1 Introduction

A Hierarchical Finite Element Method for Quantum Field Theory


We study a model of scalar quantum field theory in which space-time is a discrete set of points obtained by repeatedly subdividing a triangle into three triangles at the centroid. By integrating out the field variable at the centroid we get a renormalized action on the original triangle. The exact renormalization map between the angles of the triangles is obtained as well. A fixed point of this map happens to be the cotangent formula of Finite Element Method which approximates the Laplacian in two dimensions.

Arnab Kar1, Fred Moolekamp, S. G. Rajeev2

Department of Physics and Astronomy,

University of Rochester,

Rochester, New York 14627, USA.

PACS numbers:

02.70.Dh, 41.20.Cv, 11.25.Hf

1. Introduction

The most successful regularization method in understanding non-perturbative Quantum Field Theory (QFT) is the lattice method,[1, 2] which replaces space-time by a periodically arranged finite set of points. Numerical simulations based on this are becoming increasingly accurate, therefore any attempt at a mathematical formulation of quantum field theory must build on this success and aim to improve upon it.

The classical analogue of the problem would be the solution of Partial Differential Equations (PDEs). In the early days a lattice with identically shaped fundamental regions was used in numerical solutions of PDEs. Later it was realized that using meshes adapted to the boundary conditions makes more economical use of computing resources by adding more points where the field varies rapidly and fewer where it varies slowly. The Finite Element Method[3, 4] was developed in the seventies: it allows fundamental cells to have different shapes and sizes and use sophisticated interpolation methods to model the field in the interior of each cell. Some of the mathematical ideas were anticipated by Whitney[5] in his work in topology and extended by Patodi[6]. The Whitney elements have provided a basis for a discrete formulation of geometry. This Discrete Differential Geometry is useful not only to solve PDEs, but also to model shapes for use in computer graphics[7, 8].

The analogue in Quantum Field Theory is to replace the periodic lattice with a mesh that contains different length scales. This approach has been looked at by groups in the past and met with varying degrees of success. The first approach in this direction was by Christ, Friedberg and Lee[9] (except they proposed to average over all locations of lattice points as a way to restore rotation invariance, which did not turn out to be helpful). There is also some early work by Bender, Guralnik and Sharp[10]. Patodi’s FEM to solve the eigenvalue problem for Laplacians was not noticed by physicists at this time. Since then much of the work on Lattice Gauge Theories has been computational along with some analytic work[11].

We propose to adapt existing methods of QFT and develop new Finite Element Methods to understand the essential problem from Wilson’s point of view: how to integrate out some variables and get an effective theory for the remaining degrees of freedom (for a recent review, see the volume[12]). The simplest case is the one dimensional lattice (the set of integers), which has a natural subdivision into even and odd numbered elements. By integrating out the odd sites and leaving only the even sites we are left with an identical lattice with a different separation between field points. Unfortunately there is no simple procedure to extend this into higher dimensions.

A natural idea would be to divide space into triangles (simplices in higher dimensions) and to fit them together to form larger ones, allowing us to integrate out the interior vertices and obtain an effective large scale theory. An advantage of our regularization method is that the renormalization map can be calculated exactly. The transformation between the angles of the triangles from subsequent generations is obtained at each stage of the subdivision. The first examples[13] we constructed this way ignored the shape (information contained in the angles) of the triangles. The Finite Element Method used by engineers leads to a “cotangent formula”[14]. It approximates the Laplacian in two dimensions on one hand and also happens to be a fixed point[15] of the renormalization dynamics. We determine this dynamics explicitly.

We expect this fixed point to be a continuum limit on a fractal, analogous to the Bethe lattice for which the renormalization group can be exactly calculated. Such QFTs can serve as approximations to theories on Euclidean spaces. Or perhaps at short distances, space-time really is not Euclidean.

If generalized to the Ising model, nonlinear sigma models or to four dimensional field theories, we could get interesting examples of Discrete Conformal Field Theory[16]. In our approach we do not average over triangulations. Such an average has been proposed as an approach to quantum gravity[17] and as a way to restore translation invariance[9].

2. The Cotangent Formula

In the early days of computational engineering, Duffin[14] derived a formula for the discrete approximation for the energy of an electrostatic field on a planar domain. In this Finite Element Method the plane is divided into triangles where the field is specified at each vertex and the energy of the field is the sum of contributions from each triangle. An approximation for the energy of a triangle is obtained by linear interpolation of the field to the interior.

Suppose the vertices correspond to field values . Each point in the interior of the triangle divides it into three sub-triangles with vertices , and respectively.

If the ratio of the area of a sub-triangle opposite to to the larger triangle is


We can use the pair as co-ordinates instead of the cartesian components of . The linear interpolation of the field values to the point is then

The energy of the interpolated field inside a triangle on calculation turns out to be

where are the cotangents of the angles at the vertices.

Figure 1. A triangle with labelled vertices and cotangents of the angles.

