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

We can view this as the space of matrices modulo a action, which has homogeneous “Plücker” coordinates given by the 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 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!

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 -dimensional algebra generated by with the relation that for some parameter different from . 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 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!