There’s an article on it in Quanta Magazine. The article starts out a bit hype-y for my taste (too much language of importance, essentially), but it has several very solid descriptions of the history of the situation. I particularly like how the author concisely describes the Feynman diagram picture in the space of a single paragraph, and I would recommend reading that part even if you don’t have time to read the whole article. In general it’s worth it to get a picture of what’s going on.
That said, I obviously think I can clear a few things up, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about it, so here I go!
Nima’s new construction, the Amplituhedron, encodes amplitudes (building blocks of probabilities in particle physics) in N=4 super Yang-Mills as the “area” of a multi-dimensional analog of a polyhedron (hence, Amplitu-hedron).
Now, I’m a big supporter of silly-sounding words with amplitu- at the beginning (amplitudeologist, anyone?), and this is no exception. Anyway, the word Amplitu-hedron isn’t what’s confusing people. What’s confusing people is the word the.
When the Quanta article says that Nima has found “the” Amplituhedron, it makes it sound like he has discovered one central formula that somehow contains the whole universe. If you read the comments, many readers went away with that impression.
In case you needed me to say it, that’s not what is going on. The problem is in the use of the word “the”.
Suppose it was 1886, and I told you that a fellow named Carl Benz had invented “the Automobile”, a marvelous machine that can get everyone to work on time (as well as become the dominant form of life on Long Island).
My use of “the” might make you imagine that Benz invented some single, giant machine that would roam across the country, picking people up and somehow transporting everyone to work. You’d be skeptical of this, of course, expecting that long queues to use this gigantic, wondrous machine would swiftly ruin any speed advantage it might possess…
Or, you could view “the” in another light, as indicating a type of thing.
Much like “the Automobile” is a concept, manifested in many different cars and trucks across the country, “the Amplituhedron” is a concept, manifested in many different amplituhedra, each corresponding to a particular calculation that we might attempt.
Each amplituhedron has to do with an amplitude involving a specific number of particles, with a particular number of internal loops. (The Quanta article has a pretty good explanation of loops, here’s mine if you’d rather read that). Based on the problem you’re trying to solve, there are a set of rules that you use to construct the particular amplituhedron you need. The “area” of this amplituhedron (in quotation marks because I mean the area in an abstract, mathematical sense) is the amplitude for the process, which lets you calculate the probability that whatever particle physics situation you’re describing will happen.
Now, we already have many methods to calculate these probabilities. The amplituhedron’s advantage is that it makes these calculations much simpler. What was once quite a laborious and complicated four-loop calculation, Nima claims can be done by hand using amplituhedra. I didn’t get a chance to ask whether the same efficiency improvement holds true at six loops, but Nima’s description made it sound like it would at least speed things up.
[Edit: Some of my fellow amplitudeologists have reminded me of two things. First, that paper I linked above paved the way to more modern methods for calculating these things, which also let you do the four-loop calculation by hand. (You need only six or so diagrams). Second, even back then the calculation wasn't exactly "laborious", there were some pretty slick tricks that sped things up. With that in mind, I'm not sure Nima's method is faster per se. But it is a fast method that has the other advantages described below.]
The amplituhedron has another, more sociological advantage. By describing the amplitude in terms of a geometrical object rather than in terms of our usual terminology, we phrase things in a way that mathematicians are more likely to understand. By making things more accessible to mathematicians (and the more math-headed physicists), we invite them to help us solve our problems, so that together we can come up with more powerful methods of calculation.
Nima and the Quanta article both make a big deal about how the amplituhedron gets rid of the principles of locality and unitarity, two foundational principles of quantum field theory. I’m a bit more impressed by this than Woit is. The fine distinction that needs to be made here is that the amplituhedron isn’t simply “throwing out” locality and unitarity. Rather, it’s written in such a way that it doesn’t need locality and unitarity to function. In the end, the formulas it computes still obey both principles. Nima’s hope is that, now that we are able to write amplitudes without needing locality and unitarity, if we end up having to throw out either of those principles to make a new theory we will be able to do so. That’s legitimately quite a handy advantage to have, it just doesn’t mean that locality and unitarity must be thrown out right now.
It’s important to remember that this whole story is limited to N=4 super Yang-Mills. Nima doesn’t know how to apply it to other theories, and nobody else seems to have any good ideas either. In addition, this only applies to the planar part of the theory. I’m not going to explain what that term means here; for now just be aware that while there are tricks that let you “square” a calculation in super Yang-Mills to get a similar calculation in quantum gravity, those tricks rely on having non-planar data, or information beyond the planar part of the theory. So at this point, this doesn’t give us any new hints about quantum gravity. It’s conceivable that physicists will find ways around both of these limits, but for now this result, though impressive, is quite limited.
Nima hasn’t found some sort of singular “jewel at the heart of physics”. Rather, he’s found a very slick, very elegant, quite efficient way to make calculations within one particular theory. This is profound, because it expresses things in terms that mathematicians can address, and because it shows that we can write down formulas without relying on what are traditionally some of the most fundamental principles of quantum field theory. Only time will tell whether Nima or others can generalize this picture, taking it beyond planar N=4 super Yang-Mills and into the tougher theories that still await this sort of understanding.