Vacuum decay in real time and imaginary time formalisms

Mark P. Hertzberg, Masaki Yamada

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)


We analyze vacuum tunneling in quantum field theory in a general formalism by using the Wigner representation. In the standard instanton formalism, one usually approximates the initial false vacuum state by an eigenstate of the field operator, imposes Dirichlet boundary conditions on the initial field value, and evolves in imaginary time. This approach does not have an obvious physical interpretation. However, an alternative approach does have a physical interpretation: in quantum field theory, tunneling can happen via classical dynamics, seeded by initial quantum fluctuations in both the field and its momentum conjugate, which was recently implemented in Braden et al. [arXiv:1806.06069]. We show that the Wigner representation is a useful framework to calculate and understand the relationship between these two approaches. We find there are two, related, saddle point approximations for the path integral of the tunneling process: one corresponds to the instanton solution in imaginary time and the other one corresponds to classical dynamics from initial quantum fluctuations in real time. The classical approximation for the dynamics of the latter process is justified only in a system with many degrees of freedom, as can appear in field theory due to high occupancy of nucleated bubbles, while it is not justified in single particle quantum mechanics, as we explain. We mention possible applications of the real time formalism, including tunneling when the instanton vanishes, or when the imaginary time contour deformation is not possible, which may occur in cosmological settings.

Original languageEnglish
Article number016011
JournalPhysical Review D
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2019 Jul 18
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physics and Astronomy (miscellaneous)


Dive into the research topics of 'Vacuum decay in real time and imaginary time formalisms'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this