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Over the past century, quantum field theory has proved to be the single most sweeping and successful physical theory ever invented. It is an umbrella term that encompasses many specific quantum field theories — the way “shape” covers specific examples like the square and the circle. The most prominent of these theories is known as the Standard Model, and it is this framework of physics that has been so successful.

“It can explain at a fundamental level literally every single experiment that we’ve ever done,” said David Tong, a physicist at the University of Cambridge.

But quantum field theory, or QFT, is indisputably incomplete. Neither physicists nor mathematicians know exactly what makes a quantum field theory a quantum field theory. They have glimpses of the full picture, but they can’t yet make it out.

“There are various indications that there could be a better way of thinking about QFT,” said Nathan Seiberg, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study. “It feels like it’s an animal you can touch from many places, but you don’t quite see the whole animal.”

Mathematics, which requires internal consistency and attention to every last detail, is the language that might make QFT whole. If mathematics can learn how to describe QFT with the same rigor with which it characterizes well-established mathematical objects, a more complete picture of the physical world will likely come along for the ride.

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