Category Archives: String Theory

A Second Course in String Theory

I’ve been lucky enough to have funding from SEPnet to create a new lecture course recently, following on from David Tong’s famous Part III course on string theory. The notes are intended for the beginning PhD student, bridging the gap between Masters level and the daunting initial encounters with academic seminars. If you’re a more experienced journeyman, I hope they’ll provide a useful reminder of certain terminology. Remember what twist is? What does a D9-brane couple to? Curious about the scattering equations? Now you can satisfy your inner quizmaster!

Here’s a link to the notes. Comments, questions and corrections are more than welcome.

Thanks are particularly due to Andy O’Bannon for his advice and support throughout the project. 

Three Ways with Totally Positive Grassmannians

This week I’m down in Canterbury for a conference focussing on the positive Grassmannian. “What’s that?”, I hear you ask. Roughly speaking, it’s a mysterious geometrical object that seems to crop up all over mathematical physics, from scattering amplitudes to solitons, not to mention quantum groups. More formally we define

\displaystyle \mathrm{Gr}_{k,n} = \{k\mathrm{-planes}\subset \mathbb{C}^n\}

We can view this as the space of k\times n matrices modulo a GL(k) action, which has homogeneous “Plücker” coordinates given by the k \times k minors. Of course, these are not coordinates in the true sense, for they are overcomplete. In particular there exist quadratic Plücker relations between the minors. In principle then, you only need a subset of the homogeneous coordinates to cover the whole Grassmannian.

To get to the positive Grassmannian is easy, you simply enforce that every k \times k minor is positive. Of course, you only need to check this for some subset of the Plücker coordinates, but it’s tricky to determine which ones. In the first talk of the day Lauren Williams showed how you can elegantly extract this information from paths on a graph!

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 21.55.04

In fact, this graph encodes much more information than that. In particular, it turns out that the positive Grassmannian naturally decomposes into cells (i.e. things homeomorphic to a closed ball). The graph can be used to exactly determine this cell decomposition.

And that’s not all! The same structure crops up in the study of quantum groups. Very loosely, these are algebraic structures that result from introducing non-commutativity in a controlled way. More formally, if you want to quantise a given integrable system, you’ll typically want to promote the coordinate ring of a Poisson-Lie group to a non-commutative algebra. This is exactly the sort of problem that Drinfeld et al. started studying 30 years ago, and the field is very much active today.

The link with the positive Grassmannian comes from defining a quantity called the quantum Grassmannian. The first step is to invoke a quantum plane, that is a 2-dimensional algebra generated by a,b with the relation that ab = qba for some parameter q different from 1. The matrices that linearly transform this plane are then constrained in their entries for consistency. There’s a natural way to build these up into higher dimensional quantum matrices. The quantum Grassmannian is constructed exactly as above, but with these new-fangled quantum matrices!

The theorem goes that the torus action invariant irreducible varieties in the quantum Grassmannian exactly correspond to the cells of the positive Grassmannian. The proof is fairly involved, but the ideas are rather elegant. I think you’ll agree that the final result is mysterious and intriguing!

And we’re not done there. As I’ve mentioned before, positive Grassmannia and their generalizations turn out to compute scattering amplitudes. Alright, at present this only works for planar \mathcal{N}=4 super-Yang-Mills. Stop press! Maybe it works for non-planar theories as well. In any case, it’s further evidence that Grassmannia are the future.

From a historical point of view, it’s not surprising that Grassmannia are cropping up right now. In fact, you can chronicle revolutions in theoretical physics according to changes in the variables we use. The calculus revolution of Newton and Leibniz is arguably about understanding properly the limiting behaviour of real numbers. With quantum mechanics came the entry of complex numbers into the game. By the 1970s it had become clear that projectivity was important, and twistor theory was born. And the natural step beyond projective space is the Grassmannian. Viva la revolución!

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!

T-duality and Isometries of Spacetime

I’ve just been to an excellent seminar on Double Field Theory by its co-creator, Chris Hull. You may know that string theory exhibits a meta-symmetry called T-duality. More precisely, it’s equivalent to put closed strings on circles of radius R and 1/R.

This is the simplest version of T-duality, when spacetime has no background fields. Now suppose we turn on the Kalb-Ramond field B. This is just an excitation of the string which generalizes electromagnetic potential.

This has the effect of making T-duality more complicated. In fact it promotes the R\to 1/R symmetry to O(d,d;\mathbb{Z}) where d is the dimension of your torus. Importantly for this to work, we must choose a B field which is constant in the compact directions, otherwise we lose the isometries that gave us T-duality in the first place.

Under this T-duality, the B field and G metric get mixed up. This can have dramatic consequences for the underlying geometry! In particular our new metric may not patch together by diffeomorphisms on our spacetime. Similarly our new Kalb-Ramond field B may not patch together via diffeomorphisms and gauge transformations. We call such strange backgrounds non-geometric.

To express this more succintly, let’s package diffeomorphisms and gauge transformations together under the name generalized diffeomorphisms. We can now say that T-duality does not respect the patching conditions of generalized diffeomorphisms. Put another way, the O(d,d) group does not embed within the group of generalized diffeomorphisms of our spacetime!

