Academia: Leadership and Training Required

If you know someone who works in academia, chances are they’ve told you that research takes time. A lot of time, that is. But does it have to?

It’s 3:15pm on an overcast Wednesday afternoon. A group of PhD students, postdocs and senior academics sit down to discuss their latest paper. They’re “just finishing” the write-up, almost ready to submit to a journal. This phase has already been in motion for months, and could well take another week or two.

Of course, this sounds monumentally inefficient to corporate ears. In a world where time is money, three months of tweaking and wrangling could not be tolerated. So why is it acceptable in academia? Because nobody is in charge! Many universities suffer from a middle management leadership vacuum; the combined result of lack of training and unwise promotions.

It is ironic that renowned bastions of learning have fallen so far behind their industrial counterparts when it comes to research efficiency. When you consider that lecturers need no teacher training, supervisors no management expertise, and interviewers no subconscious bias training, the problem becomes less surprising. No wonder academia is leading the way on gender inequality.

The solution – a cultural shake-up. Universities must offer more teaching-only posts, breaking the vicious cycle which sees disgruntled researchers forced to lecture badly, and excellent teachers forced out from lack of research output. Senior management should mandate leadership training for group leaders and supervisors, empowering them to manage effectively and motivate their students. Doctoral candidates, for that matter, might also benefit from a course in followership, the latest business fashion. Perhaps most importantly, higher education needs to stop hiring, firing and promoting based purely on research brilliance, with no regard for leadership, teamwork and communication skills.

Conveniently, higher education has ready made role-models in industrial research organisations. Bell Labs is a good example. Not long ago this once famous institution was in the doldrums, even forced to shut down for a period. But under the inspirational leadership of Marcus Weldon, the laboratory is undergoing a renaissance. Undoubtedly much of this progress is built on Marcus’ clear strategic goals and emphasis on well-organised collaboration.

Universities might even find inspiration closer to home. Engineering departments worldwide are developing ever-closer ties to industry, with beneficial effects on research culture. From machine learning to aerospace, corporate backing provides not only money but also business sense and career development. These links advantage researchers with some client-facing facets, not the stuffy chalk-covered supermind of yesteryear. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for pure research – far from it. But insular positions ought to be exceptional, rather than the norm.

At the Scopus Early Career Researcher Awards a few weeks ago, Elsevier CEO Ron Mobed rightly bemoaned the loss of young research talent from academia. The threefold frustrations of poor job security, hackneyed management and desultory training hung unspoken in the air. If universities, journals and learned societies are serious about tackling this problem they’ll need a revolution. It’s time for the 21st century university. Let’s get down to the business of research.


(Not) How to Write your First Paper

18 months ago I embarked on a PhD, fresh-faced and enthusiastic. I was confident I could learn enough to understand research at the coal-face. But when faced with the prospect of producing an original paper, I was frankly terrified. How on earth do you turn vague ideas into concrete results?

In retrospect, my naive brain was crying out for an algorithm. Nowadays we’re so trained to jump through examination hoops that the prospect of an open-ended project terrifies many. Here’s the bad news – there’s no well-marked footpath leading from academic interest to completed write-up.

So far, so depressing. Or is it? After all, a PhD is meant to be a voyage of discovery. Sure, if I put you on a mountain-top with no map you’d likely be rather scared. But there’s also something exhilarating about striking out into the unknown. Particularly, that is, if you’re armed with a few orienteering skills.

Where next?

I’m about to finish my first paper. I can’t and won’t tell you how to write one! Instead, here’s a few items for your kit-bag on the uncharted mountain of research. With these in hand, you’ll be well-placed to forge your own route towards the final draft.

  1. Your Supervisor

Any good rambler takes a compass. Your supervisor is your primary resource for checking direction. Use them!

Yes, I really am going to keep pursuing this analogy.

It took me several months (and one overheard moan) to start asking for pointers. Nowadays, if I’m completely lost for more than a few hours, I’ll seek guidance.

2. Your Notes

You start off without a map. It’s tempting to start with unrecorded cursory reconnaissance, just to get the lie of the land. Although initially speedy, you have to be super-disciplined lest you go too far and can’t retrace your steps. You’d be better off making notes as you go. Typesetting languages and subversion repositories can help you keep track of where you are.

Don’t forget to make a map!

