Core Theory T-Shirts

Way back when, for purposes of giving a talk, I made a figure that displayed the world of everyday experience in one equation. The label reflects the fact that the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood.

So now there are T-shirts. (See below to purchase your own.)

Core Theory T-shirt

It’s a good equation, representing the Feynman path-integral formulation of an amplitude for going from one field configuration to another one, in the effective field theory consisting of Einstein’s general theory of relativity plus the Standard Model of particle physics. It even made it onto an extremely cool guitar.

I’m not quite up to doing a comprehensive post explaining every term in detail, but here’s the general idea. Our everyday world is well-described by an effective field theory. So the fundamental stuff of the world is a set of quantum fields that interact with each other. Feynman figured out that you could calculate the transition between two configurations of such fields by integrating over every possible trajectory between them — that’s what this equation represents. The thing being integrated is the exponential of the action for this theory — as mentioned, general relativity plus the Standard Model. The GR part integrates over the metric, which characterizes the geometry of spacetime; the matter fields are a bunch of fermions, the quarks and leptons; the non-gravitational forces are gauge fields (photon, gluons, W and Z bosons); and of course the Higgs field breaks symmetry and gives mass to those fermions that deserve it. If none of that makes sense — maybe I’ll do it more carefully some other time.

Gravity is usually thought to be the odd force out when it comes to quantum mechanics, but that’s only if you really want a description of gravity that is valid everywhere, even at (for example) the Big Bang. But if you only want a theory that makes sense when gravity is weak, like here on Earth, there’s no problem at all. The little notation k < Λ at the bottom of the integral indicates that we only integrate over low-frequency (long-wavelength, low-energy) vibrations in the relevant fields. (That's what gives away that this is an "effective" theory.) In that case there's no trouble including gravity. The fact that gravity is readily included in the EFT of everyday life has long been emphasized by Frank Wilczek. As discussed in his latest book, A Beautiful Question, he therefore advocates lumping GR together with the Standard Model and calling it The Core Theory.

I couldn’t agree more, so I adopted the same nomenclature for my own upcoming book, The Big Picture. There’s a whole chapter (more, really) in there about the Core Theory. After finishing those chapters, I rewarded myself by doing something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time — put the equation on a T-shirt, which you see above.

I’ve had T-shirts made before, with pretty grim results as far as quality is concerned. I knew this one would be especially tricky, what with all those tiny symbols. But I tried out Design-A-Shirt, and the result seems pretty impressively good.

So I’m happy to let anyone who might be interested go ahead and purchase shirts for themselves and their loved ones. Here are the links for light/dark and men’s/women’s versions. I don’t actually make any money off of this — you’re just buying a T-shirt from Design-A-Shirt. They’re a little pricey, but that’s what you get for the quality. I believe you can even edit colors and all that — feel free to give it a whirl and report back with your experiences.

The Big Picture

Once again I have not really been the world’s most conscientious blogger, have I? Sometimes other responsibilities have to take precedence — such as looming book deadlines. And I’m working on a new book, and that deadline is definitely looming!

Sean Carroll: The Big Picture

And here it is. The title is The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. It’s scheduled to be published on May 17, 2016; you can pre-order it at Amazon and elsewhere right now.

An alternative subtitle was What Is, and What Matters. It’s a cheerfully grandiose (I’m supposed to say “ambitious”) attempt to connect our everyday lives to the underlying laws of nature. That’s a lot of ground to cover: I need to explain (what I take to be) the right way to think about the fundamental nature of reality, what the laws of physics actually are, sketch some cosmology and connect to the arrow of time, explore why there is something rather than nothing, show how interesting complex structures can arise in an undirected universe, talk about the meaning of consciousness and how it can be purely physical, and finally trying to understand meaning and morality in a universe devoid of transcendent purpose. I’m getting tired just thinking about it.

