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A pedestrian explanation of conformal blocks

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I would be very happy if someone could take a stab at conveying what conformal blocks are and how they are used in conformal field theory (CFT). I'm finally getting the glimmerings of understanding from reading Moore and Read's wonderful paper. But I think/hope this site has people who can explain the notions involved in a simpler and more intuitive manner.


Edit: Here is a simple example, taken from pg 8 of the reference cited above ...

In a 2D CFT we have correlation functions of fields $ \phi_i(z,\bar z) $, (where $ z = x+\imath y$) at various points on the complex plane. The n-point correlation function can be expanded as:

$$ \left \langle \prod_{a=1}^n \phi_{i_a}(z_a,\bar z_a) \right \rangle = \sum_p | F_{p\; i_{1} \dots i_n}(z_{1} \dots z_n)|^2 $$

Here $p$ labels members of a basis of functions $ F_{p\; i_1 \dots i_n}(z_{1} \dots z_n) $ which span a vector space for each n-tuple $(z_{1} \dots z_n)$

These functions $F_p$ are known as conformal blocks, and appear to give a "fourier" decomposition of the correlation functions.

This is what I've gathered so far. If someone could elaborate with more examples that would be wonderful !


Edit: It is proving very difficult to decide which answer is the "correct" one. I will give it a few more days. Perhaps the situation will change !


The "correct" answer goes to (drum-roll): David Zavlasky. Well they are all great answers. I chose David's for the extra five points because his is the simplest, IMHO. He also mentions the "cross-ratio" which is a building block of CFT.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:47 (UCT), posted by SE-user user346
asked Dec 10, 2010 in Theoretical Physics by Deepak Vaid (1,975 points) [ no revision ]
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Conformal blocks? Never heard of them. Sounds like some fringe (possibly sensible, possibly wacky) theory.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:47 (UCT), posted by SE-user Noldorin
@Marek: Oh, I was under the impression Newtonian mechanics was slightly more studied. Silly, silly me. Rolls eyes

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:47 (UCT), posted by SE-user Noldorin
@Noldorin: if you were being sarcastic in your original comment (or are now) then I am sorry. It has always been hard for me to detect sarcasm on the internet :-)

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:47 (UCT), posted by SE-user Marek
@Marek: I think that's true of everyone, it's always harder to detect sarcasm online. Anyway, I've looked into conformal field theory just a tiny bit, and although it isn't the most studied thing out there, it's certainly mainstream physics. Noldorin, I seem to remember you saying you haven't yet studied QFT, and given that, it'd be no surprise that you might not have heard of CFT. I'll see if I can take a crack at answering this question later. (no guarantees though)

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:47 (UCT), posted by SE-user David Z
Roughly, you might think of conformal blocks as analogues of expansions in spherical harmonics. I might or might not get around to writing something more detailed.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:47 (UCT), posted by SE-user Matt Reece
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I did a quick bit of reading and it appears that conformal blocks are actually related to the topic I'm doing research on (even though I've never heard the term before). So I think it'll be worthwhile for me to look into this more closely, and I'll try to write up what I find.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:47 (UCT), posted by SE-user David Z
@David: looking forward to that. I'd also like to do research on this and look into it more closely, but there are so many things to study that there's no way to learn everything one would want to. So it's great someone else is doing it (or ideally has done it already) for you. This is where the biggest potential of sites like this lies.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:47 (UCT), posted by SE-user Marek

4 Answers

+ 7 like - 0 dislike

Now that we have a physicist's perspective, I don't feel too bad outlining conformal blocks from a mathematician's point of view. Presumably there is a dictionary connecting the two worlds, but I don't understand physics well enough to say coherent sentences about it. I apologize in advance for any confusion - this is not a very pedestrian topic.

I'll approach conformal blocks from the standpoint of conformal vertex algebras, which typically appear in mathematics as algebraic structures that you can use to prove theorems in representation theory. Vertex algebras are vector spaces $V$ equipped with a "multiplication with singularities" $V \otimes V \to V((z))$ that encodes a best effort at multiplying quantum fields (which are sometimes called "operator-valued distributions"). Left multiplication by an element $u$ yields a formal power series $\sum_{n \in \mathbb{Z}} u_n z^{-n-1}$ whose coefficients are operators. To make a vertex algebra conformal is to choose a distinguished vector $\omega$ whose corresponding operators generate an action of the Virasoro algebra, which is a central extension of the complexified Lie algebra of polynomial vector fields on the circle. You don't lose much conceptually by thinking of Virasoro as the tangent space of the group $Diff(S^1)$ at the identity, but there is a "nonzero central charge" anomaly in play that can make the central extension necessary. The circle shows up here because it is the boundary of a puncture where we will insert a field.

