So I had a busy week from Feb 7-13, which was when the workshop Higher Gauge Theory, TQFT, and Quantum Gravity (or HGTQGR) was held here in Lisbon. It ended up being a full day from 0930h to 1900h pretty much every day, except the last. We’d tried to arrange it so that there were coffee breaks and discussion periods, but there was also a plethora of talks. Most of the people there seemed to feel that it ended up pretty well. Since then I’ve been occupied with other things – family visiting the country, for one, so it’s taken a while to get around to writing it up. Since there were several parts to the event, I’ll do this in several parts as well, of which this is the first one.

Part of the point of the workshop was to bring together a few related subjects in which category theoretic ideas come into areas of mathematics which play a role in physics, and hopefully to build some bridges toward applications. While it leaned pretty strongly on the mathematical side of this bridge, I think we did manage to get some interaction at the overlap. Roger Picken drew a nifty picture on the whiteboard at the end of the workshop summarizing how a lot of the themes of the talks clustered around the three areas mentioned in the title, and suggesting how TQFT really does form something of a bridge between the other two – one reason it’s become a topic of some interest recently. I’ll try to build this up to a similar punchline.

**Pre-School**

Before the actual event began, though, we had a bunch of talks at IST for a local audience, to try to explain to mathematicians what the physics part of the workshop was about. Aleksandr Mikovic gave a two-talk introduction to Quantum Gravity, and Sebastian Guttenberg gave a two-part intro to String Theory. These are two areas where higher gauge theory (in the form of n-connections and n-bundles, or of n-gerbes) has made an appearance, and were the main physics content of the workshop talks. They set up the basics to help put those talks in context.

**Quantum Gravity**

Aleksandr’s first talk set out the basic problem of quantizing the gravitational field (this isn’t the only attitude to what the problem of quantum gravity is, but it’s a good starting point), starting with the basic ingredients. He summarized how general relativity describes gravity in terms of a metric which is supposed to satisfy the Einstein equation, relating the curvature of the metric to a source field which comes from matter. Quantization then, starting from a classical picture involving trajectories of particles (or sections of fibre bundles to describe fields), one gets a picture where states are vectors in a Hilbert space, and there’s an algebra of operators including observables (self-adjoint operators) and time-evolution (hermitian ones). An initial try at quantum gravity was to do this using the metric as the field, using the methods of perturbative QFT: treating the metric in terms of “small” fluctuations from some background metric like the flat Minkowski metric. This uses the Einstein-Hilbert action , where is the gravitational constant and is the Ricci scalar that summarizes the curvature of . This runs into problems: things diverge in various calculations, and since the coupling constant has units, one can’t “renormalize” the divergences away. So one needs a non-perturbative approach, one of which is “canonical quantization“.

After some choice of coordinates (so-called “lapse” and “shift” functions), this involves describing the action in terms of the (space part of) the metric and some canonically conjugate “momentum” variables which describe its extrinsic curvature. The Euler-Lagrange equations (found as usual by variational calculus methods) then turn out to give the “Hamiltonian constraint” that certain functions of are always zero. Then the program is to get a Poisson algebra giving commutators of the and variables, then turn it into an algebra of operators in a standard way. This also runs into problems because the space of metrics isn’t a Hilbert space. One solution is to not use the metric, but instead a connection and a “frame field” – the so-called Ashtekar variables for GR. This works better, and gives the “Loop Quantum Gravity” setup, since observables tend to be expressed as holonomies around loops.

Finally, Aleksandr outlined the spin foam approach to quantizing gravity. This is based on the idea of a quantum geometry as a network (graph) with edges labelled by spins, i.e. representations of SU(2) (which are labelled by half-integers). Vertices labelled by intertwining operators (which imposes triangle inequalities, as it happens). The spin foam approach takes a Hilbert space with a basis given by these spin networks. These are supposed to be an alternative way of describing geometries given by SU(2)-connections. The representations arise because, as the Peter-Weyl theorem shows, they form a nice basis for . Then to get operators associated to “foams” that interpolate the spacetime between two such geometries (i.e. linear combinations of spin networks). These are 2-complexes where faces are labelled with spins, and edges with intertwiners for the spins on the faces incident to them. The operators arise from a discrete variant of the Feynman path-integral, where time-evolution comes from integrating an action over a space of (classical) trajectories, which in this case are foams. This needs an action to integrate – in the discrete world, this corresponds to ways of choosing weights for edges and for faces in a generic partition function:

which is a sum over the labels for representations and intertwiners. Some of the talks that came later in the conference (e.g. by Benjamin Bahr and Bianca Dittrich) came back to discuss principles behind how these functions could be chosen. (Aristide Baratin’s talk described a similar but more general kind of model based on 2-groups.)

