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Field theory of swords

December 10, 2015

Note: The following is the last in a series of blog posts that I contributed to the blog ribbonfarm.  The series focused on qualitative descriptions of particles and fields, and this one finally brings the topic to a human level.  You can go here to see the original post, which contains some additional discussion in the comments.


I don’t mean to brag, but if you’ve been following this sequence of posts on the topic of particles and fields, then I’ve sort of taught you the secret to modern physics.

The secret goes like this:

Everything arises from fields, and fields arise from everything.

Go ahead.
You can indulge in a good eye-roll over the new-agey sound of that line.
(And over the braggadocio of the author.)

But eye-rolling aside, that line actually does refer to a very profound idea in physics. Namely, that the most fundamental object in nature is the field: a continuous, space-filling entity that has a simple mathematical structure and supports “undulations” or “ripples” that act like physical particles. (I offered a few ways to visualize fields in this post and this post.) To me, it is the most mind-blowing fact of modern physics that we call particles are really just “ripples” or “defects” on some infinite field.

But the miraculousness of fields isn’t just limited to fundamental particles. Fields also emerge at much higher levels of reality, as composite objects made from the motion of many active and jostling things. For example, one can talk about a “field” made from a large collection of electrons, atoms, molecules, cells, or even people. The “particles” in these fields are ripples or defects that move through the crowd. It is one of the miracles of science that essentially any sufficiently large group of interacting objects gives rise to simple collective excitations that behave like independent, free-moving particles.

Maybe this discussion seems excessively esoteric to you.  I can certainly understand that objection. But the truth is that the basic paradigm of particles and fields is so generic and so powerful that one can apply it to just about any level of nature.

So we might as well use it to talk about something awesome.

Let’s talk about swords.

Read more…

A minor memory of Leo Kadanoff

October 31, 2015

Einstein once famously said that “imagination is more important than knowledge.”

But when you’re a graduate student or postdoc struggling to make a career in physics, that quote rarely feels true. Instead, you are usually made to feel like productivity and technical ability are the qualities that will make or break your career.

But Leo Kadanoff was someone who made that quote feel true.

Leo Kadanoff, one of the true giants in theoretical physics during the last half century, passed away just a few days ago. Kadanoff’s work was marked by its depth of thought and its relentless creativity. I’m sure that over the next week many people will be commemorating his life and his career.

But I thought it might be worth telling a brief story about my own memories of Leo Kadanoff, however minor they may be.


During the early part of 2014, I had started playing with some ideas that were well outside my area of expertise (if, indeed, I can be said to have any such area). I thought these projects were pretty cool, but I was tremendously unconfident about them. My lack of confidence was actually pretty justified: I was highly ignorant about the fields to which these projects properly belonged, and I had no reason to think that anyone else would find them interesting. I was also working in the sort-of-sober environment of the Materials Science Division at Argonne National Laboratory, and I was afraid that at any moment my bosses would tell me to shape up and do real science instead of nonsense.

In a moment of insecure hubris (and trust me, that combination of emotions makes sense when you’re a struggling scientist), I wrote an email to Leo Kadanoff. I sent him a draft of a manuscript (which had already been rejected twice without review) and asked him whether he would be willing to give me any comments. The truth is that the work really had no connection to Kadanoff, or to any of his past or present interests. I just knew that he was someone who had wide-ranging interests and a history of creativity, and I wasn’t sure who else to write to.

His reply to me was remarkable. He told me that he found the paper interesting, and that I should come give a seminar and spend a day at the University of Chicago. I quickly took him up on the offer, and he slotted me into his truly remarkable seminar series called “Computations in Science.” (“The title is old,” he said, “inherited from the days when that title would bring in money. We are closer to ‘concepts in science’ or maybe ‘all things considered.’ ”)

When I arrived for the seminar, Kadanoff was the first person to meet me. He had just arrived himself, by bike. Apparently at age 77 he still rode his bike to work every day. We had a very friendly conversation for an hour or so, in which we talked partly about science and partly about life, and in which he gave me a brief guide to theater and music in the city of Chicago. (At one point I mentioned that my wife was about to start medical residency, which is notorious for its long and stressful hours. He sympathized, and said “I am married to a woman who has been remarkably intelligent all of her life, except during her three years of residency.”)

