Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Dear Dr. B: What is emergent gravity?

    “Hello Sabine, I've seen a couple of articles lately on emergent gravity. I'm not a scientist so I would love to read one of your easy-to-understand blog entries on the subject.


    Michael Tucker
    Wichita, KS”

Dear Michael,

Emergent gravity has been in the news lately because of a new paper by Erik Verlinde. I’ll tell you some more about that paper in an upcoming post, but answering your question makes for a good preparation.

The “gravity” in emergent gravity refers to the theory of general relativity in the regimes where we have tested it. That means Einstein’s field equations and curved space-time and all that.

The “emergent” means that gravity isn’t fundamental, but instead can be derived from some underlying structure. That’s what we mean by “emergent” in theoretical physics: If theory B can be derived from theory A but not the other way round, then B emerges from A.

You might be more familiar with seeing the word “emergent” applied to objects or properties of objects, which is another way physicists use the expression. Sound waves in the theory of gases, for example, emerge from molecular interactions. Van-der Waals forces emerge from quantum electrodynamics. Protons emerge from quantum chromodynamics. And so on.

Everything that isn’t in the standard model or general relativity is known to be emergent already. And since I know that it annoys so many of you, let me point out again that, yes, to our current best knowledge this includes cells and brains and free will. Fundamentally, you’re all just a lot of interacting particles. Get over it.

General relativity and the standard model are the currently the most fundamental descriptions of nature which we have. For the theoretical physicist, the interesting question is then whether these two theories are also emergent from something else. Most physicists in the field think the answer is yes. And any theory in which general relativity – in the tested regimes – is derived from a more fundamental theory, is a case of “emergent gravity.”

That might not sound like such a new idea and indeed it isn’t. In string theory, for example, gravity – like everything else – “emerges” from, well, strings. There are a lot of other attempts to explain gravitons – the quanta of the gravitational interaction – as not-fundamental “quasi-particles” which emerge, much like sound-waves, because space-time is made of something else. An example for this is the model pursued by Xiao-Gang Wen and collaborators in which space-time, and matter, and really everything is made of qbits. Including cells and brains and so on.

Xiao-Gang’s model stands out because it can also include the gauge-groups of the standard model, though last time I looked chirality was an issue. But there are many other models of emergent gravity which focus on just getting general relativity. Lorenzo Sindoni has written a very useful, though quite technical, review of such models.

Almost all such attempts to have gravity emerge from some underlying “stuff” run into trouble because the “stuff” defines a preferred frame which shouldn’t exist in general relativity. They violate Lorentz-invariance, which we know observationally is fulfilled to very high precision.

An exception to this is entropic gravity, an idea pioneered by Ted Jacobson 20 years ago. Jacobson pointed out that there are very close relations between gravity and thermodynamics, and this research direction has since gained a lot of momentum.

The relation between general relativity and thermodynamics in itself doesn’t make gravity emergent, it’s merely a reformulation of gravity. But thermodynamics itself is an emergent theory – it describes the behavior of very large numbers of some kind of small things. Hence, that gravity looks a lot like thermodynamics makes one think that maybe it’s emergent from the interaction of a lot of small things.

What are the small things? Well, the currently best guess is that they’re strings. That’s because string theory is (at least to my knowledge) the only way to avoid the problems with Lorentz-invariance violation in emergent gravity scenarios. (Gravity is not emergent in Loop Quantum Gravity – its quantized version is directly encoded in the variables.)

But as long as you’re not looking at very short distances, it might not matter much exactly what gravity emerges from. Like thermodynamics was developed before it could be derived from statistical mechanics, we might be able to develop emergent gravity before we know what to derive it from.

This is only interesting, however, if the gravity that “emerges” is only approximately identical to general relativity, and differs from it in specific ways. For example, if gravity is emergent, then the cosmological constant and/or dark matter might emerge with it, whereas in our current formulation, these have to be added as sources for general relativity.

So, in summary “emergent gravity” is a rather vague umbrella term that encompasses a large number of models in which gravity isn’t a fundamental interaction. The specific theory of emergent gravity which has recently made headlines is better known as “entropic gravity” and is, I would say, the currently most promising candidate for emergent gravity. It’s believed to be related to, or maybe even be part of string theory, but if there are such links they aren’t presently well understood.

Thanks for an interesting question!

Aside: Sorry about the issue with the comments. I turned on G+ comments, thinking they'd be displayed in addition, but that instead removed all the other comments. So I've reset this to the previous version, though I find it very cumbersome to have to follow four different comment threads for the same post.

