing about it, we do never know when and where such an event happens. And the rate is also not that high, it is only that earth existed already so very long. And is big. Hence, we cannot use this to make controlled observations.

Thus, whatever could happen, happens out there. In the universe. We see some things out there, which we cannot explain yet, e.g. dark matter. But by and large a lot works as expected. Especially, we do not see anything which begs warp travel to explain. Or anything else remotely suggesting something happening faster than the speed of light. Hence, if something like faster-than-light travel is possible, it is neither common nor easily happening.

As noted, this does not mean it is impossible. Only that if it is possible, it is very, very hard. Especially, this means it will be very, very hard to make an experiment to demonstrate the phenomenon. Much less to actually make it a technology, rather than a curiosity. This means, a lot of effort will be necessary to get to see it, if it is really possible.

What is a lot? Well, the CERN is a bit. But human, or even robotic, space exploration is an entire different category, some one to two orders of magnitudes more. Probably, we would need to combine such space exploration with particle physics to really get to it. Possible the best example for such an endeavor is the future LISA project to measure gravitational waves in space. It is perhaps even our current best bet to observe any hints of faster-than-light phenomena, aside from bigger particle physics experiments on earth.

Do we have the technology for such a project? Yes, we do. We have it since roughly a decade. But it will likely take at least one more decade to have LISA flying. Why not now? Resources. Or, often put equivalently, costs.

And here comes the catch. I said, it is our best chance. But this does not mean it is a good chance. In fact, even if faster-than-light is possible, I would be very surprised if we would see it with this mission. There is probably a few more generations of technology, and another order of magnitude of resources, needed, before we could see something, given of what I know how well everything currently fits. Of course, there can always be surprises with every little step further. I am sure, we will discover something interesting, possibly spectacular with LISA. But I would not bet anything valuable that it will be having to do with warp travel.

So, you see, we have to scale up, if we want to go to the stars. This means investing resources. A lot of them. But resources are needed to fix things on earth as well. And the more we damage, the more we need to fix, and the less we have to get to the stars. Right now, humanity moves into a state of perpetual crises. The damage wrought by the climate crises will require enormous efforts to mitigate, much more to stop the downhill trajectory. As a consequence of the climate crises, as well as social inequality, more and more conflicts will create further damage. Finally, isolationism, both nationally as well as socially, driven by fear of the oncoming crises, will also soak up tremendous amounts of resources. And, finally, a hostile environment towards diversity and putting individual gains above common gains create a climate which is hostile to anything new and different in general, and to science in particular. Hence, we will not be able to use our resources, or the ingenuity of the human species as a whole, to get to the stars.

Thus, I am not hopeful to see faster-than-light in my lifetime, or those of the next generation. Such a challenge, if it is possible at all, will require a common effort of our species. That would be truly one worthy endeavour to put our minds at. But right now, as a scientist, I am much more occupied with protecting a world in which science is possible, both metaphorically as well as literally.

But, there is always hope. If we rise up, and decide to change fundamentally. When we put the well-being of us as a whole in front. Then, I would be optimistic that we can get out there. Well, at least as fast as nature permits. How fast this ever will be.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Taking your theory seriously

This blog entry is somewhat different than usual. Rather than writing about some particular research project, I will write about a general vibe, directing my research.

As usual, research starts with a 'why?'. Why does something happen, and why does it happen in this way? Being the theoretician that I am, this question often equates with wanting to have mathematical description of both the question and the answer.

Already very early in my studies I ran into peculiar problems with this desire. It usually left me staring at the words '...and then nature made a choice', asking myself, how could it? A simple example of the problem is a magnet. You all know that a magnet has a north pole and a south pole, and that these two are different. So, how does it happen which end of the magnet becomes the north pole and which the south pole? At the beginning you always get to hear that this is a random choice, and it just happens that one particular is made. But this is not really the answer. If you dig deeper than you find that originally the metal of any magnet has been very hot, likely liquid. In this situation, a magnet is not really magnetic. It becomes magnetic when it is cooled down, and becomes solid. At some temperature (the so-called Curie temperature), it becomes magnetic, and the poles emerge. And here this apparent miracle of a 'choice by nature' happens. Only that it does not. The magnet cools down not all by itself, but it has a surrounding. And the surrounding can have magnetic fields as well, e.g. the earth's magnetic field. And the decision what is south and what is north is made by how the magnet forms relative to this field. And thus, there is a reason. We do not see it directly, because magnets have usually moved since then, and thus this correlation is no longer obvious. But if we would heat the magnet again, and let it cool down again, we could observe this.

