Strong and weak coupling
What is a coupling constant? This is some number
that tells us how strong an interaction is. Newton's constant GN,
which appears in both Newton's law of gravity and the Einstein equation,
is the coupling constant for gravitational interactions. For electromagnetism,
the coupling constant is related to the electric charge through the
fine structure constant a
In both particle physics and string theory,
usually the scattering amplitudes and other quantities have to be computed
as an expansion in powers of the coupling constant or loop expansion
parameter, which we've called g2 below:
At low energies in electromagnetism, the dimensionless coupling constant
a is very small compared to unity,
and the higher powers in a become
too small to matter. The first few terms in the series make a good approximation
to the real answer, which often can't be calculated at all because the
mathematical technology doesn't exist to solve the whole theory at once.
If the coupling constant gets very large compared
to unity, perturbation theory becomes useless, because higher powers
of the expansion parameter are bigger, not smaller, than lower powers.
This is called a strongly coupled theory.
Coupling constants in quantum field theory end up depending on energy
because of quantum vacuum effects. A quantum field theory can be weakly
coupled at low energies and strongly coupled at high energies, as is
true with the fine structure constant a
in QED, or strongly coupled at low energies and weakly coupled at high
energies, as is true with the coupling constant for quark and gluon
interactions in QCD.
Some quantities in a theory cannot be caluclated
at all using perturbation theory, espcially not for weak coupling. For
example, the amplitude below cannot be expanded around the value g2=0
because the amplitude is singular there. This is typical of a tunneling
transition, which is forbidden by energy conservation in classical physics
and hence has no expansion around a classical limit.
String theories feature two
kinds of perturbative expansions: an
expansion in powers of the string parameter a'
in the conformal field theory on the two-dimensional string worldsheet,
and a quantum loop expansion for string scattering
amplitudes in d-dimensional spacetime. But unlike in particle
theories, the string quantum loop expansion parameter is not just a
number, but depends on one of the dynamic modes of the string, called
the dilaton field f(x)
This relationship between the dilaton and the string
loop expansion parameter is important in understanding the duality relation
known as S-duality. S-duality can be
examined most easily in type IIB string theory, because this theory
happens to be S-dual to itself. The
low energy limit of type IIB theory (meaning the lowest nontrivial order
in the string parameter a') is
a type IIB supergavity field theory, which features a complex scalar
field r(x) whose real part is
the axion field c(x) and whose
imaginary part is the exponential of the dilaton field f(x):
This field theory is invariant under a global transformation by the
group SL(2,R) (broken by quantum effects down to SL(2,Z)), with the
field r(x) transforming as
If there is no contribution from the axion
field, then the expectation value of the field r(x)
is given by the dilaton alone. Because the dilaton is identified with
gst, the SL(2,Z) transformation with b=-1,c=1
tells us that the theory at coupling gst is the same as
the theory at coupling 1/gst!
This transformation is called S-duality.
If two string theories are related by S-duality, then one theory with
a strong coupling constant is the same as the other theory with weak
coupling constant. Type IIB superstring theory
is S-dual to itself, so the strong and
weak coupling limits are the same. This duality allows an understanding
of the strong coupling limit of the theory that would not be possible
by any other means.
Something more surprising is that type
I superstring theory is S-dual to heterotic SO(32) superstring theory.
This is surprising because type I theories contain open and closed strings,
where as heterotic theories contain only open strings. What's the explanation?
At very strong coupling, heterotic SO(32) string theory has excitations
that are open strings, but these open strings are highly unstable in
the weakly coupled limit of the theory, which is the limit in which
heterotic string theory is commonly understood.