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Sean Carroll

Atiyah and the Fine-Structure Constant

25 Sep 2018, 08:03 UTC
Atiyah and the Fine-Structure Constant
(200 words excerpt, click title or image to see full post)

Sir Michael Atiyah, one of the world’s greatest living mathematicians, has proposed a derivation of α, the fine-structure constant of quantum electrodynamics. A preprint is here. The math here is not my forte, but from the theoretical-physics point of view, this seems misguided to me.
(He’s also proposed a proof of the Riemann conjecture, I have zero insight to give there.)
Caveat: Michael Atiyah is a smart cookie and has accomplished way more than I ever will. It’s certainly possible that, despite the considerations I mention here, he’s somehow onto something, and if so I’ll join in the general celebration. But I honestly think what I’m saying here is on the right track.
In quantum electrodynamics (QED), α tells us the strength of the electromagnetic interaction. Numerically it’s approximately 1/137. If it were larger, electromagnetism would be stronger, atoms would be smaller, etc; and inversely if it were smaller. It’s the number that tells us the overall strength of QED interactions between electrons and photons, as calculated by diagrams like these.
As Atiyah notes, in some sense α is a fundamental dimensionless numerical quantity like e or π. As such it is tempting to try to “derive” its value from ...

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