From another perspective, the book is an explication of, and argument for, naturalism — and in particular, a flavor I label Poetic Naturalism. The “Poetic” simply means that there are many ways of talking about the world, and any one that is both (1) useful, and (2) compatible with the underlying fundamental reality, deserves a place at the table. Some of those ways of talking will simply be emergent descriptions of physics and higher levels, but some will also be matters of judgment and meaning.

As of right now the book is organized into seven parts, each with several short chapters. All that is subject to change, of course. But this will give you the general idea.

* Part One: Being and Stories

How we think about the fundamental nature of reality. Poetic Naturalism: there is only one world, but there are many ways of talking about it. Suggestions of naturalism: the world moves by itself, time progresses by moments rather than toward a goal. What really exists.

* Part Two: Knowledge and Belief

Telling different stories about the same underlying truth. Acquiring and updating reliable beliefs. Knowledge of our actual world is never perfect. Constructing consistent planets of belief, guarding against our biases.

* Part Three: Time and Cosmos

The structure and development of our universe. Time’s arrow and cosmic history. The emergence of memories, causes, and reasons. Why is there a universe at all, and is it best explained by something outside itself?

* Part Four: Essence and Possibility

Drawing the boundary between known and unknown. The quantum nature of deep reality: observation, entanglement, uncertainty. Vibrating fields and the Core Theory underlying everyday life. What we can say with confidence about life and the soul.

* Part Five: Complexity and Evolution

Why complex structures naturally arise as the universe moves from order to disorder. Self-organization and incremental progress. The origin of life, and its physical purpose. The anthropic principle, environmental selection, and our role in the universe.

* Part Six: Thinking and Feeling

The mind, the brain, and the body. What consciousness is, and how it might have come to be. Contemplating other times and possible worlds. The emergence of inner experiences from non-conscious matter. How free will is compatible with physics.

* Part Seven: Caring and Mattering

Why we can’t derive ought from is, even if “is” is all there is. And why we nevertheless care about ourselves and others, and why that matters. Constructing meaning and morality in our universe. Confronting the finitude of life, deciding what stories we want to tell along the way.

Hope that whets the appetite a bit. Now back to work with me.

The Bayesian Second Law of Thermodynamics

Entropy increases. Closed systems become increasingly disordered over time. So says the Second Law of Thermodynamics, one of my favorite notions in all of physics.

At least, entropy usually increases. If we define entropy by first defining “macrostates” — collections of individual states of the system that are macroscopically indistinguishable from each other — and then taking the logarithm of the number of microstates per macrostate, as portrayed in this blog’s header image, then we don’t expect entropy to always increase. According to Boltzmann, the increase of entropy is just really, really probable, since higher-entropy macrostates are much, much bigger than lower-entropy ones. But if we wait long enough — really long, much longer than the age of the universe — a macroscopic system will spontaneously fluctuate into a lower-entropy state. Cream and coffee will unmix, eggs will unbreak, maybe whole universes will come into being. But because the timescales are so long, this is just a matter of intellectual curiosity, not experimental science.

That’s what I was taught, anyway. But since I left grad school, physicists (and chemists, and biologists) have become increasingly interested in ultra-tiny systems, with only a few moving parts. Nanomachines, or the molecular components inside living cells. In systems like that, the occasional downward fluctuation in entropy is not only possible, it’s going to happen relatively frequently — with crucial consequences for how the real world works.

Accordingly, the last fifteen years or so has seen something of a revolution in non-equilibrium statistical mechanics — the study of statistical systems far from their happy resting states. Two of the most important results are the Crooks Fluctuation Theorem (by Gavin Crooks), which relates the probability of a process forward in time to the probability of its time-reverse, and the Jarzynski Equality (by Christopher Jarzynski), which relates the change in free energy between two states to the average amount of work done on a journey between them. (Professional statistical mechanics are so used to dealing with inequalities that when they finally do have an honest equation, they call it an “equality.”) There is a sense in which these relations underlie the good old Second Law; the Jarzynski equality can be derived from the Crooks Fluctuation Theorem, and the Second Law can be derived from the Jarzynski Equality. (Though the three relations were discovered in reverse chronological order from how they are used to derive each other.)

