In Memory of Joe Polchinski, the Brane Master
This week, the community of high-energy physicists — of those of us fascinated by particles, fields, strings, black holes, and the universe at large — is mourning the loss of one of the great theoretical physicists of our time, Joe Polchinski. It pains me deeply to write these words.
Everyone who knew him personally will miss his special qualities — his boyish grin, his slightly wicked sense of humor, his charming way of stopping mid-sentence to think deeply, his athleticism and friendly competitiveness. Everyone who knew his research will feel the absence of his particular form of genius, his exceptional insight, his unique combination of abilities, which I’ll try to sketch for you below. Those of us who were lucky enough to know him both personally and scientifically — well, we lose twice.
Polchinski — Joe, to all his colleagues — had one of those brains that works magic, and works magically. Scientific minds are as individual as personalities. Each physicist has a unique combination of talents and skills (and weaknesses); in modern lingo, each of us has a superpower or two. Rarely do you find two scientists who have the same ones.
Joe had several superpowers, and they were really strong. He had a tremendous knack for looking at old problems and seeing them in a new light, often overturning conventional wisdom or restating that wisdom in a new, clearer way. And he had prodigious technical ability, which allowed him to follow difficult calculations all the way to the end, on paths that would have deterred most of us.
One of the greatest privileges of my life was to work with Joe, not once but four times. I think I can best tell you a little about him, and about some of his greatest achievements, through the lens of that unforgettable experience.
[To my colleagues: this post was obviously written in trying circumstances, and it is certainly possible that my memory of distant events is foggy and in error. I welcome any corrections that you might wish to suggest.]
Our papers between 1999 and 2006 were a sequence of sorts, aimed at understanding more fully the profound connection between quantum field theory — the language of particle physics — and string theory — best-known today as a candidate for a quantum theory of gravity. In each of those papers, as in many thousands of others written after 1995, Joe’s most influential contribution to physics played a central role. This was the discovery of objects known as “D-branes”, which he found in the context of string theory. (The term is a generalization of the word `membrane’.)
I can already hear the Lee Smolins and Peter Woits of the world screaming at me. ‘A discovery in string theory,’ some will shout, pounding the table, ‘an untested theory that’s not even wrong, should not be called a discovery in physics.’ Pay them no mind; they’re not even close, as you’ll see by the end of my remarks.
The Great D-scovery
In 1989, Joe, working with two young scientists, Jin Dai and Rob Leigh, was exploring some details of string theory, and carrying out a little mathematical exercise. Normally, in string theory, strings are little lines or loops that are free to move around anywhere they like, much like particles moving around in this room. But in some cases, particles aren’t in fact free to move around; you could, for instance, study particles that are trapped on the surface of a liquid, or trapped in a very thin whisker of metal. With strings, there can be a new type of trapping that particles can’t have — you could perhaps trap one end, or both ends, of the string within a surface, while allowing the middle of the string to move freely. The place where a string’s end may be trapped — whether a point, a line, a surface, or something more exotic in higher dimensions — is what we now call a “D-brane”. [The `D’ arises for uninteresting technical reasons.]
Joe and his co-workers hit the jackpot, but they didn’t realize it yet. What they discovered, in retrospect, was that D-branes are an automatic feature of string theory. They’re not optional; you can’t choose to study string theories that don’t have them. And they aren’t just surfaces or lines that sit still. They’re physical objects that can roam the world. They have mass and create gravitational effects. They can move around and scatter off each other. They’re just as real, and just as important, as the strings themselves!
It was as though Joe and his collaborators started off trying to understand why the chicken crossed the road, and ended up discovering the existence of bicycles, cars, trucks, buses, and jet aircraft. It was that unexpected, and that rich.
And yet, nobody, not even Joe and his colleagues, quite realized what they’d done. Rob Leigh, Joe’s co-author, had the office next to mine for a couple of years, and we wrote five papers together between 1993 and 1995. Yet I think Rob mentioned his work on D-branes to me just once or twice, in passing, and never explained it to me in detail. Their paper had less than twenty citations as 1995 began.