Your notes will eventually become your paper – hence their value! But there’s a balance to be struck. It’s tempting to spend many hours on pretty formatting for content which ends up in Appendix J. If in doubt, consult your compass.

3. Your Colleagues

Some of them have written papers before. All of them have made research mistakes. Mutual support is almost as important in a PhD programme as on a polar expedition! But remember that research isn’t a race. If your colleague has produced three papers in the time it’s taken you to write one, that probably says more about their subfield and style of work than your relative ability.

The Southern Party
You’ll need your colleagues just as much as Shackleton did.

4. Confidence

Aka love of failure. If you sit on top of the mountain and never move then you’ll certainly stay away from dangerous edges. But you’ll also never get anywhere! You will fail much more than you succeed during your PhD. Every time you pursue an idea which doesn’t work, you are honing in on the route which will.

Be brave! (Though maybe you should wait for the snow to melt first).

In this respect, research is much like sport – positive psychology is vital. Bottling up frustration is typically unhelpful. You’d be much better off channelling that into…

5. Not Writing Your Paper

You can’t write a paper 24/7 and stay sane. Thankfully a PhD is full of other activities that provide mental and emotional respite. My most productive days have coincided with seminars, teaching commitments and meetings. You should go to these, especially if you’re feeling bereft of motivation.

Why not join a choir?


And your non-paper pursuits needn’t be limited to the academic sphere. A regular social hobby, like sports, music or debating, can provide a much needed sense of achievement. Many PhDs I know also practice some form of religion, spirituality or meditation. Time especially set aside for mental rest will pay dividends later.

6. Literature 

No, I don’t mean related papers in your field (though these are important). I’ve found fiction, particularly that with intrigue and character development, hugely helpful when I’m struggling to cross an impasse. Perhaps surprisingly, some books aimed at startups are also worth a read. A typical startup faces corporate research problems akin to academic difficulties.


Finally, remember that research is by definition iterative! You cannot expect your journey to end within a month. As you chart the territory around you, try to enjoy the freedom of exploring. Who knows, you might just spot a fascinating detour that leads directly to an unexpected paper.

My thanks to Dr. Inger Mewburn and her wonderful Thesis Whisperer blog for inspiring this post.

Bad Science: Thomson-Reuters Publishes Flawed Ranking of Hottest Research

Thomson-Reuters has reportedly published their yearly analysis of the hottest trends in science research. Increasingly, governments and funding organisations use such documents to identify strategic priorities. So it’s profoundly disturbing that their conclusions are based on shoddy methodology and bad science!

The researchers first split recent papers into 10 broad areas, of which Physics was one. And then the problems began. According to the official document

Research fronts assigned to each of the
10 areas were ranked by total citations and the top 10 percent of the fronts in each area were extracted.

Already the authors have fallen into two fallacies. First, they have failed to normalise for the size of the field. Many fields (like Higgs phenomenology) will necessarily generate large quantities of citations due to their high visibility and current funding. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we’ve cracked naturalness all of a sudden!

Second their analysis is far too coarse-grained. Physics contains many disciplines, with vastly different publication rates and average numbers of citations. Phenomenologists publish swiftly and regularly, while theorists have longer papers with slower turnover. Experimentalists often fall somewhere in the middle. Clearly the Thomson-Reuters methodology favours phenomenology over all else.

But wait, the next paragraph seems to address these concerns. To some extent they “cherry pick” the hottest research fronts to account for these issues. According to the report

Due to the different characteristics and citation behaviors in various disciplines, some fronts are much smaller than others in terms of number of core and citing papers.

Excellent, I hear you say – tell me more! But here comes more bad news. It seems there’s no information on how this cherry picking was done! There’s no mention of experts consulted in each field. No mathematical detail about how vastly different disciplines were fairly compared. Thomson-Reuters have decided that all the reader deserves is a vague placatory paragraph.

And it gets worse. It turns out that the scientific analysis wasn’t performed by a balanced international committee. It was handed off to a single country – China. Who knows, perhaps they were the lowest bidder? Of course, I couldn’t possibly comment. But it seems strange to me to pick a country famed for its grossly flawed approach to scientific funding.

Governments need to fund science based on quality and promise, not merely quantity. Thomson-Reuters simplistic analysis is bad science at its very worst. It seems to offer intelligent information but  in fact is misleading, flawed and ultimately dangerous.