**String Theory**

In parallel with these, Sebastian Guttenberg gave us a two-lecture introduction to string theory. His starting point is the intuition that a lot of classical physics studies particles living on a background of some field. The field can be understood as an approximate way of talking about a large number of quantum-mechanical particles, rather as the dynamics of a large number of classical particles can be approximated by the equations of state for a fluid or gas (depending on how much they interact with one another, among other things). In string theory and “string field theory”, we have a similar setup, except we replace the particles with small strings – either open strings (which look like intervals) or closed ones (which look like circles).

To begin with, he introduced the basic tools of “classical” string theory – the analog of classical mechanics of point particles. This is the string analog of the following: one can describe a moving particle by its worldline – a path from a “generic” worldline into a (-dimensional) manifold . This is generally taken to be like physical spacetime, which in this context means that it has a metric with signature (that is, locally there’s a basis for tangent spaces with one timelike vector and spacelike ones). Then one can define an action for a moving particle which is just determined by the length of the line’s image. The nicest way to say this is , where means the pullback of the metric along the map , is some parameter along the generic worldline, and , the particle’s mass, is a coupling constant which doesn’t happen to affect the result in this simple case, but eventually becomes important. One can do the usual variational-calculus of the Lagrangian approach here, finding a critical point of the action occurs when the particle is travelling in a geodesic – a straight line, in flat space, or the closest available approximation. In paritcular, the Euler-Lagrange equations say that the covariant derivative of the path should be zero.

There’s an analogous action for a string, the Nambu-Goto action. Instead of a single-parameter , we now have an embedding of a “generic string worldsheet” – let’s say into spacetime: . Then then the analogous action is just . This is pretty much the same as before: we pull back the metric to get , and integrate over the generic worldsheet. A slight subtlety comes because we’re taking the Hodge dual . This is conceptually clean, but expands out to a fairly big integral when you express it in coordinates, where the leading term involves (the determinant is taken over . Varying this to get the equations of motion produces:

which is the two-dimensional analog of the geodesic equation for a point particle (the are the Christoffel symbols associated to the connection that goes with the metric). The two-dimensional analog says we have a critical point for the area of the surface which is the image of – in fact, a “maximum”, given the sign of the metric. For solutions like this, the pullback metric on the worldsheet, , looks flat. (Naturally, the metric looks flat along a geodesic, too, but this is stronger in 2 dimensions, where there can be intrinsic curvature.)

A souped up version of the Nambu-Goto action is the Polyakov action, which is a natural variation that comes up when has a metric of its own, . You can check out the details behind that link, but part of what makes this action nice is that the corresponding Euler-Lagrange equation from varying says that . That is, the worldsheet will have an image with a shape such that its own metric agrees with the one induced from the spacetime . This action is called the Polyakov action (even though it was introduced by Deser and Zumino, among others) because Polyakov used it for quantizing the string.

Other variations on this action add additional terms which represent fields which the string might be affected by: a scalar , and a 2-form field (here we’re using the physics convention where represents both the function, and its values at particular points, in this case, values of parameters on ).

That 2-form, the “B-field”, is an important field in string theory, and eventually links up with higher gauge theory, which we’ll get to as we go on: one can interpret the B-field as part of a higher connection, to which the string is coupled (as in Baez and Perez, say). The scalar field essentially determines how strongly the shape of the string itself affects the action – it’s a “string coupling” term, or string coupling “constant” if it’s chosen to be just a number . (In such a case, the action includes a term that looks like times the Euler characteristic of the surface .)

Sebastian briefly explained some of the physical intuition for why these are the kinds of couplings which it makes sense to introduce. Essentially, any coupling one writes in coordinates has to get along with gauge symmetries, changes of coordinates, etc. That is, there should be no physical difference between the class of solutions one finds in a given set of coordinates, and the coordinates one gets by doing some diffeomorphism on the spacetime , or by changing the metric on by some conformal transformation (that is, scaling by some function of position on the worldsheet – underlying string theory is Conformal Field Theory in that the scale of the generic worldsheet is irrelevant – only the light-cones). Anything a string couples to should be a field that transforms in a way that respects this. One important upshot for the quantum theory is that when one quantizes a string coupled to such a field, this makes sure that time evolution is unitary.

