Defining topology through interviews. Interview three with Ruben Verresen.

The third interview in my Defining topology through interviews series is with Ruben Verresen, who was a masters student alongside Anna and I. Ruben is now a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems and is one of two physicists I am thrilled to have participating in this series.

1. What do you say when trying to explain your work to non-mathematicians and non-physicists?

Traditionally theoretical physics follows the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’, where theories for different aspects of the universe are quite disjoint, with the smallest scales being described by particle physics and the largest by cosmology. (And perhaps not so ‘equal’ since particle physics is considered the building block for all the rest.) This has changed in recent years. The dusty 18th century divisive thinking is making way for a more thematic structure, as it is slowly becoming clear that various different fields give rise to similar concepts. Instead of defining a topic in terms of some mechanical parameters (e.g. ‘the size of an atom’), one can categorize physics in terms of relevant concepts (such as ‘topology’, more about this later). If you allow me one tacky metaphor, to me concepts are the jewels of physics, forged in the heat of discussion, mined out of theories and eventually polished until they reach their purest form. A successful theoretical framework you can forget after a year, but a beautiful and insightful concept, once germinated in the mind, will never leave you. So when people ask me what I do, I usually just end up talking about one of these concepts (which usually helps my understanding as well).

Three such concepts that I am actively exploring are emergence, quantum entanglement and topology. These three ideas turn out to run quite deeply and seem to be intimately connected—with the Nobel prize recognizing this. Emergence is the idea that the best way to understand something is not by thinking in terms of its constituents but rather by some new effective way of thinking—for example if we want to understand a hurricane, there is not much point in thinking about air molecules.

wave
Waves on the Elbe are an example of emergent phenomena: to understand them we shouldn’t think about water molecules separately, but about collective motions where the molecules lose their individuality.

Entanglement is a less intuitive property about the universe: it says that any two objects—say you and the red eye of Saturn—can share an instantaneous connection, such that one can affect the other faster than the speed of light. Since its discovery 80 years ago, there have been strong disagreements about what this property actually means, but in the last few decades physicists have been discovering that no matter what it ‘is’, it is key to many new physical features, some of which may very well change our future (for example through quantum computing, teleportation, et cetera). And finally there is topology…

2. What would your own personal description of  “topology” be?

I really like this question. There are some standard go-to answers for the general public, but I don’t like them. The first common one is that topology has to do with holes, the typical example being that a coffee mug and a donut are topologically the same because they have the same amount of holes. A second—and closely related—common answer is that topology is about the properties of an object that don’t change if you stretch, squeeze and deform it—but you’re not allowed to tear it! Again, you can imagine a plasticine donut being reshaped into a coffee mug. Maybe I just don’t like these answers because I have heard them too many times before, but more importantly: although they seem easy to understand, I would say they are not. The issue is that they seem very arbitrary: what’s so special about holes? Or about tearing versus stretching? If that’s all you know about topology, there is no reason to think it would be interesting. But it is! Very much so. Aside from leading to beautiful mathematics, in recent years it has been rising to ever increasing prominence in almost all fields of physics. There has even been a feedback effect: studying the topology of quantum fields—a physical question—has given new fundamental insights into mathematics itself. There is no hint of this in the above. Indeed, my biggest peeve with those answers is that there is no fire in them: if I explain topology by comparing a donut to a coffee mug, I can just see my listener slowly turning off. This is an immense pity, since topology is currently one of the most exciting concepts around.

So, what then is topology? Imagine having an object, like a mountain lion, or the universe, or yourself. Now think of all the properties it might have, like height or color or holes. Some of these properties you can assign to arbitrarily small regions: if you know the color of the mountain lion at every small piece of its hide, you can say you know all about the colors of the cat as a whole. We say these properties are local. Topology is simply the study of the properties which are not local! If I look at my door frame, I can assign sizes and lengths to every small piece, and together they add up to for example the height of my door, so height is a local property. But the fact that my door (luckily) has a hole in it is not local: none of the four sides can be said to have a hole, it is only when I take them all at once that it is there. In that sense my (open) door is topologically different from my wall.

door
The topology of my door: you can’t say any of the four sides of my doorframe has a hole, it is only when they are all put together that it’s there. We call such a feature ‘non-local’/topological.

Given this characterization, it is then perhaps not surprising that topology enters in those fields of inquiry where we are learning that ‘the (w)hole is more than the sum of its parts’. It can be a fun game to go outside and try to identify ‘local’ versus ‘non-local’ properties. But maybe we don’t even need to look too far: perhaps the human mind cannot be understood by piecing together local properties of the brain, and somehow only emerges when everything is considered at once.

3. How does your work relate, if at all, to the Nobel prize work?

To better understand what this year’s Nobel Prize in physics is about, we just need to appreciate how and why these three concepts of emergence, entanglement and topology are so closely related. Luckily we are now in a position to do exactly that! To see this, let me just reword and recap:

  • Emergence is the idea that a system consisting of many particles can have properties which cannot be assigned to any of its individual particles, but only emerge when the system is taken as a whole. (H20 molecules do not have ‘wetness’, but a glass of water does.)
  • Quantum entanglement tells us that we cannot think of a ‘thing’ as merely being the sum of its parts. In a classical world we know that if we study each particle in the universe separately, then we know the state and motion of the complete universe. In quantum theory we would know almost nothing, since most of the information is stored in these instantaneous connections between different particles. This is sometimes called quantum non-locality—and it is worth pointing out that this has been experimentally verified!
  • Finally, as explained above, topology is about those properties of a ‘thing’ that cannot be attributed to any arbitrarily small piece of it.

So we see that these three concepts are all about some form of ‘non-locality’. More concretely, the Nobel Prize went to physicists who vastly aided our understanding by theoretically investigating physical systems where (some or all of) these phenomena play a crucial role. Personally I am most excited about this on a conceptual level, as it feels that we are learning something new and deep about how the universe works. But it is also of great importance for the more practical-minded: learning to harness the power of ‘non-locality’ means we have exponentially more possibilities at our disposal. In particular, ‘non-locality’ is often associated to strong stability (because if information is not stored locally it is much harder to accidentally destroy it) and physicists hope it could lead to the development of quantum computing, which is a whole exciting topic in and of itself. But anyway, despite there being deep links between emergence, entanglement and topology, it is still a basic question as to how deep the similarities really run. I’m certainly trying to find out!

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