Physics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for active researchers, academics and students of physics. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

While it is quite common to use piecewise constant functions to describe reality, e.g. the optical properties of a layered system, or the Fermi–Dirac statistics at (the impossible to reach exactly) $T=0$, I wonder if in a fundamental theory such as QFT some statement on the analyticity of the fields can be made/assumed/proven/refuted?

Take for example the Klein-Gordon equation. Even if you start with the non-analytical Delta distribution, after infinitesimal time the field will smooth out to an analytical function. (Yeah I know, that is one of the problems of relativistic quantum mechanics and why QFT is "truer", but intuitively I don't assume path integrals to behave otherwise but smoothing, too).

share|cite|improve this question
I assume that the fact that QFT can't even be reasonably definied in (3+1) doesn't bother you here :-) Also, mentioning path integral is surely weird. It is known quite well that the path particle takes (and that contributes to the final amplitude) is almost surely nowhere differentiable (as with any Wiener process). So your view on smoothness surely depends on what picture of physical reality you have in mind. – Marek Nov 26 '10 at 11:43
@Marek: ok, let's restrict the question to physically measurable functions then. Are they analytical? – Tobias Kienzler Nov 26 '10 at 11:51
We can always measure only finite number of values so such question is not physical. So I guess you are asking just for mathematical requirements for a particular theory? But then again, there is no reasonable mathematical definition of QFT... I guess the best one can talk about is S-matrix and Green functions but these will have poles in any nontrivial theory, so the answer (if there was any) would be no. – Marek Nov 26 '10 at 12:05
up vote 8 down vote accepted

This is a really interesting, but equally beguiling, question. Shock waves are discontinuities that develop in solutions of the wave equation. Phase transitions (of various kinds) are non-continuities in thermodynamics, but as thermodynamics is a study of aggregate quantitites, one might argue that the microscopic system is still continuous. However, the Higgs mechanism is an analogue in quantum field theory, where continuity is a bit harder to see. It is likely that smoothness is simply a convenience of our mathematical models (as was mentioned above). It is also possible that smooth spacetime is some aggregate/thermodynamic approximation of discrete microstates of spacetime -- but our model of that discrete system will probably be described by the mathematics of continuous functions.

(p.s.: Nonanalyticity is somehow akin to free will: our future is not determined by all time-derivatives of our past!)

share|cite|improve this answer
Well to begin with the concept of all these waves and etc assume continuity. The wave equation we use is when we assume the world is continuous. This is the case with all PDE's, Integrals etc. – user403 Nov 26 '10 at 23:33
Of course, but nevertheless nonanalytic behavior results. Likewise for amplitudes including instanton effects in quantum field theory. The point is, our mathematical descriptions tend to involve continuous, even differentiable or smooth functions, but these descriptions nevertheless can describe "abrupt" physical phenomena -- just as in math delta functions appear in the completion of smooth function spaces. – Eric Zaslow Nov 27 '10 at 2:29
For a macroscopic fluid phenomena like a shock wave I don't think true discontinuities are physical, i.e. once you get down to the scale of a mean free path, things should get smoothed out. The discontinuities result from ignoring these small scale effects and solving differential equations instead of the messier statistical physics. – Omega Centauri Apr 25 '11 at 16:10

I am not even sure if the world is $C^{0}$. The concept of uncountability in "real" world is still hard for me to digest. I am happy to deal with uncountability in pure mathematics but I am not sure if it is the case in the "real" world. It might be possible to reformulate all of physics in terms of discrete and not continuous. One such attempt is Discrete Philosophy though I don't know how much of this is true and how much is bullshit. ""

It might be possible to reformulate them in terms of some fundamental quantities and assume that these quantities cannot be sub divided further. For instance discretize space in terms of say Planck's length and time in terms of say Planck's time and so on.

share|cite|improve this answer
+1, I also find both the infinitely large and the infinitely small quite unbelievable. – Sklivvz Nov 26 '10 at 21:40
@Sklivvz: Yes. Though, I am absolutely fine with these infinitesimal, infinities and a hierarchy of infinities. These seem to make perfect "sense" when the world I talk of is dictated by my brain (or) in the "platonic world". However in the world dictated by my other "senses" eye, ears, touch, feel or in the "physical world", I am not totally convinced with these infinitesimal and uncountability. However, we can never know which world is the "true/absolute" world if it were to exist. – user403 Nov 27 '10 at 2:36
that's absolutely what I meant - I have no problem with limits, differential calculus, $\aleph_0$ and the like. I only have trouble when I have to think of them physically :-) – Sklivvz Nov 27 '10 at 9:56
Continuity and uncountability and not necessarily incompatible. In constructive real analysis, real numbers are defined as computable cauchy sequences. One can define notions of continuity for functions over such reals. Although there are only countably many computable cauchy sequences, one cannot effectively enumerate them. – Abhishek Anand Jan 5 '15 at 16:26

What quantities supposed to be $C^\infty$?

I don't know if it answers you question, but AFAIK smooth functions are nice and useful tool to describe many aspects of the physical world. However, I don't see why they should be considered as fundamental in any sense.

When it comes to QFT, even there you often encounter Dirac delta (and you can't get rid of it easily).

One professor from my department when asked if all physical dependences are continuous answered "Yes - and even more - with discrete domain" (as you will never make an infinite number of measurements).

Anyway, in my opinion there may be more specific (and purposeful) questions:

  • If for a given theory such-and-such dependences are continuous/analytic/smooth/(other nice property)?
  • If in practice one can restrict oneself to using only smooth functions, resulting in approximation error below measurement error?
share|cite|improve this answer
+1, your second questions basically states what I want to know. (Although my point of view is the opposite, I assume the world to be smooth and the discretization as the error) – Tobias Kienzler Nov 26 '10 at 12:24

[Some very nice answers by Eric, Sivaram and Piotr above. Here's my take!]

Short answer: NO !

The notion of $C^\infty$ is a mathematical aberration that was conjured up to help smooth (pun intended) discussions in real analysis.

Now, remember, you asked "Is the world $C^\infty$?". By "world" I take it to mean the physical world around us, our notions of which are based on what we can observe. A physical observable which is infinitely differentiable, would require an infinite number of measurements to determine the value of that observable in a given region.

Given that the consensus is emerging that information is the underlying substrate of the Universe (in the various forms of the holographic principle), it becomes even more urgent to reject a notion of $C^\infty$ observables.

Note how I have stressed the words "physical observables" rather than functions or mathematical entities that are used as intermediaries to compute any measured quantity. This is in harmony with Eric's statement that:

It is also possible that smooth spacetime is some aggregate/thermodynamic approximation of discrete microstates of spacetime -- but our model of that discrete system will probably be described by the mathematics of continuous functions.

share|cite|improve this answer
I don't know if I understand your use of the term aberration. – Sean Tilson Dec 21 '10 at 4:04
"aberration" as in "unnatural", "unnecessary", a mistake, an unwanted mutation etc. – user346 Dec 21 '10 at 4:16

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.