How this is done is a bit more complicated than Sebastian wanted to go into in detail (and I got a little lost in the summary) so I won’t attempt to do it justice here. The end results include a partition function:

Remember: if one is finding amplitudes for various observables, the partition function is a normalizing factor, and finding the value of any observables means squeezing them into a similar-looking integral (and normalizing by this factor). So this says that they’re found by summing over all the string topologies which go from the input to the output, and integrating over all embeddings and metrics on . (The denominator in that fraction is dividing out by the volumes of the symmetry groups, as usual is quantum field theory since these symmetries mean one is “overcounting” physically identical situations.)

This is just the beginning of string field theory, of course: just as the dynamics of a free moving particle, or even a particle coupled to a background field, are only the beginning of quantum field theory. But many later additions can be understood as adding various terms to the action in some such formalism. These would be analogs of giving a point-particle attributes like charge, spin, “colour” and so forth in the Standard Model: these define how it couples to, hence is affected by, various kinds of fields. Such fields can be understood in terms of connections (or, in general, higher connections, as we’ll get to later), which define how structures are “parallel-transported” along a path (or higher-dimensional surface).

*Coming up in In Part II*… I’ll summarize the School portion of the HGTQGR workshop, including lecture series by: Christopher Schommer-Pries on Classifying 2D Extended TQFT, which among other things explained Chris’ proof of the Cobordism Hypothesis using Cerf theory; Tim Porter on Homotopy QFT and the “Crossed Menagerie”, which describe a general framework for talking about quantum theories on cobordisms with structure; John Huerta on Higher Gauge Theory, which gave an introductory account of 2-groups and 2-bundles with 2-connections; Christoph Wockel on connections between Higher Gauge Theory and Infinite Dimensional Lie Theory, which described how some infinite-dimensional Lie algebras can’t be integrated to Lie groups, but only to 2-groups; and one by Hisham Sati on Higher Spin Structures in String Theory, which among other things described how cohomological obstructions to putting certain kinds of structure on manifolds motivates the use of particular higher dimensions.

February 24, 2011 at 8:46 pm

For goodness sake, don’t let the stringers and loopies lead you astray! Do you seriously think that emergent geometry can be understood this way? No, you don’t, do you …

February 24, 2011 at 10:18 pm

Well, in fact, I doubt that either of them will turn out to be a fundamental theory, because as you suggest I doubt that geometry is physically fundamental. This doesn’t invalidate geometry as a branch of mathematics, or indeed a useful one. Statistics is also a study of structure which is emergent rather than fundamental in its real-world origin, but is still a perfectly good field of study, and a lot of measure theory and analysis ultimately derives from it. It may be, and I suspect it is, that geometry is in a similar physical position. Even if it is, we’ll still want to understand it on its own terms. We could accept that spacetime is not “really” a Riemannian manifold, without thinking that one shouldn’t study Riemannian geometry.

I think both these approaches – strings and loops – seem worth studying (though by no means to the exclusion of other things) in that at least they provide a setting where lots of interesting mathematics takes place, and a test-bed for developing it. Even Newtonian mechanics: it isn’t correct, but it did provide a great supply of examples for the development of calculus, which turned out to be useful far beyond that setting. Even if LQG or string theory don’t ever manage to produce good physical predictions like Newtonian theory did – which I wouldn’t rule out yet, either – that’s still true, IMHO.

For instance, higher cohomology groups and the higher gerbes which they classify, can be given nice geometric descriptions in terms obstructions to spin- and string- structures on manifolds, or in terms of bundles for various kinds of higher-categorical gauge groups. That’s the sort of thing I mean by understanding geometry on its own terms.

I suppose I’m not as focused on the question of which physical theory is the fundamental one because my attitude is that there might not actually be such a theory. Theories are semantic/symbolic constructs of the verbal part of our brain – I see no a-priori reason why such a construct should be able to account for all physical phenomena at once – just various limits and approximations. That’s the attitude I expressed in one of my early posts explaining the pun in the title of this blog – we might be able to come up with an “atlas” of theories like an atlas of charts on a manifold, without necessarily having some master theory that holds up all other phenomena like Atlas holding up the sky.

That attitude might be wrong, and certainly pushing it very hard would be a crackpot sort of notion. But one reason is appeals to me is the Godel-like reasoning that the information in the universe can’t be explained *in its entirety* by any theory small enough to be understood by anyone physically inside the universe. Which is not to say we can’t understand various limits, or particular phenomena, perfectly well.

I guess the only real argument is whether the loop and string approaches have received more attention than they should, compared to others. Not being a physicist, I don’t feel very invested in that debate, but I guess I’d say that if other approaches produce different, equally good mathematics, then I’m in favour of people doing more with them.

March 30, 2011 at 5:20 pm

[...] is described by “spin networks” (based on gauge theory), as described back in the pre-school post. These span a Hilbert space, so the “dynamical” issue of such models is how to get [...]