My research focuses on an unrealistic theory called massless super Yang-Mills (SYM). This sounds pretty pointless, at least at first. But actually this model shares many features with more complete accounts of reality. So it’s not all pie in the sky.
The reason I look at SYM is because it contains lots of symmetry. This simplifies matters a lot. Studying SYM is like going to an adventure playground – you can still have great fun climbing and jumping, but it’s a lot safer than roaming out into a nearby forest.
Famously SYM has a conformal symmetry. Roughly speaking, this means that the theory looks the same at every length scale. (Whether conformal symmetry is equivalent to scale invariance is a hot topic, in fact)! Put another way, SYM has no real notion of length. I told you it was unrealistic.
This is a bit unfortunate for me, because I’d like to use SYM to think about particle scattering. To understand the problem, you need to know what I want to calculate. The official name for this quantity is the S-matrix.
The jargon is quite straightforward. “S” just stands for scattering. The “matrix” part tells you that this quantity encodes many possible scattering outcomes. To get an S-matrix, you have to assume you scatter particles from far away. That’s certainly the case in big particle accelerators – the LHC is huge compared to a proton!
But remember I said that SYM doesn’t have a length scale. So really you can’t get an S-matrix. And without an S-matrix, you can’t say anything about particle scattering. Things aren’t looking good.
Fortunately all is not lost. You can try to define an S-matrix using the usual techniques that worked in normal theories. All the calculations go through fine, unless there are any low energy particles around. Any of these so-called soft particles will cause your S-matrix to blow up to infinity!
But hey, we should expect our S-matrix to be badly behaved. After all, we’ve chosen a theory without a sense of scale! These irritating infinities go by the name of infrared divergences. Thankfully there’s a systematic way of eliminating them.
Remember that I said our SYM theory is massless. All the particles are like photons, constantly whizzing about that the speed of light. If you were a photon, life would be very dull. That’s because you’d move so fast through space you couldn’t move through time. This means that essentially our massless particles have no way of knowing about distances.
Viewed from this perspective it’s intuitive that this lack of mass yields the conformal symmetry. We can remove the troublesome divergences by destroying the conformal symmetry. We do this in a controlled way by giving some particles a small mass.
Technically our theory is now called Coulomb branch SYM. Who’s Coulomb, I hear you cry? He’s the bloke who developed electrostatics 250 years ago. And why’s he cropped up now? Because when we dispense with conformal symmetry, we’re left with some symmetries that match those of electromagnetism.
In Coulomb branch SYM it’s perfectly fine to define an S-matrix! You get sensible answers from all your calculations. Now imagine we try to recover our original theory by decreasing all masses to zero. Looking closely at the S-matrix, we see it split into two pieces – finite and infinite. Just ignore the infinite bit, and you’ve managed to extract useful scattering data for the original conformal theory!
You might think I’m a bit blasé in throwing away these divergences. But this is actually well-motivated physically. The reason is that such infinities cancel in any measurable quantity. You could say that they only appear in the first place because you’re doing the wrong sum!
So next time somebody tells you that you can’t do scattering in a conformal theory, you can explain why they’re wrong! Okay, I grant you, that’s an unlikely pub conversation. But stranger things have happened.
And if you’re planning to grab a pint soon, make it a scientific one!