Posts Tagged ‘string’

Adopt a Physicist

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Every October the the American Physical Society and other physics organizations arrange for high school classes to adopt a physicist.  Then for a few weeks the students get to ask their physicist questions directly, on topics ranging from what the current hot topics are, to what it is like to be a scientist.  If you want to volunteer for next year, or have your class adopt a physicist, go to

This year I was adopted by Terrill Middle School in Scotch Plains, New Jersey.  Here are some of the Q&A sessions.

What is the most interesting or unusual thing you have worked on?
John Terning Avatar One very interesting thing that I worked on was an idea about the hypothetical particles known as axions.  You may have heard that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating rather than slowing down as people used to think, and that the most likely explanation is that the Universe is full of “dark energy”.  The evidence for this acceleration comes mostly from distant supernovae (very bright exploded stars) that seem to be more dim the further away they are than could be accounted for by the expansion of the Universe without dark energy. We studied  whether photons (particles of light) could be converted to axions, which would then be invisible to us.  We found that over very long distances about 1/3 of the light from a supernova could have been converted to axions. If this is true then we wouldn’t need something as strange as dark energy.  You can read more at

Where do you find your inspiration? How do you think of original ideas?
John Terning Avatar It’s hard to say where inspiration comes from, but when you have worked on something for a long time it gets easier to spot where there might be possible new connections of ideas. After the Large Hadron Collider starts running we will be getting new data and there will probably be some surprises that cannot be explained by things we know already.
What sparked your interest in Physics?
John Terning Avatar When I was in High School I read a lot of science fiction, and my ambition was to become a science fiction writer. I thought I should study science at University, so that I would have a good grounding for my stories. When I got to University I found out that science was more interesting than science fiction.
How is your approach to science different from when you were in high school?
John Terning Avatar I think in high school I mostly approached science as learning a bunch of discovered facts about the world, but what I’ve learned is that science is a process for finding out new things about the ourselves and the universe.  It is a process that may never end.  The process is definitely more exciting than memorizing facts.
Is being a physicist hard at first and easy later, or hard all the time? Do you like your job as a physicist?
John Terning Avatar It is always hard because you are always trying to learn new things.  But as you do more of it the challenges are at a higher level, and it is not as frustrating as it can be at the beginning.  I love my job as a physicist!
I would like to know at what age did you show signs of interest at becoming a scientist and how much education you needed to succeed being a scientist.
John Terning Avatar I was interested in science in high school, but I was more interested in science fiction.  I did not decide to become a scientist until I went to university and learned more about it. I spent four years as an undergraduate and six years as a graduate (doctoral) student at university.
I would like to know what projects are you currently working on.
John Terning Avatar I have two main projects currently.  One is on how to deal with quarks in high energy collisions.  When quarks are close together they behave like ordinary electrons, except that in addition to emitting photons (particles of light) they can also emit gluons.  Gluons are much more complicated that photons since two photons can pass right through each other without having any effect on each other (you can try it with two flashlights, the beams really do go right through each other) but two gluons have a big effect on each other.  The effect is so big that one needs to run a gigantic computer simulation to find out what happens.  The results of such simulations suggest that when quarks are far apart they behave like they are always attached to the end of a string (the string is made out of gluons in a very complicated way).  That is why you never see just a single quark by itself, if you try to pull it away the string breaks and you end up with two strings that have a quark (or antimatter quark) on each end.  We are working on how to do improved calculations just using the string picture directly.

The other project involves monopoles.  Every magnet has a North and a South pole, but a long time ago P.A.M. Dirac suggested that there could be particles that have just a North pole or just a South pole, which are called monopoles (mono means one; a magnet has two poles, so it is a dipole).  We are exploring what would happen to massless monoples as the Universe cooled after the big bang.  In some cases the monopoles would behave like electrons in a superconductor and not only give mass to themselves but all the other particles we know.  This type of theory will be tested at the Large Hadron Collider which should start running next month.

What is the most fun or interesting part about your job?
John Terning Avatar The most fun part of the job is coming up with new models of how Nature works and then trying to test them against reality.
What skills or personality traits are important for someone working in your field?
John Terning Avatar As far a skills go the most important skill is imagination, after that a little math helps too.  For personality traits, I think that, as in a lot of fields, the most important factor is determination, also known as dedication, stick-to-it-ness, or just plain stubbornness. You have to keep trying, and trying, and trying again until you find an answer to your question.  Just as in sports or music the great players are people who practice, practice, practice because they are so determined to get better.  That probably means that you if you want to be really good at something, you need to find something that you love doing.
What is a typical day like?
John Terning Avatar A typical day involves:
1) checking email and looking at the latest research papers which appear each day on the web at especially and;
2) there are typically so many new papers that I can only read a few of these;
3) lecturing to either undergraduate or graduate students on bio-physics, quantum mechanics ,or quantum field theory, this also requires preparing the lectures;
4) having discussions with students either to help them with their courses or the research they are doing with me;
5) having discussions with colleagues (usually next to a white board or chalk board so that we can write some equations) trying to generate new ideas to solve research problems;
6) doing calculations on paper or on a computer to see if our ideas actually work the way we thought;
7) typing up the results for a research paper (we use free software called LaTeX that makes it easier to include equations);
8) going to seminars where visitors from other universities present their latest research results;
9) occasionally I will attend a faculty meeting or committee meeting to discuss the operations of the physics department.