In 1995 the understanding of string theory took a huge leap forward. That was the moment when it was realized that all five known types of string theory are different sides of the same die — that there’s really only one string theory. A flood of papers appeared in which certain black holes, and generalizations of black holes — black strings, black surfaces, and the like — played a central role. The relations among these were fascinating, but often confusing.
And then, on October 5, 1995, a paper appeared that changed the whole discussion, forever. It was Joe, explaining D-branes to those of us who’d barely heard of his earlier work, and showing that many of these black holes, black strings and black surfaces were actually D-branes in disguise. His paper made everything clearer, simpler, and easier to calculate; it was an immediate hit. By the beginning of 1996 it had 50 citations; twelve months later, the citation count was approaching 300.
So what? Great for string theorists, but without any connection to experiment and the real world. What good is it to the rest of us? Patience. I’m just getting to that.
What’s it Got to Do With Nature?
Our current understanding of the make-up and workings of the universe is in terms of particles. Material objects are made from atoms, themselves made from electrons orbiting a nucleus; and the nucleus is made from neutrons and protons. We learned in the 1970s that protons and neutrons are themselves made from particles called quarks and antiquarks and gluons — specifically, from a “sea” of gluons and a few quark/anti-quark pairs, within which sit three additional quarks with no anti-quark partner… often called the `valence quarks’. We call protons and neutrons, and all other particles with three valence quarks, `baryons”. (Note that there are no particles with just one valence quark, or two, or four — all you get is baryons, with three.)
In the 1950s and 1960s, physicists discovered short-lived particles much like protons and neutrons, with a similar sea, but which contain one valence quark and one valence anti-quark. Particles of this type are referred to as “mesons”. I’ve sketched a typical meson and a typical baryon in Figure 2. (The simplest meson is called a “pion”; it’s the most common particle produced in the proton-proton collisions at the Large Hadron Collider.)
But the quark/gluon picture of mesons and baryons, back in the late 1960s, was just an idea, and it was in competition with a proposal that mesons are little strings. These are not, I hasten to add, the “theory of everything” strings that you learn about in Brian Greene’s books, which are a billion billion times smaller than a proton. In a “theory of everything” string theory, often all the types of particles of nature, including electrons, photons and Higgs bosons, are tiny tiny strings. What I’m talking about is a “theory of mesons” string theory, a much less ambitious idea, in which only the mesons are strings. They’re much larger: just about as long as a proton is wide. That’s small by human standards, but immense compared to theory-of-everything strings.
Why did people think mesons were strings? Because there was experimental evidence for it! (Here’s another example.) And that evidence didn’t go away after quarks were discovered. Instead, theoretical physicists gradually understood why quarks and gluons might produce mesons that behave a bit like strings. If you spin a meson fast enough (and this can happen by accident in experiments), its valence quark and anti-quark may separate, and the sea of objects between them forms what is called a “flux tube.” See Figure 3. [In certain superconductors, somewhat similar flux tubes can trap magnetic fields.] It’s kind of a thick string rather than a thin one, but still, it shares enough properties with a string in string theory that it can produce experimental results that are similar to string theory’s predictions.
And so, from the mid-1970s onward, people were confident that quantum field theories like the one that describes quarks and gluons can create objects with stringy behavior. A number of physicists — including some of the most famous and respected ones — made a bolder, more ambitious claim: that quantum field theory and string theory are profoundly related, in some fundamental way. But they weren’t able to be precise about it; they had strong evidence, but it wasn’t ever entirely clear or convincing.
In particular, there was an important unresolved puzzle. If mesons are strings, then what are baryons? What are protons and neutrons, with their three valence quarks? What do they look like if you spin them quickly? The sketches people drew looked something like Figure 3. A baryon would perhaps become three joined flux tubes (with one possibly much longer than the other two), each with its own valence quark at the end. In a stringy cartoon, that baryon would be three strings, each with a free end, with the strings attached to some sort of junction. This junction of three strings was called a “baryon vertex.” If mesons are little strings, the fundamental objects in a string theory, what is the baryon vertex from the string theory point of view?! Where is it hiding — what is it made of — in the mathematics of string theory?