When it came time for the talk to start, I was more than a little nervous.  Kadanoff stood in front of the room to introduce me.

“Brian is a lot like David Nelson …” he began.

[And here my eyes got wide. David Nelson is another giant in theoretical physics, well-respected and well-liked by essentially everyone. So I was bracing myself for some outrageous compliment.]

“… he grew up in a military family.”

I don’t think that line was meant as a joke. But somehow it put me in a good mood, and the rest of the day went remarkably well. The seminar was friendly, and the audience was enthusiastic and critical (another combination of emotions that goes very well together in science). In short, it was a beautiful day for me, and I basked in the atmosphere that surrounded Kadanoff in Chicago. It seemed to me a place where creativity and inquisitiveness were valued intensely, and I found it immensely energizing and inspiring.

Scientists love to tell the public about how their work is driven by the joy of discovery and the pleasure of figuring things out. But rarely does it feel so directly true as it did during my visit to University of Chicago.


On the whole, the truth is that I didn’t know Leo Kadanoff that well.  My interactions with him didn’t extend much beyond one excellent day, a few emails, and a few times where I was in the audience of his talks. But when Kadanoff was around, I really felt like science and the profession of scientist lived up to their promise.

It’s pretty sad to think that I will probably never get that exact feeling again.


Take a moment, if you like, and listen to Kadanoff talk about his greatest work. It starts with comic books.

The miracle of Fermi liquid theory

October 29, 2015

Note: the following is the fourth in a series of five blog post that I was invited to contribute to the blog ribbonfarm on the topic of particles and fields.  You can go here to see the original post, which contains some discussion in the comments.


Let’s start with a big question: why does science work?

Writ large, science is the process of identifying and codifying the rules obeyed by nature. Beyond this general goal, however, science has essentially no specificity of topic.  It attempts to describe natural phenomena on all scales of space, time, and complexity: from atomic nuclei to galaxy clusters to humans themselves.  And the scientific enterprise has been so successful at each and every one of these scales that at this point its efficacy is essentially taken for granted.

But, by just about any a priori standard, the extent of science’s success is extremely surprising. After all, the human brain has a very limited capacity for complex thought. We human tend to think (consciously) only about simple things in simple terms, and we are quickly overwhelmed when asked to simultaneously keep track of multiple independent ideas or dependencies.

As an extreme example, consider that human thinking struggles to describe even individual atoms with real precision. How is it, then, that we can possibly have good science about things that are made up of many atoms, like magnets or tornadoes or eukaryotic cells or planets or animals? It seems like a miracle that the natural world can contain patterns and objects that lie within our understanding, because the individual constituents of those objects are usually far too complex for us to parse.

You can call this occurrence the “miracle of emergence”.  I don’t know how to explain its origin. To me, it is truly one of the deepest and most wondrous realities of the universe: that simplicity continuously emerges from the teeming of the complex.

But in this post I want to try and present the nature of this miracle in one of its cleanest and most essential forms. I’m going to talk about quasiparticles.

Read more…

The simple way to solve that crocodile problem

October 11, 2015

This past week, certain portions of the internet worked themselves into a tizzy over a math problem about a crocodile.

Specifically, this problem:

crocodile_problemThe problem was written into this year’s Higher Maths exam in Scotland, and has since been the source of much angst for Scottish high schoolers and many Twitter jokes for everyone else.


As with most word problems, I’m sure that what confounded people was making the translation between a verbal description of the problem and a set of equations.  The actual math problem that needs to be solved is pretty standard for a calculus class.  It just comes down to finding the minimum of the function T(x) (which is one of the things that calculus is absolutely most useful for).  In practical terms, that means taking the derivative dT/dx and setting it equal to zero.