Monday, November 28, 2016

This isn’t quantum physics. Wait. Actually it is.

Rocket science isn’t what it used to be. Now that you can shoot someone to Mars if you can spare a few million, the colloquialism for “It’s not that complicated” has become “This isn’t quantum physics.” And there are many things which aren’t quantum physics. For example, making a milkshake:
“Guys, this isn’t quantum physics. Put the stuff in the blender.”
Or losing weight:
“if you burn more calories than you take in, you will lose weight. This isn't quantum physics.”
Or economics:
“We’re not talking about quantum physics here, are we? We’re talking ‘this rose costs 40p, so 10 roses costs £4’.”
You should also know that Big Data isn’t Quantum Physics and Basketball isn’t Quantum Physics and not driving drunk isn’t quantum physics. Neither is understanding that “[Shoplifting isn’t] a way to accomplish anything of meaning,” or grasping that no doesn’t mean yes.

But my favorite use of the expression comes from Noam Chomsky who explains how the world works (so the modest title of his book):
“Everybody knows from their own experience just about everything that’s understood about human beings – how they act and why – if they stop to think about it. It’s not quantum physics.”
From my own experience, stopping to think and believing one understands other people effortlessly is the root of much unnecessary suffering. Leaving aside that it’s quite remarkable some people believe they can explain the world, and even more remarkable others buy their books, all of this is, as a matter of fact, quantum physics. Sorry, Noam.

Yes, that’s right. Basketballs, milkshakes, weight loss – it’s all quantum physics. Because it’s all happening by the interactions of tiny particles which obey the rules of quantum mechanics. If it wasn’t for quantum physics, there wouldn’t be atoms to begin with. There’d be no Sun, there’d be no drunk driving, and there’d be no rocket science.

Quantum mechanics is often portrayed as the theory of the very small, but this isn’t so. Quantum effects can stretch over large distances and have been measured over distances up to several hundred kilometers. It’s just that we don’t normally observe them in daily life.

The typical quantum effects that you have heard of – things whose position and momentum can’t be measured precisely, are both dead and alive, have a spooky action at a distance and so on – don’t usually manifest themselves for large objects. But that doesn’t mean that the laws of quantum physics suddenly stop applying at a hair’s width. It’s just that the effects are feeble and human experience is limited. There is some quantum physics, however, which we observe wherever we look: If it wasn’t for Pauli’s exclusion principle, you’d fall right through the ground.

Indeed, a much more interesting question is What is not quantum physics?” For all we presently know, the only thing not quantum is space-time and its curvature, manifested by gravity. Most physicists believe, however, that gravity too is a quantum theory, just that we haven’t been able to figure out how this works.

“This isn’t quantum physics,” is the most unfortunate colloquialism ever because really everything is quantum physics. Including Noam Chomsky.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

I wrote you a song.

I know you’ve all missed my awesome chord progressions and off-tune singing, so I’ve made yet another one of my music videos!

In the attempt to protect you from my own appearance, I recently invested some money into an animation software by name Anime Studio. It has a 350 pages tutorial. Me being myself, I didn’t read it. But I spent the last weekend clicking on any menu item that couldn’t vanish quickly enough, and I’ve integrated the outcome into the above video. I think I kind of figured out now how the basics work. I might do some more of this. It was actually fun to make a visual idea into a movie, something I’ve never done before. Though it might help if I could draw, so excuse the sickly looking tree.

Having said this, I also need to get myself a new video editing software. I’m presently using the Corel VideoStudio Pro which, after the Win10 upgrade works even worse than it did before. I could not for the hell of it export the clip with both good video and audio quality. In the end I sacrificed on the video quality, so sorry about the glitches. They’re probably simply computation errors or, I don’t know, the ghost of Windows 7 still haunting my hard disk.

The song I hope explains itself. One could say it’s the aggregated present mood of my facebook and twitter feeds. You can download the mp3 here.

I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving, and I want to thank you for giving me some of your attention, every now and then. I especially thank those of you who have paid attention to the donate-button in the top right corner. It’s not much that comes in through this channel, but for me it makes all the difference -- it demonstrates that you value my writing and that keeps me motivated.