Romeo and Juliet, through a Wormhole


I spent last week at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario. Undoubtedly one of the highlights was Juan Maldenena’s keynote on resolving black hole paradoxes using wormholes. Matt’s review of the talk below is well worth a read!

Originally posted on 4 gravitons:

Perimeter is hosting this year’s Mathematica Summer School on Theoretical Physics. The school is a mix of lectures on a topic in physics (this year, the phenomenon of quantum entanglement) and tips and tricks for using the symbolic calculation program Mathematica.

Juan Maldacena is one of the lecturers, which gave me a chance to hear his Romeo and Juliet-based explanation of the properties of wormholes. While I’ve criticized some of Maldacena’s science popularization work in the past, this one is pretty solid, so I thought I’d share it with you guys.

You probably think of wormholes as “shortcuts” to travel between two widely separated places. As it turns out, this isn’t really accurate: while “normal” wormholes do connect distant locations, they don’t do it in a way that allows astronauts to travel between them, Interstellar-style. This can be illustrated with something called a Penrose…

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Correlation Functions in Cosmology – What Do They Measure?

The cosmic microwave background (CMB) is a key observable in cosmology.  Experimentalists can precisely measure the temperature of microwave radiation left over from the big bang. The data shows very small differences in temperature across the sky. It’s up to theorists to figure out why!

The most popular explanation invokes a scalar field early in the universe. Quantum fluctuations in the field are responsible for the classical temperature distribution we see today. This argument, although naively plausible, requires some serious thought for full rigour.

Talks by cosmologists often parrot the received wisdom that the two-point correlation function of the scalar field can be observed on the sky. But how exactly is this done? In this post I’ll carefully explain the winding path from theory to observation.

First off, what really is a correlation function? Given two random variables X and Y we can (roughly speaking) determine their correlation as


Intuitively this definition makes sense – in configurations where X and Y share the same sign there is a positive contribution to the correlation.

There’s another way of looking at correlation. You can think of it as a measure of the probability that for any random sample of X there will be a value of Y within some given distance. Hopefully this too feels intuitive. It can be proved more rigorously using Bayes’ theorem.

This second way of viewing correlation is particularly useful in cosmology. Here the random variables are usually position dependent fields. The correlation then becomes

\langle \chi(x)\chi(y) \rangle

where the average is over the whole sky with the direction of the vector x- y fixed. The magnitude of this vector provides a natural distance scale for the probabilistic interpretation of correlation. We see that the correlation is an avatar for the lumpiness of the distribution at a particular distance scale!

Now let’s focus on the CMB. The temperature fluctuations are defined as the percentage deviation from the average temperature at each point on the sky. Mathematically we write

\delta T / T (\hat{n})

where \hat{n} defines a point on the unit 2-sphere. We want to relate this to theoretical predictions. Given our discussion above, it’s not surprising that our first step is to compute the correlation function

C(\theta) = \displaystyle \langle \frac{\delta T}{ T}(\hat{n}_1) \frac{\delta T}{T}(\hat{n}_2)\rangle

where the average is over the whole sky with the angle \theta between \hat{n}_1 and \hat{n}_2 fixed. This average doesn’t lose any physical information since there’s no preferred direction in the sky! We can conveniently encode the correlation function using spherical harmonics

\delta T / T = \sum a_{l,m} Y_{l,m}

The coefficients a_{l,m} are known as the multipole moments of the temperature distribution. Substituting this in the correlation function definition we obtain

C(\theta) = \sum C_l P_l (\cos \theta)

where C_l = \sum_m |a_{l,m}|^2. We’re almost finished with our derivation! The final step is to convert from the correlation function to it’s momentum space representation, known as the power spectrum. With a little work, you can show that the power at multipole number l is given by


This is exactly the quantity we see plotted from sky map data on graphs comparing inflation theory to experiment!

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 17.39.03

From the theory perspective, this quantity is fairly easy to extract. We must compute the power spectrum of the primordial fluctuations of the inflation field. This is merely a matter of quantum field theory, albeit in de Sitter spacetime. Perhaps the most comprehensive account of this procedure is provided in Daniel Baumann’s notes.

Without going into any details, it’s worth mentioning a few theoretical models. The simplest option is to have a massless free inflaton field. This gives a scale-invariant power spectrum, which is almost correct! Adding mass corrects this result, providing fluctuations in the power spectrum. This is a better approximation, but has been ruled out by Planck data.

