Reflection, Rotation And Spacetime

“Afternoon, Al.”

“Hiya, Sy. Hey, which of these two scones d’ya like better?”

“”Mm … this oniony one, sorta. The other is too vegetable for me ‑ grass, I think, and maybe asparagus? What’s going on?”

“Experimenting, Sy, experimenting. I’m going for ‘Taste of Spring.’ The first one was spring onion, the second was fiddlehead ferns. I picked ’em myself.”

“Very seasonal, but I’m afraid neither goes well with coffee. I’ll take a caramel scone, please, plus a mug of my usual mud.”

“Aw, Sy, caramel’s a winter flavor. Here you go. Say, while you’re here, maybe you could clear up something for me?”

“I can try. What’s the something?”

“After your multiverse series I got out my astronomy magazines to read up on the Big Bang. Several of the articles said that we’ve gone through several … um, I think they said ‘epochs‘ … separated by episodes of symmetry breaking. What’s that all about?”

“It’s about a central notion in modern Physics. Name me some kinds of symmetry.”

“Mmm, there’s left‑right, of course, and the turning kind like a snowflake has. Come to think — I like listening to Bach and Vivaldi when I’m planet‑watching. I don’t know why but their stuff reminds me of geometry and feels like symmetry.”

“Would it help to know that the word comes from the Greek for ‘same measure‘? Symmetry is about transformations, like your mirror and rotation operations, that affect a system but don’t significantly change to its measurable properties. Rotate that snowflake 60° and it looks exactly the same. Both the geometric symmetries you named are two‑dimensional but the principle applies all over the place. Bach and the whole Baroque era were just saturated with symmetry. His music was so regular it even looked good on the page. Even buildings and artworks back then were planned to look balanced, as much mass and structure on the left as on the right.”

“I don’t read music, just listen to it. Why does Bach sound symmetric?”

“There’s another kind of symmetry, called a ‘translation‘ don’t ask why, where the transformation moves something along a line within some larger structure. That paper napkin dispenser, for instance. It’s got a stack of napkins that all look alike. I pull one off, napkins move up one unit but the stack doesn’t look any different.”

“Except I gotta refill it when it runs low, but I get your drift. You’re saying Bach takes a phrase and repeats it over and over and that sounds like translational symmetry along the music’s timeline.”

“Yup, maybe up or down a few tones, maybe a different register or instrument. The repeats are the thing. Play his Third Brandenberg Concerto next time you’re at your telescope, you’ll see what I mean.”

“Symmetry’s not just math then.”

“Like I said, it’s everywhere. You’ve seen diagrams of DNA’s spiral staircase. It combines translation with rotation symmetry, does about 10 translation steps per turn, over and over. The Universe has a symmetry you don’t see at all. No‑one did until Lorentz and Poincaré revised Heaviside’s version of Maxwell’s electromagnetism equations for Minkowski space. Einstein, Hilbert and Grossman used that work to give us and the Universe a new symmetry.”

“Einstein didn’t do the math?”

“The crew I just named were world‑class in math, he wasn’t. Einstein’s strengths were his physical intuition and his ability to pick problems his math buddies would find interesting. Look, Newton’s Universe depends on absolute space and time. The distance between two objects at a given time is always the same, no matter who’s measuring it or how fast anyone is moving. All observers measure the same duration between two incidents regardless. Follow me?”

“Makes sense. That’s how things work hereabouts, anyway.”

“That’s how they work everywhere until you get to high speeds or high gravity. Lorentz proved that the distances and durations you measure depend on your velocity relative to what you’re measuring. Extreme cases lead to inconsistent numbers. Newton’s absolute space and time are pliable. To Einstein such instability was an abomination. Physics needs a firm foundation, a symmetry between all observers to support consistent measurements throughout the Universe. Einstein’s Relativity Theory rescued Physics with symmetrical mathematical transformations that enforce consistency.”

~~ Rich Olcott