Varieties of Particle Jets

Friday, September 18th, 2009
jets of particles

A simulation of a string repeatedly breaking looks similar to the jets of particles found in collisions of quarks and gluons.

“Jets” is the name given to sprays of particles, headed in roughly the same direction, that appear when quarks or gluons collide. Jets turn out to be a useful way to relate experimental results on quarks and gluons with the theory of Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD) which describes the interactions of quarks and gluons. Their usefulness arises partly because the jets can be seen to emerge in a simple way.  The primary particles involved in the scattering have a small probability to emit a new gluon which, it turns out, is most likely to head in the direction of the particle that emitted it.  The new gluons have a small probability to emit further gluons, and so on. Iterating this process a few times gives you a jet of quarks and gluons. The gluon emission probability is small because the QCD interaction strength is fairly small in high-energy processes.

It is somewhat surprising that we can also see jets emerge in an entirely different way.  It is known that QCD becomes much simpler if we imagine that the number of “colors” of quarks is a large number, N, rather than the small number, 3, that we find in our Universe.  For large N, the allowed configurations have a flux-tube, or string, connecting every quark to an anti-quark (to make a meson) or have the strings of N quarks meeting at a point (to make a baryon). This “large N approximation” actually does a pretty good job of describing our world, leading to the oft repeated quasi-joke that 3 is a large number.

three quarks connected by three strings

A baryon, like a proton, consists of three quarks connected by three strings which meet at a junction.

Of course such strings can break.  This occurs when a quark and anti-quark are created at some point along the string.  The energy required to produce the quark and the anti-quark can be offset by the broken string contracting.  In this way we can imagine a heavy meson or baryon with a very long (excited) string decaying into lighter “daughter” mesons and baryons made of shorter strings.

string in baryon breaking

The string in baryon can break to form a new baryon and a new meson.

Imagine producing a quark and an anti-quark in a high energy collision. The quark and the anti-quark would be flying apart in opposite directions with a string stretching between them. Starting with this very excited “meson,”  we could simulate the repeated breaking of the string and see what comes out.  This is a little tricky, the quarks and strings are moving in a complicated way due to all this breaking, but we were able to do it (mainly thanks to Matt Reece’s programming skills).  The result is that the string tends to break into relatively short bits, which therefore have little rest mass (the mass grows like the string length) and thus lots of kinetic energy, since the total energy has to add up to the initial energy. Interestingly the string bits end up mostly going in the directions of the initial quark and anti-quark. This is because in the rest frame of one of the daughter mesons, the subsequent “grand-daughters” are equally likely to go in any direction, but in the rest frame of the lab, the daughter meson was moving rapidly in the direction of the original quark or anti-quark, and the grand-daughters are “thrown” forward in this direction. So we get something that looks very much like a jet.  This is just what is shown in the picture at the top of this page.

This is very different from what happens in theories where the interaction strength and N are both large.  Such theories can be approximately scale invariant in which case they are called conformal field theories (or CFT’s).  CFT’s are thought to be described by almost non-interacting particles moving in a five dimensional anti-de Sitter (AdS) space.  This is the basis of the AdS/CFT correspondence. It is fairly easy to work out what happens in this case, either using CFT methods or direct simulation in AdS.  Each time an excited meson decays into two lighter mesons, most of the initial energy goes into the rest mass of the daughter particles, so they have very little kinetic energy.  This means that there is very little difference between the rest frame of the daughter particle and the rest frame of the lab, so the grand-daughters are equally likely to go in any direction. The result of this type of process is shown below.

spherical spray of particles

When the interaction strength is large enough the jets broaden so much that the events look spherical.

This raises some interesting prospects for the large hadron collider.  First we need fairly precise estimates of standard QCD jets, especially those containing b quarks, so that we can separate out the “old” physics from the new physics, and the stringy picture may be helpful for improving these calculations.  Second, in some scenarios the new physics does look like a CFT, in which case the standard types of analysis will not be helpful in teasing out the underlying information. In that case we will need some new ideas in order uncover the new physics.

(Technical note: in the top and bottom graphic, the length of each lines is proportional to the energy of the particle moving in that direction.)

Cosmic Landscape

Wednesday, October 18th, 2006

Lenny Susskind

Lenny Susskind

Leonard Susskind of Stanford gave a HEFTI public lecture, based on his book The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design at UC Davis on Oct 17.  About 400 people got an entertaining look at the “landscape” of universes allowed by string theory and how it might explain some of the apparent fine-tunings in nature that make life possible. “Lenny” (as he is affectionately known to almost all) was in high form, but also showed how he could be gentle with his critics.

Linear Confinement in AdS

Monday, March 6th, 2006

the rho tragectory from Karch et. al.

the rho tragectory from Karch et. al.

A new paper by Karch, Katz, Son, and Stephanov attempts to modify the 5D AdS background that is used to model QCD in order to obtain the behaviour of a string state with large spin or excitation number.  They find that this can occur in a non-trivial dilaton background.

Runaway String “Vacua”

Wednesday, February 1st, 2006

Ken Intriligator

Ken Intriligator

A new paper by Intriligator and Seiberg points out that some recent string theory models of dynamical supersymmetry breaking do not actually break supersymmetry but have runaway “vacua”.  The vacua from flux compactifications and moduli stabilization that are under perturbative control all seem to break supersymmetry near the Planck scale, so it would be interesteing to know if there are any known string vacua that are rigorously stabilized and contain the MSSM with weak scale supersymmetry.