Still, there is a mystery lurking in how we think about entropy and the Second Law — a puzzle that, like many such puzzles, I never really thought about until we came up with a solution. Boltzmann’s definition of entropy (logarithm of number of microstates in a macrostate) is very conceptually clear, and good enough to be engraved on his tombstone. But it’s not the only definition of entropy, and it’s not even the one that people use most often.

Rather than referring to macrostates, we can think of entropy as characterizing something more subjective: our knowledge of the state of the system. That is, we might not know the exact position x and momentum p of every atom that makes up a fluid, but we might have some probability distribution ρ(x,p) that tells us the likelihood the system is in any particular state (to the best of our knowledge). Then the entropy associated with that distribution is given by a different, though equally famous, formula:

S = - \int \rho \log \rho.

That is, we take the probability distribution ρ, multiply it by its own logarithm, and integrate the result over all the possible states of the system, to get (minus) the entropy. A formula like this was introduced by Boltzmann himself, but these days is often associated with Josiah Willard Gibbs, unless you are into information theory, where it’s credited to Claude Shannon. Don’t worry if the symbols are totally opaque; the point is that low entropy means we know a lot about the specific state a system is in, and high entropy means we don’t know much at all.

In appropriate circumstances, the Boltzmann and Gibbs formulations of entropy and the Second Law are closely related to each other. But there’s a crucial difference: in a perfectly isolated system, the Boltzmann entropy tends to increase, but the Gibbs entropy stays exactly constant. In an open system — allowed to interact with the environment — the Gibbs entropy will go up, but it will only go up. It will never fluctuate down. (Entropy can decrease through heat loss, if you put your system in a refrigerator or something, but you know what I mean.) The Gibbs entropy is about our knowledge of the system, and as the system is randomly buffeted by its environment we know less and less about its specific state. So what, from the Gibbs point of view, can we possibly mean by “entropy rarely, but occasionally, will fluctuate downward”?

I won’t hold you in suspense. Since the Gibbs/Shannon entropy is a feature of our knowledge of the system, the way it can fluctuate downward is for us to look at the system and notice that it is in a relatively unlikely state — thereby gaining knowledge.

But this operation of “looking at the system” doesn’t have a ready implementation in how we usually formulate statistical mechanics. Until now! My collaborators Tony Bartolotta, Stefan Leichenauer, Jason Pollack, and I have written a paper formulating statistical mechanics with explicit knowledge updating via measurement outcomes. (Some extra figures, animations, and codes are available at this web page.)

The Bayesian Second Law of Thermodynamics
Anthony Bartolotta, Sean M. Carroll, Stefan Leichenauer, and Jason Pollack

We derive a generalization of the Second Law of Thermodynamics that uses Bayesian updates to explicitly incorporate the effects of a measurement of a system at some point in its evolution. By allowing an experimenter’s knowledge to be updated by the measurement process, this formulation resolves a tension between the fact that the entropy of a statistical system can sometimes fluctuate downward and the information-theoretic idea that knowledge of a stochastically-evolving system degrades over time. The Bayesian Second Law can be written as ΔH(ρm,ρ)+⟨Q⟩F|m≥0, where ΔH(ρm,ρ) is the change in the cross entropy between the original phase-space probability distribution ρ and the measurement-updated distribution ρm, and ⟨Q⟩F|m is the expectation value of a generalized heat flow out of the system. We also derive refined versions of the Second Law that bound the entropy increase from below by a non-negative number, as well as Bayesian versions of the Jarzynski equality. We demonstrate the formalism using simple analytical and numerical examples.

