Tag 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. 

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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.

Calabi-Yau Manifolds and Moduli Stabilization

For better or worse, string theory dominates modern research in theoretical physics. Naively, you might expect a theory consisting of tiny strings to be pretty simple. But the subject has grown into a vast and exciting playground for new ideas.

String theory is popular not just because it might unify physics or quantize gravity. In fact, many unexpected offshoots have proved more successful than the original idea! From particle physics to superconductors, string theory is having a surprising indirect impact. It’s certainly useful, even if it doesn’t prove to be the ultimate description of reality.

But what of the original plan – to describe nature using strings? A key sticking point is the existence of extra dimensions. String theory needs 6 of these to work consistently. Another problem is supersymmetry. 10 dimensional string theory must have lots of this to work correctly. But 4 dimensional physics only has a little bit of supersymmetry at most!

It turns out that these problems can be solved in one step. By coiling up the extra dimensions into a Calabi-Yau manifold we can make the extra dimensions effectively invisible, while reducing the supersymmetry we end up with in our 4D world. So what is this Calabi-Yau manifold, I hear you ask!

Well, Calabi-Yau is just a technical term for the shape of the compact extra dimensions. Different shapes break different amounts of symmetries, leaving us with different theories. Calabi-Yau’s are just symmetrical enough to break the right amount of supersymmetry, giving us a sensible theory in the end!

Technically Calabi-Yau manifolds must have a metric which is Kaehler and Ricci flat. These properties provide the correct information about the shape of the curled up dimensions. So we must look for 6-real dimensional manifolds with these properties.

Generically, you don’t have to put a notion of distance on a space. When I go for a walk, I don’t always carry around a yardstick so I can measure how far I’ve gone! You can have a perfectly good manifold without giving it a metric, but you get extra information once you have defined what distance means.

As it happens, finding a metric which is Calabi-Yau is quite difficult. But due to the genius of Shing-Tung Yau, we know that you don’t need to do this! There’s an equivalent definition of a Calabi-Yau manifold which doesn’t depend on metrics at all. All you need to know is the topological information about the manifold – roughly speaking, how “holey” it is.

If you know something about differential geometry, this kind of equivalence might sound familiar. Yau’s theorem relating geometry and topology is like a (much) more complicated version of the classic Gauss-Bonnet theorem!

It’s a darn sight easier to discover Calabi-Yau’s when you know it’s only the topological data that matters. At first people thought there might only be a few, but now we know there’s a huge number of potential candidates! The problem then becomes choosing one which produces the physics of our universe.

While people have made progress on this, the going is tough. One reason is that nobody knows the metric on a compact Calabi-Yau. This isn’t so important for string calculations, but it makes a big difference when you need to consider branes. So people have come up with various workarounds, which give promising physical results. One such success story is provided by my colleague Zac Kenton, who recently wrote a paper on brane inflation with his PhD supervisor, Steve Thomas.

There’s one final complication that I should mention. If string theory is to be a fundamental theory, then the Calabi-Yau shape should be dynamic. More specifically it will squeeze and stretch over time, unless there’s some mechanism to keep it stable. From the perspective of the 4 large dimensions, this freedom is seen as free scalar fields. These so-called “moduli” fields are bad, because we don’t observe anything like them in nature!

To solve this problem, we must find a way of constraining the fluctuations of the Calabi-Yau. Put another way we have to stabilize the moduli fields, by giving them potential terms, so that their fluctuations are small and essentially negligible at low energies. Hence this is known as the problem of moduli stabilization.

One popular way to solve the conundrum is to turn on some supergravity fields at high energy. These so-called fluxes generate potential terms for the moduli, solving the stabilization problem. Initially this idea was unpopular because of a famous no-go theorem by Witten. But since the advent of the D-brane revolution, the concept is back in vogue!

So there you have it – a 5 minute snapshot of “real” string theory. Now it’s time to get back to my calculations, where string theory is more the background Muse, and certainly not the main protagonist!

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.

20140305_185253

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.

So What Exactly Are We Doing Here?

Good afternoon. Over the next 12 weeks or so, this blog will grow into a collection of (mostly mathematical) ideas. If you’re at all interested in String Theory, Algebraic Geometry or Quantum Mechanics I should have something worthwhile to tell you. If you already don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry – I’ll attempt to make a great deal of what I write accessible to the diligent layman! I’ll start slowly and try not to lose people along the way. Hopefully this will end up being a cute introduction to a fascinating part of maths for people from all kinds of backgrounds.

The aim is to post about once a day, with the style being something between popular science and academic coursebook. I’ll try to tag posts accordingly, so it’s easy to tell what audience I’m pitching to. The first few days may be an extremely brief recap of some very foundational material to provide some explanation and background for non-mathematicians.

Occasionally I might discuss/opine/rant about other things, including music, sport, and just why we are getting quite so much rain. I hope this will provide a (necessary?) break from the maths. I’ll happily take requests for a post on a particular topic, but I can’t promise to become an instant expert.

Finally I can’t guarantee that everything I write will be entirely correct on first posting. Some of this material I’m learning for the first time myself, and it might take a couple of iterations before I fully grasp the concepts. If you think I’ve been unclear or don’t understand something, please do comment.

If you are still with me, well done! No more administrative faff, I promise! Have a couple of contrasting YouTube videos for your efforts, here and here.