Locality and unitarity are the central pillars of quantum field theory, but as the following thought experiments show, both break down in certain situations involving gravity. This suggests physics should be formulated without either principle.
Locality says that particles interact at points in space-time. But suppose you want to inspect space-time very closely. Probing smaller and smaller distance scales requires ever higher energies, but at a certain scale, called the Planck length, the picture gets blurry: So much energy must be concentrated into such a small region that the energy collapses the region into a black hole, making it impossible to inspect. “There’s no way of measuring space and time separations once they are smaller than the Planck length,” said Arkani-Hamed. “So we imagine space-time is a continuous thing, but because it’s impossible to talk sharply about that thing, then that suggests it must not be fundamental — it must be emergent.”
Unitarity says the quantum mechanical probabilities of all possible outcomes of a particle interaction must sum to one. To prove it, one would have to observe the same interaction over and over and count the frequencies of the different outcomes. Doing this to perfect accuracy would require an infinite number of observations using an infinitely large measuring apparatus, but the latter would again cause gravitational collapse into a black hole. In finite regions of the universe, unitarity can therefore only be approximately known.
Quest for Quantum Gravity
The seemingly irreconcilable conflict between gravity and quantum field theory enters crisis mode in black holes. Black holes pack a huge amount of mass into an extremely small space, making gravity a major player at the quantum scale, where it can usually be ignored. Inevitably, either locality or unitarity is the source of the conflict.
“We have indications that both ideas have to go,” Arkani-Hamed said. “They can’t be fundamental features of the next description,” such as a theory of quantum gravity.
String theory, a framework that treats particles as invisibly small, vibrating strings, is one candidate for a theory of quantum gravity that seems to hold up in black hole situations, but its relationship to reality is unproven — or at least confusing. Recently, a strange duality has been found between string theory and quantum field theory, indicating that the former (which includes gravity) is mathematically equivalent to the latter (which does not) when the two theories describe the same event as if it is taking place in different numbers of dimensions. No one knows quite what to make of this discovery. But the new amplituhedron research suggests space-time, and therefore dimensions, may be illusory anyway.
“We can’t rely on the usual familiar quantum mechanical space-time pictures of describing physics,” Arkani-Hamed said. “We have to learn new ways of talking about it. This work is a baby step in that direction.”
Even without unitarity and locality, the amplituhedron formulation of quantum field theory does not yet incorporate gravity. But researchers are working on it. They say scattering processes that include gravity particles may be possible to describe with the amplituhedron, or with a similar geometric object. “It might be closely related but slightly different and harder to find,” Skinner said.
Physicists must also prove that the new geometric formulation applies to the exact particles that are known to exist in the universe, rather than to the idealized quantum field theory they used to develop it, called maximally supersymmetric Yang-Mills theory. This model, which includes a “superpartner” particle for every known particle and treats space-time as flat, “just happens to be the simplest test case for these new tools,” Bourjaily said. “The way to generalize these new tools to other theories is understood.”
Beyond making calculations easier or possibly leading the way to quantum gravity, the discovery of the amplituhedron could cause an even more profound shift, Arkani-Hamed said. That is, giving up space and time as fundamental constituents of nature and figuring out how the Big Bang and cosmological evolution of the universe arose out of pure geometry.
“In a sense, we would see that change arises from the structure of the object,” he said. “But it’s not from the object changing. The object is basically timeless.”
While more work is needed, many theoretical physicists are paying close attention to the new ideas.
The work is “very unexpected from several points of view,” said Witten, a theoretical physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study. “The field is still developing very fast, and it is difficult to guess what will happen or what the lessons will turn out to be.”