Analogy and Duality in Phyics

Seven Pines Symposium XVI

May 16-20, 2012
The Outing Lodge, Stillwater, Minnesota

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Analogies are widely used in physics to relate different physical phenomena and theories in different fields. Some of these analogies are very close ones, whereas others are more heuristic in nature. Their use is very old, and indeed analogy has been employed as an intellectual tool since time immemorial. One of the early explicit discussions of their role in physics was given by Maxwell, who famously used mechanical analogies in his discussion of electrodynamics. In recent year they have figured in important ways in relating relativistic field theory to statistical mechanical phenomena, in relating string theories to gauge theories, and in relating black hole physics to both thermodynamics and to fluid mechanical physics.

One rather specific kind of analogy arises in 'duality', which can be though of as an exact transformation between 2 theories - such dual relations have been widely used in statistical mechanics, and more recently in string theory and quantum field theory.

The use of analogies, including dualities, in physics creates a number of interesting philosophical problems. How can their role be properly incorporated into current ideas about the structure of theories in physics, and into our understanding of inter-theoretical relationships? In what ways do experimental verifications of predictions on some system give us evidence for the truth of theory on some other system, related to the first by theoretical analogy? How do computer simulations figure in all of this (should they simply be viewed as analogical)? And so on. There are also interesting historical questions to be answered, going back at least to Maxwell - indeed many of the philosophical questions depend on understanding in detail the way in which analogies have been used in the past.

This meeting brought together physicists from condensed matter, gravity, and string theory, along with a variety of philosophers and historians, in attempt to get to grips with these questions.