Clearly we need a more general potential. Here’s where the fun starts for cosmologists. The buzzwords are effective field theory, string inflation, non-Gaussianity and multiple fields! But that’ll have to wait for another blog post.

Written at the Mathematica Summer School 2015, inspired by Juan Maldecena’s lecture.

What Gets Conserved at Vertices in Feynman Diagrams?

The simple answer is – everything! If there’s a symmetry in your theory then the associated Noether charge must be conserved at a Feynman vertex. A simple and elegant rule, and one of the great strengths of Feynman’s method.

Even better, it’s not hard to see why all charges are conserved at vertices. Remember, every vertex corresponds to an interaction term in the Lagrangian. These are automatically constructed to be Lorentz invariant so angular momentum and spin had better be conserved. Translation invariance is built in by virtue of the Lagrangian spacetime integral so momentum is conserved too.

Internal symmetries work in much the same way. Color or electric charge must be conserved at each vertex because the symmetry transformation exactly guarantees that contributions from interaction terms cancel transformations of the kinetic terms. If you ain’t convinced go and check this in any Feynman diagram!

But watch out, there’s a subtlety! Suppose we’re interested in scalar QED for instance. One diagram for pair creation and annihilation looks like


Naively you might be concerned that angular momentum and momentum can’t possibly be conserved. After all, don’t photons have spin and mass squared equal to zero? The resolution of this apparent paradox is provided by the realization that the virtual photon is off-shell. This is a theorist’s way of saying that it doesn’t obey equations of motion. Therefore the usual restrictions from symmetries do not apply to the virtual photon! Thinking another way, the photon is a manifestation of a quantum fluctuation.

There’s a coda to this story. Rather magically, charge still does have a meaning for the off-shell photon. This is courtesy of Noether’s second theorem, which says that local symmetries have charges that remained conserved off-shell. This critical insight is related to the powerful Ward identities which ensure that observables are gauge invariant.

Conference Amplitudes 2015 – Don’t Stop Me Now!

All too soon we’ve reached the end of a wonderful conference. Friday morning dawned with a glimpse of perhaps the most impressive calculation of the past twelve months – Higgs production at three loops in QCD. This high precision result is vital for checking our theory against the data mountain produced by the LHC.

It was well that Professor Falko Dulat‘s presentation came at the end of the week. Indeed the astonishing computational achievement he outlined was only possible courtesy of the many mathematical techniques recently developed by the community. Falko illustrated this point rather beautifully with a word cloud.

Word Cloud Higgs Production

As amplitudeologists we are blessed with a incredibly broad field. In a matter of minutes conversation can encompass hard experiment and abstract mathematics. The talks this morning were a case in point. Samuel Abreu followed up the QCD computation with research linking abstract algebra, graph theory and physics! More specifically, he introduced a Feynman diagram version of the coproduct structure often employed to describe multiple polylogs.

Dr. HuaXing Zhu got the ball rolling on the final mini-session with a topic close to my heart. As you may know I’m currently interested in soft theorems in gauge theory and gravity. HuaXing and Lance Dixon have made an important contribution in this area by computing the complete 2-loop leading soft factor in QCD. Maybe unsurprisingly the breakthrough comes off the back of the master integral and differential equation method which has dominated proceedings this week.

Last but by no means least we had an update from the supergravity mafia. In recent years Dr. Tristan Dennen and collaborators have discovered unexpected cancellations in supergravity theories which can’t be explained by symmetry alone. This raises the intriguing question of whether supergravity can play a role in a UV complete quantum theory of gravity.

The methods involved rely heavily on the color-kinematics story. Intriguingly Tristan suggested that the double copy connection because gauge theory and gravity could form an explanation for the miraculous results (in which roughly a billion terms combine to give zero)! The renormalizability of Yang-Mills theory could well go some way to taming gravity’s naive high energy tantrums.

There’s still some way to go before bottles of wine change hands. But it was fitting to end proceedings with an incomplete story. For all that we’ve thought hard this week, it is now that the graft really starts. I’m already looking forward to meeting in Stockholm next year. My personal challenge is to ensure that I’m among the speakers!

Particular thanks to all the organisers, and the many masters students, PhDs, postdocs and faculty members at ETH Zurich who made our stay such an enjoyable and productive one!