But it turns out that there is a more clever way to solve the problem that doesn’t require you to know any calculus or take any derivatives.  It has fewer technical steps (and therefore comes with a smaller chance of screwing up your calculation somewhere along the way), but more steps of logical thinking.  And it goes like this.


The problem is essentially asking you to find the path of shortest time for a crocodile moving from one point to another.  If the crocodile were just walking on land, this would be easy: the quickest route is always a straight line.  The tricky part is that the crocodile has to move partly on land and partly on water, and the water section is slower than the land section.

If you want to know the speed of the crocodile on land and on water, you can pretty much read them off directly from the problem statement.  The problem gives you the equation T(x) = 5\sqrt{36 + x} + 4(20-x).  The quantity 20 - x in that equation represents the path length for the on-land section, and the quantity \sqrt{36 + x^2} is the path length for the water section.  (That square root is the length of the hypotenuse of a triangle with side lengths x and 6 — apparently the river is 6 meters wide.)  Since \textrm{time} = \textrm{distance} / \textrm{velocity}, this means that the on-land speed is (10/4) m/s, and the water velocity is (10/5) m/s  (remember that the units of time were given in tenths of a second, and not seconds — not that it matters for the final answer).

That was just interpreting the problem statement.  Now comes the clever part.

The trick is to realize that the problem of “find the shortest time path across two areas with different speed” is not new.  It’s something that nature does continually whenever light passes from one medium to another:


I’m talking, of course, about Fermat’s principle: any time you see light go from one point to another, you can be confident that it took the shortest time path to get there.  And when light goes from one medium to another one where it has a different speed, it bends.  (Like in the picture above: light moves slower through the glass, so the light beam bends inward in order to cross through the glass more quickly.)

The bending of light is described by Snell’s law:

\sin(\theta_1)/\sin(\theta_2) = v_1/v_2,

where v_1 and v_2 are the speeds in regions 1 and 2, and \theta_1 and \theta_2 are the angles that the light makes with the surface normal.

Since our crocodile is solving the exact same problem as a light ray, it follows that its motion is described by the exact same equation.  Which means this:

crocodile_refraction(\sin \theta_r)/(\sin \theta_l) = v_r/v_l

Here, v_l = (10/4) m/s is the crocodile speed on land, and v_r = (10/5) m/s is its speed in the river.  The sine of 90^o is 1, and the sine of \theta_r is \text{opposite}/\text{hypotenuse} = x/\sqrt{36 + x^2}.

So in the end the fastest path for the crocodile is the one that satisfies

x/\sqrt{36 + x^2} = 4/5.

If you solve that equation (square both sides and rearrange), you’ll get the correct answer: x = 8 m.

So knowing some basic optics will give you a quick solution to the crocodile problems.

This happy coincidence brings to mind a great Richard Feynman quote: “Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.”  It turns out that this particular tapestry had both light rays and crocodiles in it.



By the way, this post has a very cool footnote.  It turns out that ants frequently have to solve a version of this same problem: they need to make an efficient trail from the anthill to some food source, but the trail passes over different pieces of terrain that have different walking speeds.

And, as it turns out, ants understand how to follow Fermat’s principle too!  (original paper here)

What would you teach if you could teach absolutely anything?

September 28, 2015

Suppose someone told you the following:

You are invited to teach a class to a group of highly-motivated high school students.  It can be about absolutely any topic, and can last for as little as 5 minutes or as long as 9 hours.

What topic would you choose for your class?


As it happens, this is not just a hypothetical question for me at the moment.  In November MIT is hosting its annual MIT Splash event, and the call for volunteer teachers is almost exactly what is written in the quote above.  Students, staff, and faculty from all over MIT are invited to teach short courses on a topic of their choosing, and the results are pretty wild.

A few of my favorite courses from last year:

  • The History of Video Game Music
  • How to Create a Language
  • Cryptography for People Without a Computer
  • Build a Mini Aeroponic Farm
  • Calculating Pi With a Coconut
  • Advanced Topics in Murder


So now I would like to turn to you, dear blog readers, for help.

