Next month, I’m running a day-long conference here at QMUL. The meeting is intended to give early career researchers the chance to seek possible collaborations. Despite living in this globalised age, all too often PhD students and postdocs are restricted to working with faculty members in their current institution. This is no surprise – at the conferences and meetings where networking opportunities arise, we’re usually talking about completed work, rather than discussing new problems.

We’re shaking up the status quo by asking our participants to speak about ongoing research, and in particular to outline roadblocks where they need input from theorists with different expertise. What’s more, we’re throwing together random teams for speed collaboration sessions on the issues presented, getting the ball rolling for possible acknowledgements and group projects. We’re extremely fortunate to have the inspirational Fernando Alday as our guest speaker, a serial collaborator himself.

The final novelty of this conference comes in digital form. The conference website doubles as a social network, making it easy to keep track of your connections and maintain interactions after the meeting. We hope to generate good content on the site during the day, where some participants will be invited to act as scribes and note down any interesting ideas that arise. This way, there’ll be a valuable and evolving database of ideas ready for future collaborations to draw on.

Over to you! If you’re doing a PhD or a postdoc in the UK, or you know someone who is, send them a link to the website

If you’re further afield, feel free to follow developments from afar. In the long term we’re hoping to roll out the social network to other conferences and institutions – watch this space!

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 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 -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

The are just two particle invariants – encoding things you can measure about the speed and angle of particle scattering. And the 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.

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 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 dimensions. For technical reasons this is equivalent to working in the theory with an infinite number of color charges, not just the usual 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.

Conversations

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!

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 dimensions onto a dimensional model which can be exactly solved. More technically, they’ve created a flux tube representation for planar amplitudes in super-Yang-Mills, which can then by solved using spin chain methods.

The upshot is that they’ve calculated 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

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

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.

Conversations

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!

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 is easy, you might recall. You’ll end up with plus some constant. But what happens when 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

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!

It’s easy to check that out beloved function emerges from setting and . 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 s 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 for appropriate rational functions ). 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 particles this is more-or-less enough to get you the final answer. But weirdly 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 -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.

Conversations

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!

It’s conference season! I’m hanging out in very warm Zurich with the biggest names in my field – scattering amplitudes. Sure it’s good fun to be outside the office. But there’s serious work going on too! Research conferences are a vital forum for the exchange of ideas. Inspiration and collaboration flow far more easily in person than via email or telephone. I’ll be blogging the highlights throughout the week.

Monday | Morning Session

To kick-off we have some real physics from the Large Hadron Collider! Professor Nigel Glover‘s research provides a vital bridge between theory and experiment. Most physicists in this room are almost mathematicians, focussed on developing techniques rather than computing realistic quantities. Yet the motivation for this quest lie with serious experiments, like the LHC.

We’re currently entering an era where the theoretical uncertainty trumps experimental error. With the latest upgrade at CERN, particle smashers will reach unprecedented accuracy. This leaves us amplitudes theorists with a large task. In fact, the experimentalists regularly draw up a wishlist to keep us honest! According to Nigel, the challenge is to make our predictions twice as good within ten years.

At first glance, this 2x challenge doesn’t seem too hard! After all Moore’s Law guarantees us a doubling of computing power in the next few years. But the scale of the problem is so large that more computing power won’t solve it! We need new techniques to get to NNLO – that is, corrections that are multiplied by the square of the strong coupling. (Of course, we must also take into account electroweak effects but we’ll concentrate on the strong force for now).

Nigel helpfully broke down the problem into three components. Firstly we must compute the missing higher order terms in the amplitude. The start of the art is lacking at present! Next we need better control of our input parameters. Finally we need to improve our model of how protons break apart when you smash them together in beams.

My research helps in a small part with the final problem. At present I’m finishing up a paper on subleading soft loop corrections, revealing some new structure and developing a couple of new ideas. The hope is that one day someone will use this to better eliminate some irritating low energy effects which can spoil the theoretical prediction.

In May, I was lucky enough to meet Bell Labs president Dr. Marcus Weldon in Murray Hill, New Jersey. He spoke about his vision for a 10x leap forward in every one of their technologies within a decade. This kind of game changing goal requires lateral thinking and truly new ideas.

We face exactly the same challenge in the world of scattering amplitudes. The fact that we’re aiming for only a 2x improvement is by no means a lack of ambition. Rather it underlines that problem that doubling our predictive power entails far more than a 10x increase in complexity of calculations using current techniques.

I’ve talked a lot about accuracy so far, but notice that I haven’t mentioned precision. Nigel was at pains to distinguish the two, courtesy of this amusing cartoon.

Why is this so important? Well, many people believe that NNLO calculations will reduce the renormalization scale uncertainty in theoretical predictions. This is a big plus point! Many checks on known NNLO results (such as W boson production processes) confirm this hunch. This means the predictions are much more precise. But it doesn’t guarantee accuracy!

To hit the bullseye there’s still much work to be done. This week we’ll be sharpening our mathematical tools, ready to do battle with the complexities of the universe. And with that in mind – it’s time to get back to the next seminar. Stay tuned for further updates!

Update | Monday Evening

Only time for the briefest of bulletins, following a productive and enjoyable evening on the roof of the ETH main building. Fantastic to chat again to Tomek Lukowski (on ambitwistor strings), Scott Davies (on supergravity 4-loop calculations and soft theorems) and Philipp Haehnal (on the twistor approach to conformal gravity). Equally enlightening to meet many others, not least our gracious hosts from ETH Zurich.

My favourite moment of the day came in Xuan Chen’s seminar, where he discussed a simple yet powerful method to check the numerical stability of precision QCD calculations. It’s well known that these should factorize in appropriate kinematic regions, well described by imaginatively named antenna functions. By painstakingly verifying this factorization in a number of cases Xuan detected and remedied an important inaccuracy in a Higgs to 4 jet result.

Of course it was a pleasure to hear my second supervisor, Professor Gabriele Travaglini speak about his latest papers on the dilatation operator. The rederivation of known integrability results using amplitudes opens up an enticing new avenue for those intrepid explorers who yearn to solve super-Yang-Mills!

Finally Dr. Simon Badger‘s update on the Edinburgh group’s work was intriguing. One challenge for NNLO computations is to understand 2-loop corrections in QCD. The team have taken an important step towards this by analysing 5-point scattering of right-handed particles. In principle this is a deterministic procedure: draw some pictures and compute.

But to get a compact formula requires some ingenuity. First you need appropriate integral reduction to identify appropriate master integrals. Then you must apply KK and BCJ relations to weed out the dead wood that’s cluttering up the formula unnecessarily. Trouble is, both of these procedures aren’t uniquely defined – so intelligent guesswork is the order of the day!

That’s quite enough for now – time for some sleep in the balmy temperatures of central Europe.