quantum field theory

Could the world be simpler than our senses suggest?

By the 1970s physicists had successfully tamed three of the fundamental forces using a sophisticated construct called quantum field theory. The trouble was that the framework seemed to fall apart when you looked at very high or very low energy scales. So how could these be thought of as valid theories? It's a question physicists are still grappling with today.

Something called quantum field theory has been hugely successful in describing the fundamental forces and particles. But what exactly is it? This series of accessible articles traces the history of quantum field theory, from its inception at the beginning of the twentieth century to the tantalising questions that are still open today. It's a story of pain and triumph, hardship and success.

The early 1950s were an experimental gold mine for physicists, with new particles produced in accelerators almost every week. Yet the strong nuclear force that acted between them defied theoretical description, sending physicists on a long and arduous journey that culminated in several Nobel prizes and the exotic concept of "asymptotic freedom".

In February this year we were lucky enough to interview Freeman Dyson at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, USA. Dyson is now 89 and still does physics every day in his first floor office at the Institute. Here is an edited version of our interview that we hope conveys his generous nature, wit and intellect.
The Strong Fields, Integrability and Strings programme, which took place at the Isaac Newton Institute in 2007, explored an area that would have been close to Isaac Newton's heart: how to unify Einstein's theory of gravity, a continuation of Newton's own work on gravitation, with quantum field theory, which describes the atomic and sub-atomic world, but cannot account for the force of gravity.
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In the corner of the garden between the Centre of Mathematical Sciences and the Isaac Newton Institute in Cambridge, sits a reminder of our ongoing quest to understand gravity: an apple tree that was taken as a cutting from the tree at Newton's birthplace, the tree that is said to have inspired his theory of gravity. Newton's theory was extended to the cosmological scales by Einstein's theory of general relativity – but can supergravity explain how gravity works in the quantum world?

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