What should I teach about?  Please let me know, in the comments, what you think about either of these two questions:

  1. If you were a high school student, what kind of class would you want to go to?
  2. If you were in my position, what kind of class would you want to teach?


The two ideas that come to mind immediately are:

  • Quantum Mechanics with middle school math

Use Algebra 1 – level math to figure out answers to questions like: What is wave/particle duality? How big is an atom? How do magnets work?  What is quantum entanglement?

  • The Math Behind Basketball Strategy

Learn about some of the difficult strategic decisions that basketball teams are faced with, and see how they can be described with math.  Then solve a few of them yourself!

Imagining yourself as a high school student, which of those two sounds better to you?  Any suggestions for alternative ideas or refinements?


UPDATE:  You can find my courses listed on the MIT Splash catalog here.  Thanks for all your helpful comments, everyone!  This should be a lot of fun.

Samuel Beckett’s Guide to Particles and Antiparticles

September 24, 2015

Note: the following is the third in a series of five blog post that I was invited to contribute to the blog ribbonfarm on the topic of particles and fields.  You can go here to see the original post, which contains some discussion in the comments.


I was 12 years old when I first encountered this quote by Samuel Beckett:

“Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.”

That quote impressed me quite a bit at the time. It appeared to my young self to be simultaneously profound, important, and impossible to understand. Now, nineteen years later, I’m still not sure I understand what Beckett meant by that short sentence. But I nonetheless find that its dark Zen has worked itself into me indelibly.

The Beckett quote comes to mind in particular as I sit down to write again about quantum field theory (QFT). QFT, to recap, is the science of describing particles, the most basic building blocks of matter. QFT concerns itself with how particles move, how they interact with each other, how they arise from nothingness, and how they disappear into nothingness again. As a framing idea or motif for QFT, I can’t resist presenting an adaptation of Beckett’s words as they might apply to the idea of particles and fields:

“Every particle is an unnecessary defect in a smooth and featureless field.”

Of course, it is not my intention to depress anyone with existential philosophy. But in this post I want to introduce, in a pictorial way, the idea of particles as defects. The discussion will allow me to draw some fun pictures, and also to touch on some deeper questions in physics like “what is the difference between matter and antimatter?”, “what is meant by rest mass energy?”, “what are fermions and bosons?”, and “why does the universe have matter instead of nothing?”


Let’s start by imagining that you have screwed up your zipper.

A properly functioning zipper, in the pictorial land of this blog post, looks like this:


But let’s say that your zipper has become dysfunctional, perhaps because of an overly hasty zip, and now looks more like this:

screwed_zipperThis zipper is in a fairly unhappy state. There is zipping a defect right in the middle of it: the two teeth above the letter “B” have gotten twisted around each other, and now all the zipper parts in the neighborhood of that pair are bending and bulging with stress. You could relieve all that stress, with a little work, by pulling the two B teeth back around each other.

But maybe you don’t want to fix it. You could, instead, push the two teeth labeled “A” around each other, and similarly for the two “C” teeth. Then the zipper would end up in a state like this:

zipper_defects-apartNow you may notice that your zipping error looks not like one defect, but like two defects that have become separated from each other. The first defect is a spot where two upper teeth are wedged between an adjacent pair of lower teeth (this is centered more or less around the number “1”). The second defect is a spot where two lower teeth are wedged between two upper teeth (“2”).

You can continue the process of moving the defects away from each other, if you want. Just keep braiding the teeth on the outside of each defect around each other. After a long while of this process, you might end up with something that looks like this:


In this picture the two types of defects have been moved so far from each other that you can sort of forget that they came from the same place. You can now describe them independently, if you want, in terms of how hard it is to move them around and how much stress they create in the zipper. If you ever bring them back together again, though, the two defects will eliminate each other, and the zipper will be healed.