This lack of geometry is rather irritating. We physicists tend to like to picture things, and T-duality has just ruined our intuition! But here’s where Double Field Theory comes in. The idea is to double the coordinates of your compact space, so that O(d,d) transformations just become rotations! Now T-duality clearly embeds within generalized diffeomorphisms and geometry has returned.

All this complexity got me thinking about an easier problem – what do we mean by an isometry in a theory with background fields? In vacuum isometries are defined as diffeomorphisms which preserve the metric. Infinitesimally these are generated by Killing vector fields, defined to obey the equation

\displaystyle \mathcal{L}_K g=0

Now suppose you add in background fields, in the form of an energy-momentum tensor T. If we want a Killing vector K to generate an overall symmetry then we’d better have

\displaystyle \mathcal{L}_K T=0

In fact this equation follows from the last one through Einstein’s equations. If your metric solves gravity with background fields, then any isometry of the metric automatically preserves the energy momentum tensor. This is known as the matter collineation theorem.

But hang on, the energy momentum tensor doesn’t capture all the dynamics of a background field. Working with a Kalb-Ramond field for instance, it’s the potential B which is the important quantity. So if we want our Killing vector field to be a symmetry of the full system we must also have

\displaystyle \mathcal{L}_K B=0

at least up to a gauge transformation of B. Visually if we have a magnetic field pointing upwards everywhere then our symmetry diffeomorphism had better not twist it round!

So from a physical perspective, we should really view background fields as an integral part of spacetime geometry. It’s then natural to combine fields with the metric to create a generalized metric. A cute observation perhaps, but it’s not immediately useful!

Here’s where T-duality joins the party. The extended objects of string theory (and their low energy descriptions in supergravity) possess duality symmetries which exchange pieces of the generalized metric. So in a stringy world it’s simplest to work with the generalized metric as a whole.

And that brings us full circle. Double Field Theory exactly manifests the duality symmetries of the generalized metric! Not only is this mathematically helpful, it’s also an important conceptual step on the road to unification via strings. If that road exists.

Anomaly Cancellation

Back in the early 80s, nobody was much interested in string theory. Some wrote it off as inconsistent nonsense. How wrong they were! With a stroke of genius Michael Green and John Schwarz confounded the critics. But how was it done?

First off we’ll need to understand the problem. Our best theory of nature at small scales is provided by the Standard Model. This describes forces as fields, possessing certain symmetries. In particular the mathematical description endows the force fields with an extra redundant symmetry.

The concept of adding redundancy appears absurd at first glance. But it actually makes it much easier to write down the theory. Plus you can eliminate the redundancy later to simplify your calculations. This principle is known as adding gauge symmetry.

When we write down theories, it’s easiest to start at large scales and then probe down to smaller ones. As we look at smaller things, quantum effects come into play. That means we have to make our force fields quantum.

As we move into the quantum domain, it’s important that we don’t lose the gauge symmetry. Remember that the gauge symmetry was just a mathematical tool, not a physical effect. If our procedure of “going quantum” destroyed this symmetry, the fields would have more freedom than they should. Our theory would cease to describe reality as we see it.

Thankfully this problem doesn’t occur in the Standard Model. But what of string theory? Well, it turns out (miraculously) that strings do reproduce the whole array of possible force fields, with appropriate gauge symmetries. But when you look closely at the small scale behaviour, bad things happen.

More precisely, the fields described by propagating quantum strings seem to lose their gauge symmetry! Suddenly things aren’t looking so miraculous. In fact, the string theory has got too much freedom to describe the real world. We call this issue a gauge anomaly.

So what’s the get out clause? Thankfully for string theorists, it turned out that the naive calculation misses some terms. These terms are exactly right to cancel out those that kill the symmetry. In other words, when you include all the information correctly the anomaly cancels!

The essence of the calculation is captured in the image below.


Any potential gauge anomaly would come from the interaction of 6 particles. For concreteness we’ll focus on open strings in Type I string theory. The anomalous contribution would be given by a 1-loop effect. Visually that corresponds to an open string worldsheet with an annulus.

We’d like to sum up the contributions from all (conformally) inequivalent diagrams. Roughly speaking, this is a sum over the radius r of the annulus. It turns out that the terms from r\neq 0 exactly cancel the term at r = 0. That’s what the pretty picture above is all about.

But why wasn’t that spotted immediately? For a start, the mathematics behind my pictures is fairly intricate. In fact, things are only manageable if you look at the r=0 term correctly. Rather than viewing it as a 1-loop diagram, you can equivalently see it as a tree level contribution.

Shrinking down the annulus to r=0 makes it look like a point. The information contained in the loop can be viewed as inserting a closed string state at this point. (If you join two ends of an open string, they make a closed one)! The relevant closed string state is usually labelled B_{\mu\nu}.

Historically, it was this “tree level” contribution that was accidentally ignored. As far as I’m aware, Green and Schwarz spotted the cancellation after adding the appropriate B_{\mu\nu} term as a lucky guess. Only later did this full story emerge.

My thanks to Sam Playle for an informative discussion on these matters.