I’m somewhat behind with a few papers that I wanted to tell you about, so I’ll be back next week with more words and fewer chords. Meanwhile, enjoy my weltschmerz song ;)

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A new theory SMASHes problems

Most of my school nightmares are history exams. But I also have physics nightmares, mostly about not being able to recall Newton’s laws. Really, I didn’t like physics in school. The way we were taught the subject, it was mostly dead people’s ideas. On the rare occasion our teacher spoke about contemporary research, I took a mental note every time I heard “nobody knows.” Unsolved problems were what fascinated me, not laws I knew had long been replaced by better ones.

Today, mental noting is no longer necessary – Wikipedia helpfully lists the unsolved problems in physics. And indeed, in my field pretty much every paper starts with a motivation that names at least one of these problems, preferably several.

A recent paper which excels on this count is that of Guillermo Ballesteros and collaborators, who propose a new phenomenological model named SM*A*S*H.
    Unifying inflation with the axion, dark matter, baryogenesis and the seesaw mechanism
    Guillermo Ballesteros, Javier Redondo, Andreas Ringwald, Carlos Tamarit
    arXiv:1608.05414 [hep-ph]

A phenomenological model in high energy particle physics is an extension of the Standard Model by additional particles (or fields, respectively) for which observable, and potentially testable, consequences can be derived. There are infinitely many such models, so to grab the reader’s attention, you need a good motivation why your model in particular is worth the attention. Ballesteros et al do this by tackling not one but five different problems! The name SM*A*S*H stands for Standard Model*Axion*Seesaw*Higgs portal inflation.

First, there are the neutrino oscillations. Neutrinos can oscillate into each other if at least two of them have small but nonzero masses. But neutrinos are fermions and fermions usually acquire masses by a coupling between left-handed and right-handed versions of the particle. Trouble is, nobody has ever seen a right-handed neutrino. We have measured only left-handed neutrinos (or right-handed anti-neutrinos).

So to explain neutrino oscillations, there either must be right-handed neutrinos so heavy we haven’t yet seen them. Or the neutrinos differ from the other fermions – they could be so-called Majorana neutrinos, which can couple to themselves and that way create masses. Nobody knows which is the right explanation.

Ballesteros et al in their paper assume heavy right-handed neutrinos. These create small masses for the left-handed neutrinos by a process called see-saw. This is an old idea, but the authors then try to use these heavy neutrinos also for other purposes.

The second problem they take on is the baryon asymmetry, or the question why matter was left over from the Big Bang but no anti-matter. If matter and anti-matter had existed in equal amounts – as the symmetry between them would suggest – then they would have annihilated to radiation. Or, if some of the stuff failed to annihilate, the leftovers should be equal amounts of both matter and anti-matter. We have not, however, seen any large amounts of anti-matter in the universe. These would be surrounded by tell-tale signs of matter-antimatter annihilation, and none have been observed. So, presently, nobody knows what tilted the balance in the early universe.

In the SM*A*S*H model, the right-handed neutrinos give rise to the baryon asymmetry by a process called thermal leptogenesis. This works basically because the most general way to add right-handed neutrinos to the standard model already offers an option to violate this symmetry. One just has to get the parameters right. That too isn’t a new idea. What’s interesting is that Ballesteros et al point out it’s possible to choose the parameters so that the neutrinos also solve a third problem.

The third problem is dark matter. The universe seems to contain more matter than we can see at any wavelength we have looked at. The known particles of the standard model do not fit the data – they either interact too strongly or don’t form structures efficiently enough. Nobody knows what dark matter is made of. (If it is made of something. Alternatively, it could be a modification of gravity. Regardless of what xkcd says.)

In the model proposed by Ballesteros, the right-handed neutrinos could make up the dark matter. That too is an old idea and it’s not working very well: The more massive of the right-handed neutrinos can decay into lighter ones by emitting a photon and this hasn’t been seen. The problem here is getting the mass range of the neutrinos to both work for dark matter and the baryon asymmetry. Ballesteros et al solve this problem by making up dark matter mostly from something else, a particle called the axion. This particle has the benefit of also being good to solve a fourth problem.

Fourth, the strong CP problem. The standard model is lacking a possible interaction term which would cause the strong nuclear force to violate CP symmetry. We know this term is either absent or very tiny because otherwise the neutron would have an electric dipole moment, which hasn’t been observed.

This problem can be fixed by promoting the constant in front of this term (the theta parameter) to a field. The field then will move towards the minimum of the potential, explaining the smallness of the parameter. The field however is accompanied by a particle (dubbed the “axion” by Frank Wilczek) which hasn’t been observed. Nobody knows whether the axion exists.

