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Random Matrix Theory


April 12th, 2010

Via: New Scientist: SUPPOSE we had a theory that could explain everything. Not just atoms and quarks but aspects of our everyday lives too. Sound impossible? Perhaps not. Its all part of the recent explosion of work in an area of physics known as random matrix theory. Originally developed more than 50 years ago to describe the energy levels of atomic nuclei, the theory is turning up in everything from inflation rates to the behaviour of solids. So much so that many researchers believe that it points to some kind of deep pattern in nature that we dont yet understand. It really does feel like the ideas of random matrix theory are somehow buried deep in the heart of nature, says electrical engineer Raj Nadakuditi of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. All of this, oddly enough, emerged from an effort to turn physicists ignorance into an advantage. In 1956, when we knew very little about the internal workings of large, complex atomic nuclei, such as uranium, the German physicist Eugene Wigner suggested simply guessing. Quantum theory tells us that atomic nuclei have many discrete energy levels, like unevenly spaced rungs on a ladder. To calculate the spacing between each of the rungs, you would need to know the myriad possible ways the nucleus can hop from one to another, and the probabilities for those events to happen. Wigner didnt know, so instead he picked numbers at random for the probabilities and arranged them in a square array called a matrix.

The matrix was a neat way to express the many connections between the different rungs. It also allowed Wigner to exploit the powerful mathematics of matrices in order to make predictions about the energy levels. Bizarrely, he found this simple approach enabled him to work out the likelihood that any one level would have others nearby, in the absence of any real knowledge. Wigners results, worked out in a few lines of algebra, were far more useful than anyone could have expected, and experiments over the next few years showed a remarkably close fit to his predictions. Why they work, though, remains a mystery even today. What is most remarkable, though, is how Wigners idea has been used since then. It can be applied to a host of problems involving many interlinked variables whose connections can be represented as a random matrix. The first discovery of a link between Wigners idea and something completely unrelated to nuclear physics came about after a chance meeting in the early 1970s between British physicist Freeman Dyson and American mathematician Hugh Montgomery. Montgomery had been exploring one of the most famous functions in mathematics, the Riemann zeta function, which holds the key to finding prime numbers. These are numbers, like 2, 3, 5 and 7, that are only divisible by themselves and 1. They hold a special place in mathematics because every integer greater than 1 can be built from them. In 1859, a German mathematician called Bernhard Riemann had conjectured a simple rule about where the zeros of the zeta function should lie. The zeros are closely linked to the distribution of prime numbers. Mathematicians have never been able to prove Riemanns hypothesis. Montgomery couldnt either, but he had worked out a formula for the likelihood of finding a zero, if you already knew the location of another one nearby. When Montgomery told Dyson of this formula, the physicist immediately recognised it as the very same one that Wigner had devised for nuclear energy levels. To this day, no one knows why prime numbers should have anything to do with Wigners random matrices, let alone the nuclear energy levels. But the link is unmistakable. Mathematician Andrew Odlyzko of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis has computed the locations of as many as 1023 zeros of the Riemann zeta function and found a near-perfect agreement with random matrix theory. The strange descriptive power of random matrix theory doesnt stop there. In the last decade, it has proved itself particularly good at describing a wide range of messy physical systems. Research Credit: Albino Posted in Coincidence?, Technology | Top Of Page