But this immediately leaves you with the question of where did the Earth's magnetic field comes from, and got its direction? Well, it comes from the liquid metallic core of the Earth, and aligns along or oppositely, more or less, the rotation axis of the Earth. Thus, the question is, how did the rotation axis of the Earth comes about, and why has it a liquid core? Both questions are well understood, and arise from how the Earth has formed billions of years ago. This is due to the mechanics of the rotating disk of dust and gas which formed around our fledgling sun. Which in turns comes from the dynamics on even larger scales. And so on.

As you see, whenever one had the feeling of a random choice, it was actually the outside of what we looked at so far, which made the decision. So, such questions always lead us to include more into what we try to understand.

'Hey', I now can literally hear people say who are a bit more acquainted with physics, 'does not quantum mechanics makes really random choices?'. The answer to this is yes and no in equal measures. This is probably one of the more fundamental problems of modern physics. Yes, our description of quantum mechanics, as we teach it also in courses, has intrinsic randomness. But when does it occur? Yes, exactly, whenever we jump outside of the box we describe in our theory. Real, random choice is encountered in quantum physics only whenever we transcend the system we are considering. E.g. by an external measurement. This is one of the reasons why this is known as the 'measurement problem'. If we stay inside the system, this does not happen. But at the expense that we are loosing the contact to things, like an ordinary magnet, which we are used to. The objects we are describing become obscure, and we talk about wave functions and stuff like this. Whenever we try to extend our description to also include the measurement apparatus, on the other hand, we again get something which is strange, but not as random as it originally looked. Although talking about it becomes almost impossible beyond any mathematical description. And it is not really clear what random means anymore in this context. This problem is one of the big ones in the concept of physics. While there is a relation to what I am talking about here, this question can still be separated.

And in fact, it is not this divide what I want to talk about, at least not today. I just wanted to get away with this type of 'quantum choice'. Rather, I want to get to something else.

If we stay inside the system we describe, then everything becomes calculable. Our mathematical description is closed in the sense that after fixing a theory, we can calculate everything. Well, at least in principle, in practice our technical capabilities may limit this. But this is of no importance for the conceptual point. Once we have fixed the theory, there is no choice anymore. There is no outside. And thus, everything needs to come from inside the theory. Thus, a magnet in isolation will never magnetize, because there is nothing which can make a decision about how. The different possibilities are caught in an eternal balanced struggle, and none can win.

Which makes a lot of sense, if you take physical theories really seriously. After all, one of the basic tenants is that there is no privileged frame of reference: 'Everything is relative'. If there is nothing else, nothing can happen which creates an absolute frame of reference, without violating the very same principles on which we found physics. If we take our own theories seriously, and push them to the bitter end, this is what needs to come about.

And here I come back to my own research. One of the driving principles has been to really push this seriousness. And ask what it implies if one really, really takes it seriously. Of course, this is based on the assumption that the theory is (sufficiently) adequate, but that is everyday uncertainty for a physicist anyhow. This requires me to very, very carefully separate what is really inside, and outside. And this leads to quite surprising results. Essentially most of my research on Brout-Englert-Higgs physics, as described in previous entries, is coming about because of this approach. And leads partly to results quite at odds with common lore, often meaning a lot of work to convince people. Even if the mathematics is valid and correct, interpretation issues are much more open to debate when it comes to implications.

Is this point of view adequate? After all, we know for sure that we are not yet finished, and our theories do not contain all there is, and there is an 'outside'. However it may look. And I agree. But, I think it is very important that we very clearly distinguish what is an outside influence, and what is not. And as a first step to ensure what is outside, and thus, in a sense, is 'new physics', we need to understand what our theories say if they are taken in isolation.