Note: this article was originally written on Friday 10th July.


Conference Amplitudes 2015 – Air on the Superstring

One of the first pieces of Bach ever recorded was August Wilhelmj’s arrangement of the Orchestral Suite in D major. Today the transcription for violin and piano goes by the moniker Air on the G String. It’s an inspirational and popular work in all it’s many incarnations, not least this one featuring my favourite cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

This morning we heard the physics version of Bach’s masterpiece. Superstrings are nothing new, of course. But recently they’ve received a reboot courtesy of Dr. David Skinner among others. The ambitwistor string is an infinite tension version which only admit right-moving vibrations! At first the formalism looks a little daunting, until you realise that many calculations follow the well-trodden path of the superstring.

Now superstring amplitudes are quite difficult to compute. So hard, in fact, that Dr. Oliver Schloterrer devoted an entire talk to understanding particular functions that emerge when scattering just  4 strings at next-to-leading order. Mercifully, the ambitwistor string is far more well-behaved. The resulting amplitudes are rather beautiful and simple. To some extent, you trade off the geometrical aesthetics of the superstring for the algebraic compactness emerging from the ambitwistor approach.

This isn’t the first time that twistors and strings have been combined to produce quantum field theory. The first attempt dates back to 2003 and work of Edward Witten (of course). Although hugely influential, Witten’s theory was esoteric to say the least! In particular nobody knows how to encode quantum corrections in Witten’s language.

Ambitwistor strings have no such issues! Adding a quantum correction is easy – just put your theory on a donut. But this conceptually simple step threatened a roadblock for the research. Trouble was, nobody actually knew how to evaluate the resulting formulae.

Nobody, that was, until last week! Talented folk at Oxford and Cambridge managed to reduce the donutty problem to the original spherical case. This is an impressive feat – nobody much suspected that quantum corrections would be as easy as a classical computation!

There’s a great deal of hope that this idea can be rigorously extended to higher loops and perhaps even break the deadlock on maximal supergravity calculations at 7-loop level. The resulting concept of off-shell scattering equations piqued my interest – I’ve set myself a challenge to use them in the next 12 months!

Scattering equations, you say? What are these beasts? For that we need to take a closer look at the form of the ambitwistor string amplitude. It turns out to be a sum over the solutions of the following equations

\sum_{i\neq j}\frac{s_{ij}}{z_i - z_j}=0

The s_{ij} are just two particle invariants – encoding things you can measure about the speed and angle of particle scattering. And the z_i are just some bonus variables. You’d never dream of introducing them unless somebody told you to! But yet they’re exactly what’s required for a truly elegant description.

And these scattering equations don’t just crop up in one special theory. Like spies in a Cold War era film, they seem to be everywhere! Dr. Freddy Cachazo alerted us to this surprising fact in a wonderfully engaging talk. We all had a chance to play detective and identify bits of physics from telltale clues! By the end we’d built up an impressive spider’s web of connections, held together by the scattering equations.

Scattering Equation Theory Web

Freddy’s talk put me in mind of an interesting leadership concept espoused by the conductor Itay Talgam. Away from his musical responsibilities he’s carved out a niche as a business consultant, teaching politicians, researchers, generals and managers how to elicit maximal productivity and creativity from their colleagues and subordinates. Critical to his philosophy is the concept of keynote listening – sharing ideas in a way that maximises the response of your audience. This elusive quality pervaded Freddy’s presentation.

Following this masterclass was no mean feat, but one amply performed by my colleague Brenda Penante. We were transported to the world of on-shell diagrams – a modern alternative to Feynman’s ubiquitous approach. These diagrams are known to produce the integrand in planar $\mathcal{N}=4$ super-Yang-Mills theory to all orders! What’s more, the answer comes out in an attractive d \log form, ripe for integration to multiple polylogarithms.

Cunningly, I snuck the word planar into the paragraph above. This approximation means that the diagrams can be drawn on a sheet of paper rather than requiring 3 dimensions. For technical reasons this is equivalent to working in the theory with an infinite number of color charges, not just the usual 3 we find for the strong force.

Obviously, it would be helpful to move beyond this limit. Brenda explained a decisive step in this direction, providing a mechanism for computing all leading singularities of non-planar amplitudes. By examining specific examples the collaboration uncovered new structure invisible in the planar case.

