Earlier this week Zohar Komargodski (who is now at the Simons Center) visited Columbia, and gave a wonderful talk on recent work he has been involved in that provides some new insight into a very old question about QCD. Simplifying the problem by ignoring fermions, QCD is a pure SU(3) Yang-Mills gauge theory, a simple to define QFT which has been highly resistant to decades of effort to better understand it.

One aspect of the theory is that it can be studied as a function of an angular parameter, the so-called $\theta$-angle. Most information about the theory comes from simplifying by taking $\theta=0$, which seems to be the physically relevant value, one at which the theory is time reversal invariant. There is however another value for which the theory is time reversal invariant, $\theta=\pi$, and what happens there has always been rather mysterious.

The new ideas about this question that Komargodski talked about are in the paper Theta, Time Reversal and Temperature from earlier this year, joint work with Gaiotto, Kapustin and Seiberg. Much of the talk was taken up with going over the details of the toy model described in Appendix D of this paper. This is an extremely simple quantum mechanical model, that of a particle moving on a circle, where you add to the Lagrangian a term proportional to the velocity, which is where the angle $\theta$ appears. You can also think of this as a coupling to an electromagnetic field describing flux through the circle.

Even if you’re put off by the difficulty of questions about quantum field theories such as QCD, I strongly recommend reading their Appendix. It’s a simple and straightforward quantum mechanics story, with the new feature of a beautiful interpretation of the model in terms of a projective representation of the group O(2), or equivalently, a representation of Pin(2), a central extension of O(2). In the analogy to SU(N) Yang-Mills, it is the $\mathbf Z_N$ symmetry of the theory that gets realized projectively.

Komargodski himself commented at the beginning of the talk on the reasons that people are returning to look again at old, difficult problems about QCD. The new ideas he described are closely related to ones that are part of the recent hot topic of symmetry protected phases in condensed matter theory. It’s great to see that this QFT research may not just have condensed matter applications, but seems to be leading to a renewal of interest in long-standing problems about QCD itself.

Besides the paper mentioned above, there are now quite a few others. One notable one is very recent work of Komargodski and collaborators, Time-Reversal Breaking in QCD4, Walls and Dualities in 2+1 Dimensions.