The crucial word “Bayesian” here refers to Bayes’s Theorem, a central result in probability theory. Continue reading

Hypnotized by Quantum Mechanics

It remains embarrassing that physicists haven’t settled on the best way of formulating quantum mechanics (or some improved successor to it). I’m partial to Many-Worlds, but there are other smart people out there who go in for alternative formulations: hidden variables, dynamical collapse, epistemic interpretations, or something else. And let no one say that I won’t let alternative voices be heard! (Unless you want to talk about propellantless space drives, which are just crap.)

So let me point you to this guest post by Anton Garrett that Peter Coles just posted at his blog:

Hidden Variables: Just a Little Shy?

It’s quite a nice explanation of how the state of play looks to someone who is sympathetic to a hidden-variables view. (Fans of Bell’s Theorem should remember that what Bell did was to show that such variables must be nonlocal, not that they are totally ruled out.)

As a dialogue, it shares a feature that has been common to that format since the days of Plato: there are two characters, and the character that sympathizes with the author is the one who gets all the good lines. In this case the interlocutors are a modern physicist Neo, and a smart recently-resurrected nineteenth-century physicist Nino. Trained in the miraculous successes of the Newtonian paradigm, Nino is very disappointed that physicists of the present era are so willing to simply accept a theory that can’t do better than predicting probabilistic outcomes for experiments. More in sorrow than in anger, he urges us to do better!

My own takeaway from this is that it’s not a good idea to take advice from nineteenth-century physicists. Of course we should try to do better, since we should alway try that. But we should also feel free to abandon features of our best previous theories when new data and ideas come along.

A nice feature of the dialogue between Nino and Neo is the way in which it illuminates the fact that much of one’s attitude toward formulations of quantum mechanics is driven by which basic assumptions about the world we are most happy to abandon, and which we prefer to cling to at any cost. That’s true for any of us — such is the case when there is legitimate ambiguity about the best way to move forward in science. It’s a feature, not a bug. The hope is that eventually we will be driven, by better data and theories, toward a common conclusion.

What I like about Many-Worlds is that it is perfectly realistic, deterministic, and ontologically minimal, and of course it fits the data perfectly. Equally importantly, it is a robust and flexible framework: you give me your favorite Hamiltonian, and we instantly know what the many-worlds formulation of the theory looks like. You don’t have to think anew and invent new variables for each physical situation, whether it’s a harmonic oscillator or quantum gravity.

Of course, one gives something up: in Many-Worlds, while the underlying theory is deterministic, the experiences of individual observers are not predictable. (In that sense, I would say, it’s a nice compromise between our preferences and our experience.) It’s neither manifestly local nor Lorentz-invariant; those properties should emerge in appropriate situations, as often happens in physics. Of course there are all those worlds, but that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. For Many-Worlds, it’s the technical problems that bother me, not the philosophical ones — deriving classicality, recovering the Born Rule, and so on. One tends to think that technical problems can be solved by hard work, while metaphysical ones might prove intractable, which is why I come down the way I do on this particular question.

But the hidden-variables possibility is still definitely alive and well. And the general program of “trying to invent a better theory than quantum mechanics which would make all these distasteful philosophical implications go away” is certainly a worthwhile one. If anyone wants to suggest their favorite defenses of epistemic or dynamical-collapse approaches, feel free to leave them in comments.

Spacetime, Storified

I had some spare minutes the other day, and had been thinking about the fate of spacetime in a quantum universe, so I took to the internet to let my feelings be heard. Only a few minutes, though, so I took advantage of Twitter rather than do a proper blog post. But through the magic of Storify, I can turn the former into the latter!

Obviously the infamous 140-character limit of Twitter doesn’t allow the level of precision and subtlety one would always like to achieve when talking about difficult topics. But restrictions lead to creativity, and the results can actually be a bit more accessible than unfettered prose might have been.

Anyway, spacetime isn’t fundamental, it’s just a useful approximation in certain regimes. Someday we hope to know what it’s an approximation to.