Technically, they observed that the boundary operation on a reduced graph identified non-trivial singularities which can’t be understood as the vanishing of minors. At present, there’s no proven geometrical picture of these new relations. Amazingly they might emerge from a 1,700-year-old theorem of Pappus!

Bootstraps were back on the agenda to close the session. Dr. Agnese Bissi is a world-expert on conformal field theories. These models have no sense of distance and only know about angles. Not particularly useful, you might think! But they crop up surprisingly often as approximations to realistic physics, both in particle smashing and modelling materials.

Agnese took a refreshingly rigorous approach, walking us through her proof of the reciprocity principle. Until recently this vital tool was little more than an ad hoc assumption, albeit backed up by considerable evidence. Now Agnese has placed it on firmer ground. From here she was able to “soup up” the method. The supercharged variant can compute OPE coefficients as well as dimensions.

Alas, it’s already time for the conference dinner and I haven’t mentioned Dr. Christian Bogner‘s excellent work on the sunrise integral. This charmingly named function is the simplest case where hyperlogarithms are not enough to write down the answer. But don’t just take it from me! You can now hear him deliver his talk by visiting the conference website.


I’m very pleased to have chatted with Professor Rutger Boels (on the Lagrangian origin of Yang-Mills soft theorems and concerning the universality of subheading collinear behaviour) and Tim Olson (about determining the relative sign between on-shell diagrams to ensure cancellation of spurious poles).

Note: this post was originally written on Thursday 9th July but remained unpublished. I blame the magnificent food, wine and bonhomie at the conference dinner!

Conference Amplitudes 2015 – Integrability, Colorful Duality and Hiking

The middle day of a conference. So often this is the graveyard slot – when initial hysteria has waned and the final furlong seems far off. The organisers should take great credit that today was, if anything, the most engaging thus far! Even the weather was well-scheduled, breaking overnight to provide us with more conducive working conditions.

Integrability was our wake-up call this morning. I mentioned this hot topic a while back. Effectively it’s an umbrella term for techniques that give you exact answers. For amplitudes folk, this is the stuff of dreams. Up until recently the best we could achieve was an expansion in small or large parameters!

So what’s new? Dr. Amit Sever brought us up to date on developments at the Perimeter Institute, where the world’s most brilliant minds have found a way to map certain scattering amplitudes in 4 dimensions onto a 2 dimensional model which can be exactly solved. More technically, they’ve created a flux tube representation for planar amplitudes in \mathcal{N}=4 super-Yang-Mills, which can then by solved using spin chain methods.

The upshot is that they’ve calculated 6 particle scattering amplitudes to all values of the (‘t Hooft) coupling. Their method makes no mention of Feynman diagrams or string theory – the old-fashioned ways of computing this amplitude for weak and strong coupling respectively. Nevertheless the answer matches exactly known results in both of these regimes.

There’s more! By putting their computation under the microscope they’ve unearthed unexpected new physics. Surprisingly the multiparticle poles familiar from perturbative quantum field theory disappear. Doing the full calculation smoothes out divergent behaviour in each perturbative term. This is perhaps rather counterintuitive, given that we usually think of higher-loop amplitudes as progressively less well-behaved. It reminds me somewhat of Regge theory, in which the UV behaviour of a tower of higher spin states is much better than that of each one individually.

The smorgasbord of progress continued in Mattias Wilhelm’s talk. The Humboldt group have a completely orthogonal approach linking integrability to amplitudes. By computing form factors using unitarity, they’ve been able to determine loop-corrections to anomalous dimensions. Sounds technical, I know. But don’t get bogged down! I’ll give you the upshot as a headline – New Link between Methods, Form Factors Say.

Coffee consumed, and it was time to get colorful. You’ll hopefully remember that the quarks holding protons and neutrons together come in three different shades. These aren’t really colors that you can see. But they are internal labels attached to the particles which seem vital for our theory to work!

About 30 years ago, people realised you could split off the color-related information and just deal with the complicated issues of particle momentum. Once you’ve sorted that out, you write down your answer as a sum. Each term involves some color stuff and a momentum piece. Schematically

\displaystyle \textrm{gluon amplitude}=\sum \textrm{color}\times \textrm{kinematics}

What they didn’t realise was that you can shuffle momentum dependence between terms to force the kinematic parts to satisfy the same equations as the color parts! This observation, made back in 2010 by Zvi Bern, John Joseph Carrasco and Henrik Johansson has important consequences for gravity in particular.