Define the vectors along the sides of the triangle (see Fig. 1),

Using for as co-ordinates,

Then the metric tensor of the plane in these co-ordinates has as components the dot products of the sides:

Also, is twice the area of the triangle. The cotangents are



Thus, using ,

This can be rewritten as

as claimed. ∎

3. The Geometry of Triangles

The space of similarity classes of triangles (with marked vertices) is a hyperboloid[18]. This can be understood in several ways. A pair of sides of a triangle forms a basis, thus the space of marked triangles may be identified with : this group acts transitively and without a fixed point on the space of bases. Quotienting by rotation, scaling and reflection around a side gives

which is a hyperboloid. This argument generalizes to dimensions: the similarity classes of marked simplices is .

An equivalent point of view is that is the space of symmetric tensors of determinant one: a pair of sides of the triangles define a symmetric tensor through their inner products. By scaling we can choose this symmetric tensor to have determinant one. It is clear that acts on the space of such tensors transitively, with as the isotropy group at one point. Again this generalizes to dimensions.

A more explicit point of view will be useful in what follows. A similarity class of marked triangles is determined by the angles at the vertices (or, for convenience, the cotangents of the angles). Since the angles of a triangle add up to , the cotangents satisfy


This can be written as

Since has signature (, this is the equation for a time-like hypersurface in Minkowski space . Setting

the “cotangent identity” (1) becomes the equation for a hyperboloid

The quantity is the ratio of the sum of squares of the sides to the area of the triangle. It is a minimum for an equilateral triangle and becomes large for a flat triangle (one with small area or large perimeter).

So far we discussed triangles with marked vertices but we should also consider invariant transformations of the vertices. The group of permutations of vertices is generated by the cyclic permutation

and the interchange of a pair of vertices

These permutations act on the cotangents through the matrices

We can also parametrize by the complex number

By a translation, we can choose the first vertex and by a rotation and scaling we may choose . is then the co-ordinate of the remaining vertex.

Then the permutation of the vertices becomes

By a reflection around the side , we can choose ; equivalently . Note that is the reflection around the perpendicular from vertex to the opposite side of the triangle.

3.1. Subdivision of a triangle

We can subdivide a triangle into three sub-triangles of equal area by connecting the centroid to the vertices by straight lines. (If we subdivide at some other interior point, we get similar results).

The cotangents of the angles of the sub-triangle opposite vertex are given by

as shown in Fig. 2.

Figure 2. A triangle with few cotangents of the angles labelled after subdivision.

To see this, choose a co-ordinate system with so that Then,

By dropping a perpendicular from to the side we get

The remaining angle is given by solving the cotangent formula:

We can thus express the cotangents of this sub-triangle as where

Note that

since the cotangent identity is preserved. Thus subdivisions are represented by Lorentz transformations in . Note the symmetry under the interchange of and :

The cotangents of the remaining sub-triangles are given by cyclic permutations and (see Fig. 3). In this convention, the central angle is listed first.

Figure 3. Action of and matrices to produce subdivision of a triangle.

In the complex parametrization , the subdivision corresponds to

which is the complex co-ordinate of the centroid when . Recall that in this parametrization Clearly, both and map the upper half plane to itself.

The semi-group generated by describe repeated subdivisions of a triangle. After many iterations, most of the triangles are flat: they have small area and large perimeter[19, 20]. The dynamics generated by this semi-group is the renormalization group of real space decimations.

4. Renormalization Dynamics

Consider a Gaussian scalar field with values at the vertices of a triangle with cotangents . The most general quadratic form for the discrete approximation to the action will be

The coefficients are functions of the cotangents satisfying the symmetry

For example, the cotangent formula corresponds to the choice

If we subdivide the triangle and associate a field at the central vertex, the action will be the sum of contributions from each triangle.


The effective action after integrating out the central field variable is given by

where is a normalization constant.

On comparing coefficient of , we get

On comparing coefficient of , we get

Using we can verify that as needed for symmetry. The denominator

is invariant under and hence, under all permutations.

The semi-group generated by the map on the space of pairs of functions on the hyperboloid is the renormalization dynamics (“renormalization group”). This explicit example should help understand such dynamics. For example, is there is a notion of entropy that increases monotonically? Its fixed points correspond to some sort of continuum limit (which could be fractals[21, 22]).

5. Fixed Points

An obvious fixed point consists of constant . This corresponds to the “Apollonian subdivisions” considered in an earlier paper[13].

We now show that the cotangent formula of the FEM

is also a fixed point[15] of the above dynamics. It is not hard to verify that

so that .


from which follows.

This fixed point describes some sort of continuum limit of two dimensional scalar field theory. As in the examples of Ref. [13] it is likely to be a fractal of dimension less than two; but we have not been able to determine this dimension yet. An extension of this method to higher dimensions and to gauge theories would be interesting. We hope to return to these issues in the future.

6. Acknowledgement

We thank Abdelmalek Abdesselam, Abhishek Agarwal, Alex Iosevich and V. Parameswaran Nair for discussions related to this work. We also thank Bianca Dittrich for bringing Ref. [15] to our attention.


  1. arnabkar@pas.rochester.edu
  2. Also at the Department of Mathematics


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  16. Conformal Invariance, Discrete Holomorphicity and Integrability, Workshop organized by A. Kemppainen and K. Kytölä, U. of Helsinki, June 2012.
  17. J. Ambjørn, A. Göerlich, J. Jurkiewicz, and R. Loll, arXiv:1302.2173 [hep-th], To appear in Handbook of Spacetime, (Springer Verlag).
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