In theoretical physics, specifically quantum field theory, a beta-function β(g) encodes the dependence of a coupling parameter, g, on the energy scale, of a given physical process.
It is defined by the relation:
This dependence on the energy scale is known as the running
of the coupling parameter, and theory of this kind of scale-dependence in quantum field theory is described by the renormalization group
If the beta-functions of a quantum field theory vanish, usually at particular values of the coupling parameters, then the theory is said to be scale-invariant
. Almost all scale-invariant QFTs are also conformally invariant
. The study of such theories is conformal field theory
The coupling parameters of a quantum field theory can run even if the corresponding classical field theory is scale-invariant. In this case, the non-zero beta function tells us that the classical scale invariance is anomalous.
Beta-functions are usually computed in some kind of approximation scheme. An example is perturbation theory
, where one assumes that the coupling parameters are small. One can then make an expansion in powers of the coupling parameters and truncate the higher-order terms (also known as higher loop
contributions, due to the number of loops in the corresponding Feynman graphs
Here are some examples of beta-functions computed in perturbation theory:
The one-loop beta-function in quantum electrodynamics (QED) is
written in terms of the fine structure constant, .
This beta-function tells us that the coupling increases with increasing energy scale, and QED becomes strongly coupled at high energy. In fact, the coupling apparently becomes infinite at some finite energy, resulting in a Landau pole. However, one cannot expect the perturbative beta-function to give accurate results at strong coupling, and so it is likely that the Landau pole is an artifact of applying perturbation theory in a situation where it is no longer valid.
The one-loop beta-function in quantum chromodynamics with flavours is
written in terms of .
If , this beta-function tells us that the coupling decreases with increasing energy scale, a phenomenon known as asymptotic freedom. Conversely, the coupling increases with decreasing energy scale. This means that the coupling becomes large at low energies, and one can no longer rely on perturbation theory.
- Peskin, M and Schroeder, D. ;An Introduction to Quantum Field Theory, Westview Press (1995). A standard introductory text, covering many topics in QFT including calculation of beta-functions.
- Weinberg, Steven ; The Quantum Theory of Fields, (3 volumes) Cambridge University Press (1995). A monumental treatise on QFT.
- Zinn-Justin, Jean ; Quantum Field Theory and Critical Phenomena, Oxford University Press (2002). Emphasis on the renormalization group and related topics.