My understanding of the physical interpretation is the following incomplete and possibly incorrect picture: Inside a 2D conformal field theory, there is an algebra of (say, left-moving) chiral symmetries, and this is precisely the information captured by the conformal vertex algebra. The space of states in the theory decomposes into a set of "sectors" which are modules of the vertex algebra. If we choose a Riemann surface (which is a sphere in most textbooks), and attach states from various sectors to a set of distinct points, we should get a set of amplitudes, which are values of chiral correlation functions attached to these input data. I have heard that there is some way to pass from the chiral stuff to the conformal field theory proper, where the ambiguity in the correlators disappears and one gets honest correlation functions, but I haven't seen it in the math literature. In any case, conformal blocks live inside this machine - given sectors attached to points on a Riemann surface, a conformal block is a gadget that eats choices of states in those sectors, and outputs values of correlation functions in a manner consistent with the chiral symmetries.

Here is a sketch of the mathematical construction, due to Edward Frenkel (and described in more detail in his book Vertex Algebras and Algebraic Curves with David Ben-Zvi): There is a "positive half" of the Virasoro algebra, spanned by generators $-z^n\frac{d}{dz}$ for $n \geq 0$, and it generates the Lie algebra of derivations on the infinitesimal complex disk, and also acts on the conformal vertex algebra $V$. We can use this action to construct a vector bundle $\mathscr{V}$ with flat connection on our Riemann surface of choice by the Gelfand-Kazhdan "formal geometry" method (which I won't describe). Given punctures $p_1, \dots, p_n$, one constructs, from the De Rham complex of $\mathscr{V}$, a Lie algebra $L$ that acts naturally on $n$-tuples of $V$-modules. Given $V$-modules $M_i$ attached at points $p_i$, a conformal block is an $L$-module map from $\bigotimes M_i$ to the trivial module.

It is in general quite difficult to do any explicit calculations with conformal blocks, because of the amount of geometry involved. If your Riemann surface has handles, you will have to deal with a choice of complex structure, and if it has a lot of punctures, you have to deal with a complicated configuration space of points. You typically see tree-level diagrams with 4 inputs, because:

  1. That is where the bare minimum of geometry appears - since the automorphism group of the complex projective line is triply transitive, the configuration space of four points is a thrice-punctured line (by which I mean a sphere).
  2. Depending on the level of detail you seek, it is often all that you need - the spaces of blocks can be assembled by gluing surfaces together out of pants and taking sums over sectors where the sewing happens. In the complex algebro-geometric picture, this sewing means sticking spheres together transversely at points to get a nodal curve. One then deforms to get a smooth complex curve, and does a parallel transport along the corresponding path in the moduli space of marked curves. The four-point configuration is a situation where you have exactly one sewing operation (and the other such situation is a punctured torus, which is important for getting characters).

In fact, when the conformal field theory is suitably well-behaved (read: rational), one gets dimensions of spaces of all conformal blocks from just the dimensions of three-point genus zero blocks, also known as structure constants of the fusion algebra. One sees this in the Verlinde formula, for example.

I think examples of conformal blocks have a certain necessary complexity, but here is an overview of a reasonably simple case that is motivated by the WZW model. Pick a simple Lie group, like $SU(2)$, and a level $\ell$ (which we can view as a positive integer). One constructs the vertex algebra and its modules as level $\ell$ integrable representations of the affine Kac-Moody Lie algebra $\hat{\mathfrak{sl}_2}$, which is a central extension of the loop algebra of the complexification of the Lie algebra $\mathfrak{su}_2$. If we choose a Riemann surface (such as a sphere), and decorate points with just the vacuum module, we get a space of conformal blocks that is the space of global sections of a certain line bundle $L_G^{\otimes \ell}$ on the moduli space of $SU(2)$ bundles on the surface. Here $L_G$ is the ample generator of the Picard group of the moduli space.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:48 (UCT), posted by SE-user Scott Carnahan
answered Dec 20, 2010 by Scott Carnahan (165 points) [ no revision ]
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"this is not a very pedestrian topic" - LOL