My contention in this post is that what we call particles and antiparticles are something like those zipper defects. Empty space (the vacuum) is like an unbroken zipper, with all the teeth sewed up in their proper arrangement. In this sense, empty space can be called “smooth”, or “featureless”, but it cannot really be said to have nothing in it. The zipper is in it, and with the zipper comes the potential for creating pairs of equal and opposite defects that can move about as independent objects. The potential for defects, and all that comes with them, is present in the zipper itself.

Like the zipper, the quantum fields that pervade all of space encode within themselves the potential for particles and antiparticles, and dictate the rules of how they behave. Creating those particles and antiparticles may be difficult, just as moving two teeth around each other in the zipper can be difficult, and such creation results in lots of “stress” in the field. The total amount of stress created in the field is the analog of the rest mass energy of a particle (as defined by Einstein’s famous  E = mc^2 , which says that a particle with large mass takes a lot of energy to create). Once created, the particles and antiparticles can move away from each other as independent objects, but if they ever come back together all of their energy is released, and the field is healed.

Since the point of this post is to be “picture book”, let me offer a couple more visual analogies for particles and antiparticles.  While the zipper example is more or less my own invention, the following examples come from actual field theory.

Imagine now a long line of freely-swinging pendulums, all affixed to a central axle.  And let’s say that you tie the ends of adjacent pendulums together with elastic bands. Perhaps something like this:


In its rest state, this field will have all its pendulums pointing downward. But consider what would happen if someone were to grab one of the pendulums in the middle of the line and flip it around the axle. This process would create two defects, or “kinks”, in the line of pendulums. One defect is a 360 degree clockwise flip around the axis, and the other is a 360 degree counterclockwise flip. Something like this:


As with the zipper, each of these kinks represents a sort of frustrating state for the field. The universe would prefer for all those pendulums to be pulled downward with gravity, but when there is a kink in the line this is impossible. Consequently, there is a large (“rest mass”) energy associated with each kink, and this energy can only be released when two opposite kinks are brought together.

(By the way, the defects in this “line of pendulums” example are an example of what we call solitons.  Their motion is described by the so-called Sine-Gordon equation.  You can go on YouTube and watch a number of videos of people playing with these kinds of things.)

In case you’re starting to worry that these kinds of particle-antiparticle images are only possible in one dimension, let me assuage your fears by offering one more example, this time in two dimensions. Consider a field that is made up of arrows pointing in the 2D plane. These arrows have no preferred direction that they like to point in, but each arrow likes to point in the same direction as its neighbors. In other words, there is an energetic cost to having neighboring arrows point in different directions. Consequently, the lowest energy arrangement for the field looks something like this:

aligned_arrowsIf an individual arrow is wiggled slightly out of alignment with its neighbors, the situation can be righted easily by nudging it back into place. But it is possible to make big defects in the field that cannot be fixed without a painful, large-scale rearrangement. Like this vortex:


Or this configuration, which is called an antivortex:

antivortexThe reason for the name antivortex is that a vortex and antivortex are in a very exact sense opposite partners to each other, meaning that they are created from the vacuum in pairs and they can destroy each other when brought together. Like this:


(A wonky note: this “field of arrows” is what one calls a vector field, as opposed to a scalar field. What I have described is known as the XY model. It will make an appearance in my next post as well.)


Now that you have some pictures, let me use them as a backdrop for some deeper and more general ideas about QFT.

The first important idea that you should remember is that in a quantum field, nothing is ever allowed to be at rest. All the pieces that make up the field are continuously jittering back and forth: the teeth of the zipper are rattling around and occasionally twisting over each other; the pendulums are swinging back and forth, and on rare occasion swinging all the way over the axle; the arrows are shivering and occasionally making spontaneous vortex-antivortex pairs. In this way the vacuum is never quiet. In fact, it is completely correct to say that from the vacuum there are always spontaneously arising particle-antiparticle pairs, although these usually annihilate each other quickly after appearing. (Which is not to say that they never make their presence felt.)

