In theoretical physics, T-duality (short for target space duality) is an equivalence of two physical theories, which may be either quantum field theories or string theories. In the simplest example of this relationship, one of the theories describes strings propagating in an imaginary spacetime shaped like a circle of some radius , while the other theory describes strings propagating on a spacetime shaped like a circle of radius proportional to . The two theories are equivalent in the sense that all observable quantities in one description are identified with quantities in the dual description. For example, momentum in one description takes discrete values and is equal to the number of times the string winds around the circle in the dual description.

The idea of T-duality can be extended to more complicated theories, including superstring theories. The existence of these dualities implies that seemingly different superstring theories are actually physically equivalent. This led to the realization, in the mid-1990s, that all of the five consistent superstring theories are just different limiting cases of a single eleven-dimensional theory called M-theory.

In general, T-duality relates two theories with different spacetime geometries. In this way, T-duality suggests a possible scenario in which the classical notions of geometry break down in a theory of Planck scale physics.[1] The geometric relationships suggested by T-duality are also important in pure mathematics. Indeed, according to the SYZ conjecture of Andrew Strominger, Shing-Tung Yau, and Eric Zaslow, T-duality is closely related to another duality called mirror symmetry, which has important applications in a branch of mathematics called enumerative algebraic geometry.


Strings and duality

T-duality is a particular example of a general notion of duality in physics. The term duality refers to a situation where two seemingly different physical systems turn out to be equivalent in a nontrivial way. If two theories are related by a duality, it means that one theory can be transformed in some way so that it ends up looking just like the other theory. The two theories are then said to be dual to one another under the transformation. Put differently, the two theories are mathematically different descriptions of the same phenomena.

Like many of the dualities studied in theoretical physics, T-duality was discovered in the context of string theory.[2] In string theory, particles are modeled not as zero-dimensional points but as one-dimensional extended objects called strings. The physics of strings can be studied in various numbers of dimensions. In addition to three familiar dimensions from everyday experience (up/down, left/right, forward/backward), string theories may include one or more compact dimensions which are curled up into circles.

A standard analogy for this is to consider multidimensional object such as a garden hose.[3] If the hose is viewed from a sufficient distance, it appears to have only one dimension, its length. However, as one approaches the hose, one discovers that it contains a second dimension, its circumference. Thus, an ant crawling inside it would move in two dimensions. Such extra dimensions are important in T-duality, which relates a theory in which strings propagate on a circle of some radius to a theory in which strings propagate on a circle of radius .

Winding numbers

In mathematics, the winding number of a curve in the plane around a given point is an integer representing the total number of times that curve travels counterclockwise around the point. The notion of winding number is important in the mathematical description of T-duality where it is used to measure the winding of strings around compact extra dimensions.

For example, the image below shows several examples of curves in the plane, illustrated in red. Each curve is assumed to be closed, meaning it has no endpoints, and is allowed to intersect itself. Each curve has an orientation given by the arrows in the picture. In each situation, there is a distinguished point in the plane, illustrated in black. The winding number of the curve around this distinguished point is equal to the total number of counterclockwise turns that the curve makes around this point.

  Winding Number -2.svg     Winding Number -1.svg     Winding Number 0.svg  
−2 −1 0
  Winding Number 1.svg     Winding Number 2.svg     Winding Number 3.svg  
1 2 3

When counting the total number of turns, counterclockwise turns count as positive, while clockwise turns counts as negative. For example, if the curve first circles the origin four times counterclockwise, and then circles the origin once clockwise, then the total winding number of the curve is three. According to this scheme, a curve that does not travel around the distinguished point at all has winding number zero, while a curve that travels clockwise around the point has negative winding number. Therefore, the winding number of a curve may be any integer. The pictures above show curves with winding numbers between −2 and 3:

Quantized momenta

The simplest theories in which T-duality arises are two-dimensional sigma models with circular target spaces. These are simple quantum field theories that describe propagation of strings in an imaginary spacetime shaped like a circle. The strings can thus be modeled as curves in the plane that are confined to lie in a circle, say of radius , about the origin. In what follows, the strings are assumed to be closed (that is, without endpoints).

Denote this circle by . One can think of this circle as a copy of the real line with two points identified if they differ by a multiple of the circle's circumference . It follows that the state of a string at any given time can be represented as a function of a single real parameter . Such a function can be expanded in a Fourier series as


Here denotes the winding number of the string around the circle, and the constant mode of the Fourier series has been singled out. Since this expression represents the configuration of a string at a fixed time, all coefficients ( and the ) are also functions of time.

Let denote the time derivative of the constant mode . This represents a type of momentum in the theory. One can show, using the fact that the strings considered here are closed, that this momentum can only take on discrete values of the form for some integer . In more physical language, one says that the momentum spectrum is quantized.

An equivalence of theories

In the situation described above, the total energy, or Hamiltonian, of the string is given by the expression


Since the momenta of the theory are quantized, the first two terms in this formula are , and this expression is unchanged when one simultaneously replaces the radius by and exchanges the winding number and the integer . The summation in the expression for is similarly unaffected by these changes, so the total energy is unchanged. In fact, this equivalence of Hamiltonians descends to an equivalence of two quantum mechanical theories: One of these theories describes strings propagating on a circle of radius , while the other describes string propagating in a circle of radius with momentum and winding numbers interchanged. This equivalence of theories is the simplest manifestation of T-duality.

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