Why’s that? Well, if you arrange your Yang-Mills kinematics in the form suggested by those gentlemen then you get gravity amplitudes for free. Merely strip off the color bit and replace it by another copy of the kinematics! In my super-vague language above

\displaystyle \textrm{graviton amplitude}=\sum \textrm{kinematics}\times \textrm{kinematics}

Dr. John Joseph Carrasco himself brought us up to date with a cunning method of determining the relevant kinematic choice at loop level. I can’t help but mention his touching modesty. Even though the whole community refers to the relations by the acronym BCJ, he didn’t do so once!

Before that Dr. Donal O’Connell took us on an intriguing detour of solutions to classical gravity theories with an appropriate dual Yang-Mills theory, obtainable via a BCJ procedure. The idea is beautiful, and seems completely obvious once you’ve been told! Kudos to the authors for thinking of it.

After lunch we enjoyed a well-earned break with a hike up the Uetliberg mountain. I learnt that this large hill is colloquially called Gmuetliberg. Yvonne Geyer helpfully explained that this is derogatory reference to the tame nature of the climb! Nevertheless the scenery was very pleasant, particularly given that we were mere minutes away from the centre of a European city. What I wouldn’t give for an Uetliberg in London!

Evening brought us to Heidi and Tell, a touristic yet tasty burger joint. Eager to offset some of my voracious calorie consumption I took a turn around the Altstadt. If you’re ever in Zurich it’s well worth a look – very little beats medieval streets, Alpine water and live swing music in the evening light.


It was fantastic to meet Professor Lionel Mason and discuss various ideas for extending the ambitwistor string formalism to form factors. I also had great fun chatting to Julio Martinez about linking CHY and BCJ. Finally huge thanks to Dr. Angnis Schmidt-May for patiently explaining the latest research in the field of massive gravity. The story is truly fascinating, and could well be a good candidate for a tractable quantum gravity model!

Erratum: An earlier version of this post mistakenly claimed that Chris White spoke about BCJ for equations of motion. Of course, it was his collaborator Donal O’Connell who delivered the talk. Many thanks to JJ Carrasco for pointing out my error!

Conference Amplitudes 2015 – Integration Ahoy!

I recall fondly a maths lesson from my teenage years. Dr. Mike Wade – responsible as much an anyone for my scientific passion – was introducing elementary concepts of differentiation and integration. Differentiation is easy, he proclaimed. But integration is a tricky beast.

That prescient warning perhaps foreshadowed my entry into the field of amplitudes. For indeed integration is of fundamental importance in determining the outcome of scattering events. To compute precise “loop corrections” necessarily requires integration. And this is typically a hard task.

Today we were presented with a smorsgasbord of integrals. Polylogarithms were the catch of the day. This broad class of functions covers pretty much everything you can get when computing amplitudes (provided your definition is generous)! So what are they? It fell to Dr. Erik Panzer to remind us.

Laymen will remember logarithms from school. These magic quantities turn multiplication into addition, giving rise to the ubiquitous schoolroom slide rules predating electronic calculators. Depending on your memory of math class, logarithms are either curious and fascinating or strange and terrifying! But boring they most certainly aren’t.

One of the most amusing properties of a logarithm comes about from (you guessed it) integration. Integrating x^{a-1} is easy, you might recall. You’ll end up with x^a/a plus some constant. But what happens when a is zero? Then the formula makes no sense, because dividing by zero simply isn’t allowed.

And here’s where the logarithm comes to the rescue. As if by witchcraft it turns out that

\displaystyle \int_0^x x^{-1} = -\log (1-x)

This kind of integral crops when you compute scattering amplitudes. The traditional way to work out an amplitudes is to draw Feynman diagrams – effectively pictures representing the answer. Every time you get a loop in the picture, you get an integration. Every time a particle propagates from A to B you get a fraction. Plug through the maths and you sometimes see integrals that give you logarithms!

But logarithms aren’t the end of the story. When you’ve got many loop integrations involved, and perhaps many propagators too, things can get messy. And this is where polylogarithms come in. They’ve got an integral form like logarithms, only instead of one integration there are many!