[Experts: Notice that the vertex has nothing to do with the quarks. It’s a property of the sea — specifically, of the gluons. Thus, in a world with only gluons — a world whose strings naively form loops without ends — it must still be possible, with sufficient energy, to create a vertex-antivertex pair. Thus field theory predicts that these vertices must exist in closed string theories, though they are linearly confined.]
No one knew. But isn’t it interesting that the most prominent feature of this vertex is that it is a location where a string’s end can be trapped?
Everything changed in the period 1997-2000. Following insights from many other physicists, and using D-branes as the essential tool, Juan Maldacena finally made the connection between quantum field theory and string theory precise. He was able to relate strings with gravity and extra dimensions, which you can read about in Brian Greene’s books, with the physics of particles in just three spatial dimensions, similar to those of the real world, with only non-gravitational forces. It was soon clear that the most ambitious and radical thinking of the ’70s was correct — that almost every quantum field theory, with its particles and forces, can alternatively be viewed as a string theory. It’s a bit analogous to the way that a painting can be described in English or in Japanese — fields/particles and strings/gravity are, in this context, two very different languages for talking about exactly the same thing.
The saga of the baryon vertex took a turn in May 1998, when Ed Witten showed how a similar vertex appears in Maldacena’s examples. Not surprisingly, this vertex was a D-brane — specifically a D-particle, an object on which the strings extending from freely-moving quarks could end. It wasn’t yet quite satisfactory, because the gluons and quarks in Maldacena’s examples roam free and don’t form mesons or baryons. Correspondingly the baryon vertex isn’t really a physical object; if you make one, it quickly diffuses away into nothing. Nevertheless, Witten’s paper made it obvious what was going on. To the extent real-world mesons can be viewed as strings, real-world protons and neutrons can be viewed as strings attached to a D-brane.
It didn’t take long for more realistic examples, with actual baryons, to be found by theorists. I don’t remember who found one first, but I do know that one of the earliest examples showed up in my first paper with Joe, in the year 2000.
Working with Joe
That project arose during my September 1999 visit to the KITP (Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics) in Santa Barbara, where Joe was a faculty member. Some time before that I happened to have studied a field theory (called N=1*) that differed from Maldacena’s examples only slightly, but in which meson-like objects do form. One of the first talks I heard when I arrived at KITP was by Rob Myers, about a weird property of D-branes that he’d discovered. During that talk I made a connection between Myers’ observation and a feature of the N=1* field theory, and I had one of those “aha” moments that physicists live for. I suddenly knew what the string theory that describes the N=1* field theory must look like.
But for me, the answer was bad news. To work out the details was clearly going to require a very difficult set of calculations, using aspects of string theory about which I knew almost nothing [non-holomorphic curved branes in high-dimensional curved geometry.] The best I could hope to do, if I worked alone, would be to write a conceptual paper with lots of pictures, and far more conjectures than demonstrable facts.
But I was at KITP. Joe and I had had a good personal rapport for some years, and I knew that we found similar questions exciting. And Joe was the brane-master; he knew everything about D-branes. So I decided my best hope was to persuade Joe to join me. I engaged in a bit of persistent cajoling. Very fortunately for me, it paid off.
I went back to the east coast, and Joe and I went to work. Every week or two Joe would email some research notes with some preliminary calculations in string theory. They had such a high level of technical sophistication, and so few pedagogical details, that I felt like a child; I could barely understand anything he was doing. We made slow progress. Joe did an important warm-up calculation, but I found it really hard to follow. If the warm-up string theory calculation was so complex, had we any hope of solving the full problem? Even Joe was a little concerned.
And then one day, I received a message that resounded with a triumphant cackle — a sort of “we got ’em!” that anyone who knew Joe will recognize. Through a spectacular trick, he’d figured out how use his warm-up example to make the full problem easy! Instead of months of work ahead of us, we were essentially done.
From then on, it was great fun! Almost every week had the same pattern. I’d be thinking about a quantum field theory phenomenon that I knew about, one that should be visible from the string viewpoint — such as the baryon vertex. I knew enough about D-branes to develop a heuristic argument about how it should show up. I’d call Joe and tell him about it, and maybe send him a sketch. A few days later, a set of notes would arrive by email, containing a complete calculation verifying the phenomenon. Each calculation was unique, a little gem, involving a distinctive investigation of exotically-shaped D-branes sitting in a curved space. It was breathtaking to witness the speed with which Joe worked, the breadth and depth of his mathematical talent, and his unmatched understanding of these branes.