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:48 (UCT), posted by SE-user user346
Finally an answer I can up-vote! And I wish I could spend three votes now :-)

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:48 (UCT), posted by SE-user Marek
you had me at "conformal vertex algebras"

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:48 (UCT), posted by SE-user user346
Nice. I'm curious as to why mathematicians have not gotten into "passing from the chiral stuff to the CFT." I think there is some nice math there, and it is crucial to the physics. Also, D-branes get into the story when you start thinking about how you glue left and right-moving chiral bits together. The classification of D-branes (aka boundary states) in RCFT seems like a problem that mathematicians would like and would be natural for people that study VOA's but somehow it hasn't caught on. Is it not known, or is it known but regarded as uninteresting?

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:48 (UCT), posted by SE-user pho
I believe there is more than one group working on the passage to CFT, and more than one group working on the boundary states question. My main problem understanding the current state of literature is that I don't know how well the mathematicians' definition of CFT matches with the objects that physicists actually use. Fuchs, Runkel, Schweigert, and collaborators have written a big collection of papers on RCFT, but I don't know if they work with branes in the physical sense.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:48 (UCT), posted by SE-user Scott Carnahan
To Jeff's comment, the combination of left- and right-moving sectors is already present in the need to construct a partition function. This combination is probably why the math lags behind: the insufficient incorporation of anti-holomorphic behavior in the theory (and similarly for TFT's). I'll try to point BZ this way and have him weigh in.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:48 (UCT), posted by SE-user Eric Zaslow
@Scott: I can more or less follow the answer but at certain points I am lost. Could you please explain (or just providing references would be great) formal geometry, $L_G^{\otimes \ell}$ and ample generator? Also, what background does one need to understand this a little better? Sorry if these questions don't make much sense but I'd like to know this stuff at least a little and am not sure where to start. Also, I wonder if this would make a good enough MO question but I guess I am too confused to ask anything meaningful right now.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:48 (UCT), posted by SE-user Marek
+ 7 like - 0 dislike

There are already nice answers from both a physical and mathematical perspective, explaining the basic idea - given the algebra of holomorphic operators (or equivalently the symmetry algebra) of a CFT, we can write down a collection of equations (the Ward identities) that the partition function of the theory must satisfy on any Riemann surface. The space of solutions of these equations is the space of conformal blocks. If we indeed have a full CFT then the partition function will be a particular conformal block. But given any conformal block we can still make sense of correlation functions on the Riemann surface, so can perform much of the field theory.

There is a fair amount of mathematical work on extending a chiral algebra to a full CFT, especially in the rational case (as Scott pointed out this is a central focus of the extended oeuvre of Fuchs, Schweigert, Runkel and collaborators). This involves finding modular invariant combination of modules for the chiral algebra, and can be reduced to finding special modules (Frobenius algebra objects in the braided tensor category of modules with some conditions). In the irrational case this theory is really in its infancy -- there's a notion of what branes should be, but there isn't a full structure theory..

I think a very illuminating point of view on conformal blocks derives from the idea that a chiral CFT is more like a three-dimensional [topological] quantum field theory than like an honest CFT (and this can be made precise in the rational case, see e.g. the book by Bakalov-Kirillov). From this point of view, we have a 3d QFT which makes sense on curved backgrounds (in fact topologically invariant), so we can assign a Hilbert space of states from quantizing the theory on a Riemann surface times R. This space of states is the space of conformal blocks. More generally we can consider line operators in this three-dimensional theory, which means we can insert operators at points of the Riemann surface times R. These operators correspond to modules for the chiral algebra, and the resulting Hilbert space is the space of conformal blocks with module insertions. If we have a non-rational CFT we don't get a full 3d topological QFT but we can still assign Hilbert spaces to Riemann surfaces or surfaces with module insertions, hence conformal blocks. (In a full-fledged theory these vector spaces would be forced to e finite dimensional by the well-definition of the trace of the Hamiltonian, which is zero in a topological theory).

