Exploring the Mirror Link Between Two Geometric Worlds

Exploring the Mirror Link Between Two Geometric Worlds
From Wired - April 15, 2018

Twenty-seven years ago, a group of physicists made an accidental discovery that flipped mathematics on its head. The physicists were trying to work out the details of string theory when they observed a strange correspondence: Numbers emerging from one kind of geometric world matched exactly with very different kinds of numbers from a very different kind of geometric world.

To physicists, the correspondence was interesting. To mathematicians, it was preposterous. Theyd been studying these two geometric settings in isolation from each other for decades. To claim that they were intimately related seemed as unlikely as asserting that at the moment an astronaut jumps on the moon, some hidden connection causes his sister to jump back on earth.

It looked totally outrageous, said David Morrison, a mathematician at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and one of the first mathematicians to investigate the matching numbers.

Nearly three decades later, incredulity has long since given way to revelation. The geometric relationship that the physicists first observed is the subject of one of the most flourishing fields in contemporary mathematics. The field is called mirror symmetry, in reference to the fact that these two seemingly distant mathematical universes appear somehow to reflect each other exactly. And since the observation of that first correspondencea set of numbers on one side that matched a set of numbers on the othermathematicians have found many more instances of an elaborate mirroring relationship: Not only do the astronaut and his sister jump together, they wave their hands and dream in unison, too.

Recently, the study of mirror symmetry has taken a new turn. After years of discovering more examples of the same underlying phenomenon, mathematicians are closing in on an explanation for why the phenomenon happens at all.

Were getting to the point where weve found the ground. Theres a landing in sight, said Denis Auroux, a mathematician at the University of California, Berkeley.

The effort to come up with a fundamental explanation for mirror symmetry is being advanced by several groups of mathematicians. They are closing in on proofs of the central conjectures in the field. Their work is like uncovering a form of geometric DNAa shared code that explains how two radically different geometric worlds could possibly hold traits in common.

Discovering the Mirror

What would eventually become the field of mirror symmetry began when physicists went looking for some extra dimensions. As far back as the late 1960s, physicists had tried to explain the existence of fundamental particleselectrons, photons, quarksin terms of minuscule vibrating strings. By the 1980s, physicists understood that in order to make string theory work, the strings would have to exist in 10 dimensionssix more than the four-dimensional space-time we can observe. They proposed that what went on in those six unseen dimensions determined the observable properties of our physical world.

You might have this small space that you cant see or measure directly, but some aspects of the geometry of that space might influence real-world physics, said Mark Gross, a mathematician at the University of Cambridge.

Eventually, they came up with potential descriptions of the six dimensions. Before getting to them, though, its worth thinking for a second about what it means for a space to have a geometry.

Consider a beehive and a skyscraper. Both are three-dimensional structures, but each has a very different geometry: Their layouts are different, the curvature of their exteriors is different, their interior angles are different. Similarly, string theorists came up with very different ways to imagine the missing six dimensions.

One method arose in the mathematical field of algebraic geometry. Here, mathematicians study polynomial equationsfor example, x2 + y2 = 1by graphing their solutions (a circle, in this case). More-complicated equations can form elaborate geometric spaces. Mathematicians explore the properties of those spaces in order to better understand the original equations. Because mathematicians often use complex numbers, these spaces are commonly referred to as complex manifolds (or shapes).

The other type of geometric space was first constructed by thinking about physical systems such as orbiting planets. The coordinate values of each point in this kind of geometric space might specify, for example, a planets location and momentum. If you take all possible positions of a planet together with all possible momenta, you get the phase space of the planeta geometric space whose points provide a complete description of the planets motion. This space has a symplectic structure that encodes the physical laws governing the planets motion.

Symplectic and complex geometries are as different from one another as beeswax and steel. They make very different kinds of spaces. Complex shapes have a very rigid structure. Think again of the circle. If you wiggle it even a little, its no longer a circle. Its an entirely distinct shape that cant be described by a polynomial equation. Symplectic geometry is much floppier. There, a circle and a circle with a little wiggle in it are almost the same.

Algebraic geometry is a more rigid world, whereas symplectic geometry is more flexible, said Nick Sheridan, a research fellow at Cambridge. Thats one reason theyre such different worlds, and its so surprising they end up being equivalent in a deep sense.

In the late 1980s, string theorists came up with two ways to describe the missing six dimensions: one derived from symplectic geometry, the other from complex geometry. They demonstrated that either type of space was consistent with the four-dimensional world they were trying to explain. Such a pairing is called a duality: Either one works, and theres no test you could use to distinguish between them.

Physicists then began to explore just how far the duality extended. As they did so, they uncovered connections between the two kinds of spaces that grabbed the attention of mathematicians.

In 1991, a team of four physicistsPhilip Candelas, Xenia de la Ossa, Paul Green and Linda Parkesperformed a calculation on the complex side and generated numbers that they used to make predictions about corresponding numbers on the symplectic side. The prediction had to do with the number of different types of curves that could be drawn in the six-dimensional symplectic space. Mathematicians had long struggled to count these curves. They had never considered that these counts of curves had anything to do with the calculations on complex spaces that physicists were now using in order to make their predictions.

The result was so far-fetched that at first, mathematicians didnt know what to make of it. But then, in the months following a hastily convened meeting of physicists and mathematicians in Berkeley, California, in May 1991, the connection became irrefutable. Eventually mathematicians worked on verifying the physicists predictions and realized this correspondence between these two worlds was a real thing that had gone unnoticed by mathematicians who had been studying the two sides of this mirror for centuries, said Sheridan.

The discovery of this mirror duality meant that in short order, mathematicians studying these two kinds of geometric spaces had twice the number of tools at their disposal: Now they could use techniques from algebraic geometry to answer questions in symplectic geometry, and vice versa. They threw themselves into the work of exploiting the connection.

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