[Experts: It’s not instantly obvious that the N=1* theory has physical baryons, but it does; you have to choose the right vacuum, where the theory is partially Higgsed and partially confining. Then to infer, from Witten’s work, what the baryon vertex is, you have to understand brane crossings (which I knew about from Hanany-Witten days): Witten’s D5-brane baryon vertex operator creates a physical baryon vertex in the form of a D3-brane 3-ball, whose boundary is an NS 5-brane 2-sphere located at a point in the usual three dimensions. And finally, a physical baryon is a vertex with n strings that are connected to nearby D5-brane 2-spheres. See chapter VI, sections B, C, and E, of our paper from 2000.]
Throughout our years of collaboration, it was always that way when we needed to go head-first into the equations; Joe inevitably left me in the dust, shaking my head in disbelief. That’s partly my weakness… I’m pretty average (for a physicist) when it comes to calculation. But a lot of it was Joe being so incredibly good at it.
Fortunately for me, the collaboration was still enjoyable, because I was almost always able to keep pace with Joe on the conceptual issues, sometimes running ahead of him. Among my favorite memories as a scientist are moments when I taught Joe something he didn’t know; he’d be silent for a few seconds, nodding rapidly, with an intent look — his eyes narrow and his mouth slightly open — as he absorbed the point. “Uh-huh… uh-huh…”, he’d say.
But another side of Joe came out in our second paper. As we stood chatting in the KITP hallway, before we’d even decided exactly which question we were going to work on, Joe suddenly guessed the answer! And I couldn’t get him to explain which problem he’d solved, much less the solution, for several days!! It was quite disorienting.
This was another classic feature of Joe. Often he knew he’d found the answer to a puzzle (and he was almost always right), but he couldn’t say anything comprehensible about it until he’d had a few days to think and to turn his ideas into equations. During our collaboration, this happened several times. (I never said “Use your words, Joe…”, but perhaps I should have.) Somehow his mind was working in places that language doesn’t go, in ways that none of us outside his brain will ever understand. In him, there was something of an oracle.
Looking Toward The Horizon
Our interests gradually diverged after 2006; I focused on the Large Hadron Collider [also known as the Large D-brane Collider], while Joe, after some other explorations, ended up thinking about black hole horizons and the information paradox. But I enjoyed his work from afar, especially when, in 2012, Joe and three colleagues (Ahmed Almheiri, Don Marolf, and James Sully) blew apart the idea of black hole complementarity, widely hoped to be the solution to the paradox. [I explained this subject here, and also mentioned a talk Joe gave about it here.] The wreckage is still smoldering, and the paradox remains.
Then Joe fell ill, and we began to lose him, at far too young an age. One of his last gifts to us was his memoirs, which taught each of us something about him that we didn’t know. Finally, on Friday last, he crossed the horizon of no return. If there’s no firewall there, he knows it now.
What, we may already wonder, will Joe’s scientific legacy be, decades from now? It’s difficult to foresee how a theorist’s work will be viewed a century hence; science changes in unexpected ways, and what seems unimportant now may become central in future… as was the path for D-branes themselves in the course of the 1990s. For those of us working today, D-branes in string theory are clearly Joe’s most important discovery — though his contributions to our understanding of black holes, cosmic strings, and aspects of field theory aren’t soon, if ever, to be forgotten. But who knows? By the year 2100, string theory may be the accepted theory of quantum gravity, or it may just be a little-known tool for the study of quantum fields.
Yet even if the latter were to be string theory’s fate, I still suspect it will be D-branes that Joe is remembered for. Because — as I’ve tried to make clear — they’re real. Really real. There’s one in every proton, one in every neutron. Our bodies contain them by the billion billion billions. For that insight, that elemental contribution to human knowledge, our descendants can blame Joseph Polchinski.
Thanks for everything, Joe. We’ll miss you terribly. You so often taught us new ways to look at the world — and even at ourselves.