If you read the previous post, you might also notice a big difference between the way I talk about fields here and the way I talked about them before. The previous post employed much more pastoral language, going on about gentle “ripples” in an infinite quantum “mattress”. But this post uses the harsher imagery of “unhappy defects” that cannot find rest. (Perhaps you should have expected this, since the last post was “A children’s picture book”, while this one is “Samuel Beckett’s Guide”.) But the two types of language were actually chosen to reflect a fundamental dichotomy of the fields of nature.

In particular, the previous post was really a description of what we call bosonic fields (named after the great Indian physicist Satyendra Bose). A bosonic field houses quantized ripples that we call particles, but it admits no concept of antiparticles. All excitations of a bosonic field are essentially the same as all others, and these excitations can blend with each other and overlap and interfere and, generally speaking, happily coincide at the same place and the same time. Equivalently, one can say that bosonic particles are the same as bosonic antiparticles.  In a bosonic field with many excitations, all particles are one merry slosh and there is literally no way of saying how many of them you have. In the language of physics, we say that for bosonic fields the particle number is “not conserved”.

The pictures presented in this post, however, were of fermionic fields (after the Italian Enrico Fermi). The particles of fermionic fields — fermions — are very different objects than bosons. For one thing, there is no ambiguity about their number: if you want to know how many you have, you just need to count how many “kinks” or “vortices” there are in your field (their number is conserved). Fermions also don’t share space well with each other – there is really no way to put two kinks or two vortices on top of each other, since they each have hard “cores”. These properties of fermions, together, imply that they are much more suitable for making solid, tangible matter than bosons are. You don’t have to worry about a bunch of fermions constantly changing their number or collapsing into a big heap. Consequently, it is only fermions that make up atoms (electrons, protons, and neutrons are all fermions), and it is only fermions that typically get referred to as matter.

Of course, bosonic fields still play an important role in nature.  But they appear mostly in the form of so-called force carriers. Specifically, bosons are usually seen only when they mediate interactions between fermions.  This mediation is basically a process in which some fermion slaps the sloshy sea of a bosonic field, and thereby sets a wave in motion that ends up hitting another fermion. It is in this way that our fermionic atoms get held together (or pushed apart), and fermionic matter abides.

Finally, you might be bothered by the idea that particles and antiparticles are always created together, and are therefore seemingly always on the verge of destruction. It is true, of course, that a single particle by itself is perfectly stable. But if every particle is necessarily created together with the agent of its own destruction, an antiparticle, then why isn’t any given piece of matter subject to being annihilated at any moment? Why do the solid, matter-y things that we see around us persist for so long? Why isn’t the world plagued by randomly-occurring atomic blasts?

In other words, where are all the anti-particles?

The best I can say about this question is that it is one of the biggest puzzles of modern physics. (It is often, boringly, called the “baryon asymmetry” problem; I might have called it the “random atomic bombs” problem.) To use the language of this post, we somehow ended up in a universe, or at least a neighborhood of the universe, where there are more “kinks” than “antikinks”, or more “vortices” than “antivortices”.  This observation brings up a rabbit hole of deep questions. For example, does it imply that there is some asymmetry between matter and antimatter that we don’t understand? Or are we simply lucky enough to live in a suburb of the universe where one type of matter predominates over the other? How unlikely would that have to be before it seems too unlikely to swallow?

And, for that matter, are we even allowed to use the fact of our own existence as evidence for a physical law? After all, if matter were equally common as antimatter, then no one would be around to ask the question.

And perhaps Samuel Beckett would have preferred it that way.



Draw me a picture of a Cooper pair

September 13, 2015

As part of a friendly blog post exchange, I just contributed a guest post to the condensed matter physics blog This Condensed Life.  My goal was to explain how to think about Cooper pairs, which are the paired states of electrons that enable superconductivity.

You can read the post here.


As a teaser, I’ll give you my preferred picture of a Cooper pair:

standing_wavewhich I think is an upgrade over the typical illustrations.