In the SMASH model, the axion gives rise to dark matter by leaving behind a condensate and particles that are created in the early universe from the decay of topological defects (strings and domain walls). The axion gets its mass from an additional quark-like field (denoted with Q in the paper), and also solves the strong CP problem.

Fifth, inflation, the phase of rapid expansion in the early universe. Inflation was invented to explain several observational puzzles, notably why the temperature of the cosmic microwave background seems to be almost the same in every direction we look (up to small fluctuations). That’s surprising because in a universe without inflation the different parts of the hot plasma in the early universe which created this radiation had never been in contact before. They thus had no chance to exchange energy and come to a common temperature. Inflation solves this problem by blowing up an initially small patch to gigantic size. Nobody knows, however, what causes inflation. It’s normally assumed to be some scalar field. But where that field came from or what happened to it is unclear.

Ballesteros and his collaborators assume that the scalar field which gives rise to inflation is the Higgs – the only fundamental scalar which we have so far observed. This too is an old idea, and one that works badly. To make Higgs inflation works, one needs to introduce an unconventional coupling of the Higgs field to gravity, and this leads to a breakdown of the theory (loss of unitarity) in ranges where one needs it to work (ie the breakdown can’t be blamed on quantum gravity).

The SM*A*S*H model contains an additional scalar field which gives rise to a more complicated coupling and the authors claim that in this case the breakdown doesn’t happen until at the Planck scale (where it can be blamed on quantum gravity).

So, in summary, we have three right-handed neutrinos with their masses and mixing matrix, a new quark-like field and its mass, the axion field, a scalar field, the coupling between the scalar and the Higgs, the self-coupling of the scalar, the coupling of the quark to the scalar, the axion decay constant, the coupling of the Higgs to gravity, and the coupling of the new scalar to gravity. Though I might have missed something.

In case you just scrolled down to see if I think this model might be correct. The answer is almost certainly no. It’s a great model according to the current quality standard in the field. But when you combine several speculative ideas without observational evidence, you don’t get a model that is less speculative and has more evidence speaking for it.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Away Note

I’ll be in London for a few days, attending a RAS workshop on “Fine-Tuning on the Cosmological and the Quantum Scales.” First time I’m speaking about the topic, so a little nervous about that.

It just so happens that tomorrow evening theres a public lecture in London by Roger Penrose which I might or might not attend, depending on whether my flight arrives as planned. Feeling somewhat bad because I haven’t read his recent book. Just judging by the title I’m afraid it might have some overlap with mine.

This public lecture is arranged by the Ideas Roadshow, which I mentioned before. It’s run by Howard Burton, former director of PI. They have some teaser videos which you might enjoy:

Speaking of former directors, I believe Neil Turok’s term at PI is about to run out and I want to complain that I haven’t yet heard rumors who’s in the pipe^^.

As for this blog, please expect that comments might get stuck in the queue longer than usual.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Steven Weinberg doesn’t like Quantum Mechanics. So what?

A few days ago, Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg gave a one-hour lecture titled “What’s the matter with quantum mechanics?” at a workshop for science writers organized by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW).

In his lecture, Weinberg expressed a newfound sympathy for the critics of quantum mechanics.
“I’m not as happy about quantum mechanics as I used to be, and not as dismissive of the critics. And it’s a bad sign in particular that those physicists who are happy about quantum mechanics, who see nothing wrong with it, don’t agree with each other about what it means.”
You can watch the full lecture here. (The above quote is at 17:40.)

It’s become a cliché that physicists in their late years develop an obsession with quantum mechanics. On this account, you can file Weinberg together with Mermin and Penrose and Smolin. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s something which has bothered them all along, they just never saw it as important enough. Maybe it’s because they start paying more attention to their intuition, and quantum mechanics – widely regarded as non-intuitive – begins itching. Or maybe it’s because they conclude it’s the likely reason we haven’t seen any progress in the foundations of physics for 30 years.

Whatever Weinberg’s motivation, he doesn’t like neither Copenhagen, nor Many Worlds, nor decoherent or consistent histories, and he seems to be allergic to pilot waves (1:02:15). As for qbism, which Mermin finds so convincing, that doesn’t even seem noteworthy to Weinberg.

I learned quantum mechanics in the mid-1990s from Walter Greiner, the one with the textbook series. (He passed away a few weeks ago at age 80.) Walter taught the Copenhagen Interpretation. The attitude he conveyed in his lectures was what Mermin dubbed “shut up and calculate.”

