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The discovery that could rewrite physics

Alan Adams
Alan Adams

On March 17, 2014, a group of physicists announced a thrilling discovery: the “smoking gun” data for the idea of an inflationary universe, a clue to the Big Bang. For non-physicists, what does it mean? TED asked Allan Adams to briefly explain the results, in this improvised talk illustrated by Randall Munroe of xkcd. Allan Adams is a theoretical physicist working at the intersection of fluid dynamics, quantum field theory and string theory. Allan Adams is a theoretical physicist working at the intersection of fluid dynamics, quantum field theory and string theory. His research in theoretical physics focuses on string theory both as a model of quantum gravity and as a strong-coupling description of non-gravitational systems. Like water, string theory enjoys many distinct phases in which the low-energy phenomena take qualitatively different forms. In its most familiar phases, string theory reduces to a perturbative theory of quantum gravity. These phases are useful for studying, for example, the resolution of singularities in classical gravity, or the set of possibilities for the geometry and fields of spacetime. Along these lines, Adams is particularly interested in microscopic quantization of flux vacua, and in the search for constraints on low-energy physics derived from consistency of the stringy UV completion. In other phases, when the gravitational interactions become strong and a smooth spacetime geometry ceases to be a good approximation, a more convenient description of string theory may be given in terms of a weakly-coupled non-gravitational quantum field theory. Remarkably, these two descriptions—with and without gravity—appear to be completely equivalent, with one remaining weakly-coupled when its dual is strongly interacting. This equivalence, known as gauge-gravity duality, allows us to study strongly-coupled string and quantum field theories by studying perturbative features of their weakly-coupled duals. Gauge-gravity duals have already led to interesting predictions for the quark-gluon plasma studied at RHIC. A major focus of Adams's present research is to use such dualities to find weakly-coupled descriptions of strongly-interacting condensed matter systems which can be realized in the lab.


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