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:48 (UCT), posted by SE-user David Ben-Zvi
answered Dec 20, 2010 by David Ben-Zvi (320 points) [ no revision ]
+ 6 like - 0 dislike

I did a bit of reading about this, and it turns out that conformal blocks are actually quite relevant to my research! So I figured it was worth the time to investigate in some more detail. I've never studied conformal field theory formally, but I hope I'm not writing anything outright wrong here. (I lost my first draft and had to reconstruct it, which is why it's taken so long)


In conformal field theory, it's common to represent coordinates on a two-dimensional space by using complex numbers, so $\vec{r} = (x,y)$ becomes $\rho = x + iy$. In this notation, the theory is invariant under the action of a Möbius transformation (a.k.a. conformal transformation),

$$\rho \to \frac{a\rho + b}{c\rho + d}$$

in which $a$, $b$, $c$, and $d$ are complex constants that satisfy $ad - bc \neq 0$. The transformation has three complex degrees of freedom - in other words, if you specify three initial points and three final points on the complex plane, there is a unique Möbius transformation that maps those three initial points to the three final points.

So any function of four coordinates on the plane, for example a four-point correlation function of quantum fields,

$$G_4 = \langle \phi_1(\rho_1,\rho_1^*) \phi_2(\rho_2,\rho_2^*) \phi_3(\rho_3,\rho_3^*) \phi_4(\rho_4,\rho_4^*) \rangle$$

has only one real degree of freedom, after you factor out the gauge freedoms corresponding to the Möbius transformation. In other words, you can map any three of those coordinates on to three fixed reference points (for example $0$, $1$, and $\infty$), and you're left with a function of only one variable, something like

$$x = \frac{(\rho_4 - \rho_2)(\rho_3 - \rho_1)}{(\rho_4 - \rho_1)(\rho_3 - \rho_2)}$$

This opens the door to write $G_4$ as a simple function of this one ratio (at least, simpler than a function of four independent coordinates).

The particular part of CFT in which conformal blocks are applied (as far as I can tell; I'm starting to get a little out of my depth here) has to do with Virasoro algebras. Specifically, the way the individual fields $\phi_i$ transform under a conformal transformation is described by the group defined by the Virasoro algebra. The four-point function $G_4$ can be written as a sum of contributions from different representations of the group,

$$G_4(\rho_1,\rho_2,\rho_3,\rho_4) = \sum_l G_l f(D_l, d_i, C, x) f(D_l, d_i, C, x^*)$$

Here $l$ indexes the different representations; $C$ is a constant (the "central charge" of the Virasoro algebra); and $d_i$ and $D_l$ are anomalous dimensions of the external fields and the internal field respectively. The function $f$ is called a conformal block.

Feynman diagram

$f$ is useful because it can be calculated (in principle or in practice, I'm not sure which) using only information about a single representation of the Virasoro group. It can be expressed as a series in $x$ of a known form, the coefficients of which depend on the structure of the group.

Further Reading

  1. Belavin A. Infinite conformal symmetry in two-dimensional quantum field theory. Nuclear Physics B. 1984;241(2):333-380. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0550-3213(84)90052-X.
  2. Zamolodchikov AB. Conformal symmetry in two dimensions: an explicit recurrence formula for the conformal partial wave amplitude. Communications in Mathematical Physics (1965-1997). 1984;96(3):419-422. Available at: http://projecteuclid.org/euclid.cmp/1103941860.
  3. Zamolodchikov AB. Conformal symmetry in two-dimensional space: Recursion representation of conformal block. Theoretical and Mathematical Physics. 1987;73(1):1088-1093. Available at: http://www.springerlink.com/content/khq7730604681676/.

and of course DiFrancesco et al's book.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:47 (UCT), posted by SE-user David Z
answered Dec 20, 2010 by David Z (570 points) [ no revision ]
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Very nice work!

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:48 (UCT), posted by SE-user Robert Filter
Pretty nice answer, although it doesn't really talk about the blocks at all :-)

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:48 (UCT), posted by SE-user Marek
If you'd elaborate on what kind of objects the blocks are and/or add one example application, I'd give +1.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:48 (UCT), posted by SE-user Marek
So are the correlation functions for fewer that 4 fields, zero? And $f(D_l)$ (the "conformal block") is basically a propagator? Also, the variable $x$ is known as the "cross-ratio" of the four points $(\rho_1,\rho_2,\rho_3,\rho_4)$. Great job, @david !