Of course I as most other students spent some time looking into the different interpretations of quantum mechanics – nothing’s more interesting than the topics your prof refuses to talk about. But I’m an instrumentalist by heart and also I quite like the mathematics of quantum mechanics, so I never had a problem with the Copenhagen Interpretation. I’m also, however, a phenomenologist. And so I’ve always thought of quantum mechanics as an incomplete, not fundamental, theory which needs to be superseded by a better, underlying explanation.

My misgivings of quantum mechanics are pretty much identical to the ones which Weinberg expresses in his lecture. The axioms of quantum mechanics, whatever interpretation you chose, are unsatisfactory for a reductionist. They should not mention the process of measurement, because the fundamental theory should tell you what a measurement is.

If you believe the wave-function is a real thing (psi-ontic), decoherence doesn’t solve the issue because you’re left with a probabilistic state that needs to be suddenly updated. If you believe the wave-function only encodes information (psi-epistemic) and the update merely means we’ve learned something new, then you have to explain who learns and how they learn. None of the currently existing interpretations address these issues satisfactorily.

It isn’t so surprising I’m with Weinberg on this because despite attending Greiner’s lectures, I never liked Greiner’s textbooks. That we students were more or less forced to buy them didn’t make them any more likable. So I scraped together my Deutsche Marks and bought Weinberg’s textbooks, which I loved for the concise mathematical approach.

I learned both general relativity and quantum field theory from Weinberg’s textbooks. I also later bought Weinberg’s lectures on Quantum Mechanics which appeared in 2013, but haven’t actually read them, except for section 3.7, where he concludes that:
“[T]oday there is no interpretation of quantum mechanics that does not have serious flaws, and [we] ought to take seriously the possibility of finding some more satisfactory other theory, to which quantum mechanics is merely a good approximation.”
It’s not much of a secret that I’m a fan of non-local hidden variables (aka superdeterminism), which I believe to be experimentally testable. To my huge frustration, however, I haven’t been able to find an experimental group willing and able to do that. I am therefore happy that Weinberg emphasizes the need to find a better theory, and to also look for experimental evidence. I don’t know what he thinks of superdeterminism. But superdeterminism or something else, I think probing quantum mechanics in new regimes is best shot we presently have at making progress on the foundations of physics.

I therefore don’t understand the ridicule aimed at those who think that quantum mechanics needs an overhaul. Being unintuitive and feeling weird doesn’t make a theory wrong – we can all agree on this. We don’t even have to agree it’s unintuitive – I actually don’t think so. Intuition comes with use. Even if you can’t stomach the math, you can build your quantum intuition for example by playing “Quantum Moves,” a video game that crowd-sources players’ solutions for quantum mechanical optimization problems. Interestingly, humans do better than algorithms (at least for now).

[Weinberg (left), getting some
kind of prize or title. Don't
know for what. Image: CASW]
So, yeah, maybe quantum physics isn’t weird. And even if it is, being weird doesn’t make it wrong, and therefore you don’t think it’s a promising research avenue to pursue. Fine, then don’t. But before you make jokes about physicists who rely on their intuition, let us be clear that being ugly doesn’t make a theory wrong either. And yet it’s presently entirely acceptable to develop new theories with the only aim of prettifying the existing ones.

I don’t think for example that numerological coincidences are problems worth thinking about – they’re questions of aesthetic appeal. The mass of the Higgs is much smaller than the Planck mass. So what? The spatial curvature of the universe is almost zero, the cosmological constant tiny, and the electric dipole moment of the neutron is for all we know absent. Why should that bother me? If you think that’s a mathematical inconsistency, think again – it’s not. There’s no logical reason for why that shouldn’t be so. It’s just that to our human sense it doesn’t quite feel right.

A huge amount of work has gone into curing these “problems” because finetuned constants aren’t thought of as beautiful. But in my eyes the cures are all worse than the disease: Solutions usually require the introduction of additional fields and potentials for these fields and personally I think it’s much preferable to just have a constant – is there any axiom simpler than that?

The difference between the two research areas is that there are tens of thousands of theorists trying to make the fundamental laws of nature less ugly, but only a few hundred working on making them less weird. That in and by itself is reason to shift focus to quantum foundations, just because it’s the path less trodden and more left to explore.

But maybe I’m just old beyond my years. So I’ll shut up now and go back to my calculations.