I have again Elke Stangl, author of elkemental Force, to thank for the subject this week. Again, Stangl’s is a blog of wide-ranging theme interests. And it’s got more poetry this week again, this time haikus about the Dirac delta function.
I also have Kerson Huang, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and of Nanyang Technological University, to thank for much insight into the week’s subject. Huang published this A Critical History of Renormalization, which gave me much to think about. It’s likely a paper that would help anyone hoping to know the history of the technique better.
There is a mathematical model, the Ising Model, for how magnets work. The model has the simplicity of a toy model given by a professor (Wilhelm Lenz) to his grad student (Ernst Ising). Suppose matter is a uniform, uniformly-spaced grid. At each point on the grid we have either a bit of magnetism pointed up (value +1) or down (value -1). It is a nearest-neighbor model. Each point interacts with its nearest neighbors and none of the other points. For a one-dimensional grid this is easy. It’s the stuff of thermodynamics homework for physics majors. They don’t understand it, because you need the hyperbolic trigonometric functions. But they could. For two dimensions … it’s hard. But doable. And interesting. It describes important things like phase changes. The way that you can take a perfectly good strong magnet and heat it up until it’s an iron goo, then cool it down to being a strong magnet again.
For such a simple model it works well. A lot of the solids we find interesting are crystals, or are almost crystals. These are molecules arranged in a grid. So that part of the model is fine. They do interact, foremost, with their nearest neighbors. But not exclusively. In principle, every molecule in a crystal interacts with every other molecule. Can we account for this? Can we make a better model?
Yes, many ways. Here’s one. It’s designed for a square grid, the kind you get by looking at the intersections on a normal piece of graph paper. Each point is in a row and a column. The rows are a distance ‘a’ apart. So are the columns.
Now draw a new grid, on top of the old. Do it by grouping together two-by-two blocks of the original. Draw new rows and columns through the centers of these new blocks. Put at the new intersections a bit of magnetism. Its value is the mean of whatever the four blocks around it are. So, could be 1, could be -1, could be 0, could be ½, could be -½. There’s more options. But look at what we have. It’s still an Ising-like model, with interactions between nearest-neighbors. There’s more choices for what value each point can have. And the grid spacing is now 2a instead of a. But it all looks pretty similar.
And now the great insight, that we can trace to Leo P Kadanoff in 1966. What if we relabel the distance between grid points? We called it 2a before. Call it a, now, again. What’s important that’s different from the Ising model we started with?
There’s the not-negligible point that there’s five different values a point can have, instead of two. But otherwise? In the operations we do, not much is different. How about in what it models? And there it’s interesting. Think of the original grid points. In the original scaling, they interacted only with units one original-row or one original-column away. Now? Their average interacts with the average of grid points that were as far as three original-rows or three original-columns away. It’s a small change. But it’s closer to reflecting the reality of every molecule interacting with every other molecule.
You know what happens when mathematicians get one good trick. We figure what happens if we do it again. Take the rescaled grid, the one that represents two-by-two blocks of the original. Rescale it again, making two-by-two blocks of these two-by-two blocks. Do the same rules about setting the center points as a new grid. And then re-scaling. What we have now are blocks that represent averages of four-by-four blocks of the original. And that, imperfectly, let a point interact with a point seven original-rows or original-columns away. (Or farther: seven original-rows down and three original-columns to the left, say. Have fun counting all the distances.) And again: we have eight-by-eight blocks and even more range. Again: sixteen-by-sixteen blocks and double the range again. Why not carry this on forever?
This is renormalization. It’s a specific sort, called the block-spin renormalization group. It comes from condensed matter physics, where we try to understand how molecules come together to form bulks of matter. Kenneth Wilson stretched this over to studying the Kondo Effect. This is a problem in how magnetic impurities affect electrical resistance. (It’s named for Jun Kondo.) It’s great work. It (in part) earned Wilson a Nobel Prize. But the idea is simple. We can understand complex interactions by making them simple ones. The interactions have a natural scale, cutting off at the nearest neighbor. But we redefine ‘nearest neighbor’, again and again, until it reaches infinitely far away.
This problem, and its solution, come from thermodynamics. Particularly, statistical mechanics. This is a bit ahistoric. Physicists first used renormalization in quantum mechanics. This is all right. As a general guideline, everything in statistical mechanics turns into something in quantum mechanics, and vice-versa. What quantum mechanics lacked, for a generation, was logical rigor for renormalization. This statistical mechanics approach provided that.
Renormalization in quantum mechanics we needed because of virtual particles. Quantum mechanics requires that particles can pop into existence, carrying momentum, and then pop back out again. This gives us electromagnetism, and the strong nuclear force (which holds particles together), and the weak nuclear force (which causes nuclear decay). Leave gravity over on the side. The more momentum in the virtual particle, the shorter a time it can exist. It’s actually the more energy, the shorter the particle lasts. In that guise you know it as the Uncertainty Principle. But it’s momentum that’s important here. This means short-range interactions transfer more momentum, and long-range ones transfer less. And here we had thought forces got stronger as the particles interacting got closer together.
In principle, there is no upper limit to how much momentum one of these virtual particles can have. And, worse, the original particle can interact with its virtual particle. This by exchanging another virtual particle. Which is even higher-energy and shorter-range. The virtual particle can also interact with the field that’s around the original particle. Pairs of virtual particles can exchange more virtual particles. And so on. What we get, when we add this all together, seems like it should be infinitely large. Every particle the center of an infinitely great bundle of energy.
Renormalization, the original renormalization, cuts that off. Sets an effective limit on the system. The limit is not “only particles this close will interact” exactly. It’s more “only virtual particles with less than this momentum will”. (Yes, there’s some overlap between these ideas.) This seems different to us mere dwellers in reality. But to a mathematical physicist, knowing that position and momentum are conjugate variables? Limiting one is the same work as limiting the other.
This, when developed, left physicists uneasy. It’s for good reasons. The cutoff is arbitrary. Its existence, sure, but we often deal with arbitrary cutoffs for things. When we calculate a weather satellite’s orbit we do not care that other star systems exist. We barely care that Jupiter exists. Still, where to put the cutoff? Quantum Electrodynamics, using this, could provide excellent predictions of physical properties. But shouldn’t we get different predictions with different cutoffs? How do we know we’re not picking a cutoff because it makes our test problem work right? That we’re not picking one that produces garbage for every other problem? Read the writing of a physicist of the time and — oh, why be coy? We all read Richard Feynman, his QED at least. We see him sulking about a technique he used to brilliant effect.
Wilson-style renormalization answered Feynman’s objections. (Though not to Feynman’s satisfaction, if I understand the history right.) The momentum cutoff serves as a scale. Or if you prefer, the scale of interactions we consider tells us the cutoff. Different scales give us different quantum mechanics. One scale, one cutoff, gives us the way molecules interact together, on the scale of condensed-matter physics. A different scale, with a different cutoff, describes the particles of Quantum Electrodynamics. Other scales describe something more recognizable as classical physics. Or the Yang-Mills gauge theory, as describes the Standard Model of subatomic particles, all those quarks and leptons.
Renormalization offers a capsule of much of mathematical physics, though. It started as an arbitrary trick to avoid calculation problems. In time, we found a rationale for the trick. But found it from looking at a problem that seemed unrelated. On learning the related trick well, though, we see they’re different aspects of the same problem. It’s a neat bit of work.
This and all the other 2020 A-to-Z essays should be at this link. Essays from every A-to-Z series should be gathered at this link. I am looking eagerly for topics for the letters S, T, and U, and am scouting ahead for V, W, and X topics also. Thanks for your thoughts, and thank you for reading.