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 😁