Once again, I keep meaning to write some less math-heavy posts, if for no other reason than to keep in the habit of thinking up things to write in here. Now is a good occasion to do this, since I’m visiting at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo to give a talk called “Extended Topological Quantum Field Theories and Quantum Gravity” at the quantum gravity seminar on Thursday (the 28th). This is basically an updated and refined version of the talk I gave for my thesis defense, in which I’ve tried to make more of the link to physics – in particular, to BF theory, and to 3D quantum gravity. This turns out to be hard to do in an hour-long talk and still cover things adequately. Still, I find it worthwhile to get the point of view of real physicists on these apparently physics-related ideas, after thinking about them as a mathematician for some time.

After I arrived, I had lunch with a bunch of the quantum gravity people here. The conversation ranged from hunting for jobs, through cultural differences between Europe, Canada, and the US (a standard conversation to be had anywhere in Canada at the drop of a hat), all the way over to “Why is spacetime 4-dimensional?” Lee Smolin put this last one to me when I was describing how categorification is related to considering higher co-dimensions of spacetime/space/surfaces in space. It’s a reasonable question, though not one I have any answer to. But when you cook up a theory – like this ETQFT stuff – which in principle works in any number of dimensions, and you want it to be physical, you’re left wondering “why so few dimensions?”

Okay – it’s not the main point of what I’m doing here, but it’s a nice light question to blog about, since I don’t pretend to have even a good guess at the answer.

It takes a certain mentality to think that 4 dimensions is astonishingly few – however, I have that mentality, as do many mathematicians. You can work with infinite-dimensional spaces in mathematics – why should “real”, “physical” space only have four? Actually, the segue into this had to do with the question of why all the Lie groups that turn up in physical gauge theories are so tiny – SU(2), SU(3), U(1) – rather than, say, SU(745), which describes rotations in a 745 (complex) dimensional space. Again: gauge theory makes just as much sense with big gauge groups as small ones – so what’s special about the low dimensions?

Well, I don’t know the answer – but it’s the kind of question mathematicians probably should be asked more often. We’re perfectly happy to deal with a 745 dimensional space and not worry about the fact that it’s non-physical. But if mathematics really underlies physics in any deep way, there should be some good mathematics in the answer.

There were some possibilities tossed around: what if the exceptional group E_8 really does turn out to be important in fundamental physics, and the real gauge group of the right physical theory has to lie inside it somewhere? Then there’s an upper bound on how many dimensions you can have – though, unfortunately, E_8 is 248-dimensional, so the upper bound is a bit high. (Mind you, the symmetries of 4D space is, in itself, a 10-dimensional group, so things are not quite as bad as they appear – but still worse than they should be). There’s also no obvious reason why E_8 should have such a special role.

A more physics-y answer is that in 5D and higher, you don’t get confinement – quarks and gluons just fly around like a dilute gas, and there would be no matter in the sense we know it. This is a great concise description of why we should be happy to live in a 4D spacetime. The objection to this is that it’s basically an appeal to the anthropic principle: “If space weren’t 4D, we wouldn’t be here to wonder why.” If you’ve read Lee Smolin’s most recent book, you’ll know he doesn’t care for appeals to the anthropic principle. Neither do I, for that matter. If you assume that every possible universe actually exists (which is at least metaphysically parsimonious – no need for two separate categories of “possible” and “actual”), the anthropic principle is undeniable. The problem is, it doesn’t predict very much until you work out enough about what universes are possible that you might as well just try to answer the question for its own sake. Still, maybe it’s just true that there are a huge number of actual universes, and some of them are no good for intelligent life. But that just means the question has no answer, so you might as well give up. It doesn’t take you anywhere. So suppose there’s a reason: what could it be?

In 3 and 4 dimensions, there are regular polyhedra – or, equivalently, discrete subgroups of the rotation group SO(n) – that don’t correspond to the series which always exists. In 2D, there are infinitely many regular polygons, and in all dimensons, there are simplexes, cubes, and duals of cubes… but in 3 and 4D there are some extras, all of which boil down to the icosahedron, its dual, or things you can construct from it in 4D. Why this should make any difference, I have no idea.

And there are a couple of other special things in low dimensions, which are no more obviously relevant, but seem compelling to me, perhaps because I’m a mathematician…

In 4 dimensions, but no other dimensionality, there are “exotic” \mathbb{R}^n which are homeomorphic but not diffeomorphic to the usual \mathbb{R}^n. The heuristic explanation for why (which is as much as I really grasp) is that 4D is “big enough” for complicated twisty things to exist, but “too small” for there to always be room to untangle them – so only in 4D can “things be complicated”. Which is suggestive, but hardly a full answer.

4 dimensions is the only case where the classification of manifolds is not understood (now that the Poincaré conjecture has been settled – there were still some lingering doubts last I heard, but they seem to be evaporating day by day). in 2D, manifolds are basically just toruses with some genus; in 3D manifolds can be cut up into pieces each of which can be geometrized (a la Thurston). In 5D and higher, you can classify (in principle) manifolds by constructing them via surgeries. The reason this doesn’t work in 4D is that surgeries building new manifolds correspond to cobordisms between the input and output manifolds, and in 5 or more dimensions, cobordisms are rather trivial (actually, this only refers to cobordisms where the inclusions of the source and target manifolds are homotopy equivalences, which isn’t totally general).

This last bit seems the most intriguing to me, since I’ve been thinking about TQFT’s and ETQFT’s, which are field theories living on cobordisms. But that still doesn’t add up to an answer to the physical question. It would be nice to understand, for instance, whether the above fact means anything helpful in terms of the physics of such a theory.

Anyway, I’ll try to write up something about those theories from a physical point of view after I’ve had a chance to chit-chat about them with some physicists after my talk. It probably won’t answer this rather vague and (perhaps?) unanswerable question, but there seem to be some interesting things to say. Maybe before then (but after I’ve had a chance to give my talk, no doubt!) I’ll also give a little write-up of the colloquium talk by Robert Spekkens I attended today about foundations of quantum mechanics.