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:48 (UCT), posted by SE-user user346
@space_cadet: well, for fewer than four fields the value of a correlation function would have to be completely determined a few fixed points. I guess that would make it zero the only "normalizable" value possible. But as I said, I haven't really studied CFT in detail so I couldn't tell you for sure. Also, reference 2 suggests that $f$ is a propagator attached to two vertices, but for one specific choice of the anomalous dimension of the internal field.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:48 (UCT), posted by SE-user David Z
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@matt if you could elaborate a bit on how the conformal group arises in higher than two dimensions, that would be great ! Maybe you could make it an answer.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:48 (UCT), posted by SE-user user346
@Matt you're definitely better qualified to answer this question than I am.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:48 (UCT), posted by SE-user David Z
+ 6 like - 0 dislike

Conformal field theory is the theory of scale invariance (or large-order behavior) in two dimensions. Scaling means dependence on angles only. In 2d, group of angle-preserving (conformal) transformations is infinite-dimensional, and in fact there are only a finite number of degrees of freedom in a 2d metric after conformal transformations and diffeomorphisms. (The degrees of freedom are the moduli space of Riemann surfaces.)

Fields in a theory with conformal symmetry must give representations of this symmetry algebra, and such representations are labeled by a quantum number called conformal dimension or weight. The transformations themselves are holomorphic changes of coordinates (z --> f(z) and they are generated by the Lie algebra of holomorphic vector fields $L_n := -z^{n+1}\partial_z$ and their complex conjugates. You can calculate this algebra: $[L_n,L_m] = (n-m)L_{m+n}$ which is called the Virasoro algebra. (There are two of these, one with z and one with z-bar.) Quantum mechanically, this algebra can be corrected by the conformal anomaly' parametrized by thecentral charge' ("central" because the extra term commutes with all others).

Now just as in a rotation-invariant theory, if you want to know how a solution looks after a rotation you only need to know which representation the state lies in, in a conformal theory if you want to change coordinates infinitesimally you only need to know the conformal weights of the fields. But such transformations are infinitesimal coordinate changes, so this gives a differential equation that the correlator must obey. Everything in the theory can be written in terms of solutions to these differential equations -- these are called `conformal blocks.' (There are solutions in z-bar, too.)

This method is detailed in the classic work of Belavin, Polyakov and Zamolodchikov (NPB 241 (1988) p. 333) (another pioneer is Knizhnik).

p.s. String theory is all about 2d field theories and their dependence on the moduli of Riemann surfaces. The condition that the conformal theory be anomaly-free is the most common way of deriving dimension formulas in string theory.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:48 (UCT), posted by SE-user Eric Zaslow
answered Dec 20, 2010 by Eric Zaslow (385 points) [ no revision ]
Like David's answer, this is a very nice overview of CFT but again there is no technical talk about the nature and/or properties of conformal blocks and/or some simple examples that would illustrate their usefulness. Which is what the OP's question is actually asking for if I understand it correctly.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:48 (UCT), posted by SE-user Marek
This answer combined with @david's answer, together form a great crash course for CFT. If summaries such as these were present in the intro to the chapters in, say, Polchinski's book, life would be so much simpler ! :-)

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:48 (UCT), posted by SE-user user346
I think you got at the nature of the blocks better than I did, at least.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:48 (UCT), posted by SE-user David Z
To Marek, the question asked for an explanation of "what conformal blocks are and how they are used in conformal field theory" and to "explain the notions involved in a simpler and more intuitive manner." This can all be done without equations. But more generally, people tend to contribute what they are able to contribute, given limitations on their expertise and the time/energy they put into their response.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:48 (UCT), posted by SE-user Eric Zaslow
@Eric: you are right, I thought the question was just about conformal blocks but reading it again, it can be interpreted in this way. In any case, I didn't mean to offend you. It's just that I always get a feeling that you have a lot more to say and would greatly appreciate if you could elaborate. Of course, I understand your available time and/or energy isn't infinite.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:48 (UCT), posted by SE-user Marek
@Marek: yes, it is usually a question of time. If you don't have children yet, here is a formula I usually use. The first child cuts your free time down to a factor of epsilon. The second child cuts down to epsilon of the remaining time, i.e. epsilon-squared (this is becoming less true as they age).

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:48 (UCT), posted by SE-user Eric Zaslow
@Eric: so epsilon cuts your time to epsilon -- makes sense :-)

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-01 16:48 (UCT), posted by SE-user Marek

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