\displaystyle \textrm{Li}_{\sigma_1,\dots \sigma_n}(x) = \int_0^z \frac{1}{z_1- \sigma_1}\int_0^{z_1} \frac{1}{z_2-\sigma_2} \dots \int_0^{z_{n-1}}\frac{1}{z_n-\sigma_n}

It’s easy to check that out beloved \log function emerges from setting n=1 and \sigma_1=0. There’s some interesting sociology underlying polylogs. The polylogs I’ve defined are variously known as hyperlogs, generalized polylogs and Goncharov polylogs depending on who you ask. This confusion stems from the fact that these functions have been studied in several fields besides amplitudes, and predictably nobody can agree on a name! One name that is universally accepted is classical polylogs – these simpler functions emerging when you set all the \sigmas to zero.

So far we’ve just given names to some integrals we might find in amplitudes. But this is only the beginning. It turns out there are numerous interesting relations between different polylogs, which can be encoded by clever mathematical tools going by esoteric names – cluster algebras, motives and the symbol to name but a few. Erik warmed us up on some of these topics, while also mentioning that even generalized polylogs aren’t the whole story! Sometimes you need even wackier functions like elliptic polylogs.

All this gets rather technical quite quickly. In fact, complicated functions and swathes of algebra are a sad corollary of the traditional Feynman diagram approach to amplitudes. But thankfully there are new and powerful methods on the market. We heard about these so-called bootstraps from Dr. James Drummond and Dr. Matt von Hippel.

The term bootstrap is an old one, emerging in the 1960s to describe methods which use symmetry, locality and unitarity to determine amplitudes. It’s probably a humorous reference to the old English saying “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” to emphasise the achievement of lofty goals from meagre beginnings. Research efforts in the 60s had limited success, but the modern bootstrap programme is going from strength to strength. This is due in part to our much improved understanding of polylogarithms and their underlying mathematical structure.

The philosophy goes something like this. Assume that your answer can be written as a polylog (more precisely as a sum of polylogs, with the integrand expressed as \prod latex d \log(R_i) for appropriate rational functions R_i). Now write down all the possible rational functions that could appear, based on your knowledge of the process. Treat these as alphabet bricks. Now put your alphabet bricks together in every way that seems sensible.

The reason the method works is that there’s only one way to make a meaningful “word” out of your alphabet bricks. Locality forces the first letter to be a kinematic invariant, or else your answer would have branch cuts which don’t correspond to physical particles. Take it from me, that isn’t allowed! Supersymmetry cuts down the possibilities for the final letter. A cluster algebra ansatz also helps keep the possibilities down, though a physical interpretation for this is as yet unknown. For 7 particles this is more-or-less enough to get you the final answer. But weirdly 6 particles is smore complicated! Counter-intuitive, but hey – that’s research. To fix the six point result you must appeal to impressive all-loop results from integrability.

Next up for these bootstrap folk is higher loops. According to Matt, the 5-loop result should be gettable. But beyond that the sheer number of functions involved might mean the method crashes. Naively one might expect that the problem lies with having insufficiently many constraints. But apparently the real issue is more prosaic – we just don’t have the computing power to whittle down the options beyond 5-loop.

With the afternoon came a return to Feynman diagrams, but with a twist. Professor Johannes Henn talked us through an ingenious evaluation method based on differential equations. The basic concept has been known for a long time, but relies heavily on choosing the correct basis of integrals for the diagram under consideration. Johannes’ great insight was to use conjectures about the dlog form of integrands to suggest a particularly nice set of basis integrals. This makes solving the differential equations a cinch – a significant achievement!

Now the big question is – when can this new method be applied? As far as I’m aware there’s no proof that this nice integral basis always exists. But it seems that it’s there for enough cases to be useful! The day closed with some experimentally relevant applications, the acid test. I’m now curious as to whether you can link the developments in symbology and cluster algebras with this differential equation technique to provide a mega-powerful amplitude machine…! And that’s where I ought to head to bed, before you readers start to worry about theoretical physicists taking over the world.


It was a pleasure to chat all things form factors with Brenda Penante, Mattias Wilhelm and Dhritiman Nandan at lunchtime. Look out for a “on-shell” blog post soon.

I must also thank Lorenzo Magnea for an enlightening discussion on soft theorems. Time to bury my head in some old papers I’d previously overlooked!

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