Symmetry And The Loopholes

“So, we’ve got geometry symmetry and relativity symmetry. Is that it, Sy?”

“Hardly, Al. There’s scores of them. Mathematics has a whole branch devoted to sorting and classifying the operations and how they group together. Shall I list a few dozen?”

“Ah, no, don’t bother, thanks. You got one I’d recognize?”

“How about charge symmetry? Flip an electron’s negative charge and you’ve got a positron that has exactly the same mass and the same interaction with light waves. OK, positrons move opposite to electrons in a magnetic field which is how their existence was confirmed, but charge is s a fundamental symmetry for normal matter.”

“Oh, right, charge is a piece of that CPT symmetry you hung your anti‑Universe story on. Which reminds me, you never said what the ‘P’ stands for.”

“Parity, as in Charge‑Parity‑Time. Before you ask, ‘parity‘ is left-right symmetry. Parity symmetry says you can replace ‘clockwise‘ with ‘counterclockwise‘ in a system and the equations describing the system will give perfectly good predictions. Time symmetry is about time running forward or backward. The equations are happy either way. The CPT theorem says the three symmetries are solidly tied together — you can’t flip one without the other two tagging along. If some process emits particle X with clockwise spin, there’s some equivalent process that soaks up an anti-X if it’s spinning counterclockwise. Very firm theorem, lots of laboratory evidence for it from electromagnetism and the nuclear strong force. But.”


“But Chien‑Shiung Wu did an experiment that showed the nuclear weak force doesn’t always obey CPT rules. Her worked proved we live in a handed Universe. She should have gotten a Nobel for that, but it was last century and the Nobel Committee was men‑only. Two theory guys copped the prize that should have gone to the three of them. The theory guys protested but the Committee ignored Wu anyway. Sometimes things aren’t fair.”

“Tell me about it. So the theory’s got a loophole?”

“Apparently, but to my knowledge no‐one’s found it. Some string theories claim to hint at an explanation but that’s not much help, considering.”

“Huh. Could the loophole maybe be an example of symmetry breaking?”

“Very good question. I think it’s a qualified probably but that’s a guess.”

“Sy, I think that’s the wishy-washiest you’ve ever been.”

“One of my rules is, when you’re going out on a limb be sure you’re properly roped to the tree. In this case I’m generalizing from a single sample.”

“You’re gonna tell me, right?”

   Professor Higgs presents
       the Higgs Bozo.

“Just the bare outline because I don’t want to get into the deep weeds. Back in the 1960s Physics was in trouble because the nuclear strong force particles that bind the nucleus together were found to have mass and move slowly. Strong‑force theory at the time said they should be massless and move at lightspeed. The theory depended on part of the potential energy varying with the symmetry of a circle. Then Higgs—”

“The Higgs Boson guy?”

“That’s him. Anyway, he published a three‑page paper showing that those binding particles aren’t controlled solely by the nuclear strong force. Because they have a charge they also engage with the electromagnetic field. Electromagnetism is a lot weaker than the strong force, but it’s strong enough to deform the theory’s circle into an ellipse. Breaking the circular symmetry in effect gives the particles mass and slows them down.”

“So where’s the boson come in? I thought it’s what makes mass for everything.”

“Absolutely not, probably. The protons and neutrons have plenty of mass on their own, thank you very much. It’s only those strong-force particles that gain mass, less than 1% of the nucleus total. But the whole story is a great example of how making a system less symmetrical, even a little bit, can completely change how it operates. We think that’s what drove the Big Bang’s story. The early Universe was so dense and hot it was a perfectly symmetrical quark soup — chaos all the way down. Space expansion opened successive symmetry loopholes that permitted layers of structure formation.”

<looking at hands> “I don’t feel unsymmetrical.”

“Trust me, deep down you are.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Symmetrical Eavesdropping

“Wait, Sy, you’ve made this explanation way more complicated than it has to be. All I asked about was the horrible whirling I’d gotten myself into. The three angular coordinates part would have done for that, but you dragged in degrees of freedom and deep symmetry and even dropped in that bit about ‘if measurable motion is defined.’ Why bother with all that and how can you have unmeasurable motion?”

“Curiosity caught the cat, didn’t it? Let’s head down to Eddie’s and I’ll treat you to a gelato. Your usual scoop of mint, of course, but I recommend combining it with a scoop of ginger to ease your queasy.”

“You’re a hard man to turn down, Sy. Lead on.”

<walking the hall to the elevators> “Have you ever baked a cake, Anne?”

“Hasn’t everyone? My specialty is Crazy Cake — flour, sugar, oil, vinegar, baking soda and a few other things but no eggs.”

“Sounds interesting. Well, consider the path from fixings to cake. You’ve collected the ingredients. Is it a cake yet?”

“Of course not.”

“Ok, you’ve stirred everything together and poured the batter into the pan. Is it a cake yet?”

“Actually, you sift the dry ingredients into the pan, then add the others separately, but I get your point. No, it’s not cake and it won’t be until it’s baked and I’ve topped it with my secret frosting. Some day, Sy, I’ll bake you one.”

<riding the elevator down to 2> “You’re a hard woman to turn down, Anne. I look forward to it. Anyhow, you see the essential difference between flour’s journey to cakehood and our elevator ride down to Eddie’s.”

“Mmm… OK, it’s the discrete versus continuous thing, isn’t it?”

“You’ve got it. Measuring progress along a discrete degree of freedom can be an iffy proposition.”

“How about just going with the recipe’s step number?”

“I’ll bet you use a spoon instead of a cup to get the right amount of baking soda. Is that a separate step from cup‑measuring the other dry ingredients? Sifting one batch or two? Those’d change the step‑number metric and the step-by-step equivalent of momentum. It’s not a trivial question, because Emmy Noether’s symmetry theorem applies only to continuous coordinates.”

“We’re back to her again? I thought—”

The elevator doors open at the second floor. We walk across to Eddie’s, where the tail‑end of the lunch crowd is dawdling over their pizzas. “Hiya folks. You’re a little late, I already shut my oven down.”

“Hi, Eddie, we’re just here for gelato. What’s your pleasure, Anne?”

“On Sy’s recommendation, Eddie, I’ll try a scoop of ginger along with my scoop of mint. Sy, about that symmetry theorem—”

“The same for me, Eddie.”

“Comin’ up. Just find a table, I’ll bring ’em over.”

We do that and he does that. “Here you go, folks, two gelati both the same, all symmetrical.”

“Eddie, you’ve been eavesdropping again!”

“Who, me? Never! Unless it’s somethin’ interesting. So symmetry ain’t just pretty like snowflakes? It’s got theorems?”

“Absolutely, Eddie. In many ways symmetry appears to be fundamental to how the Universe works. Or we think so, anyway. Here, Anne, have an extra bite of my ginger gelato. For one thing, Eddie, symmetry makes calculations a lot easier. If you know a particular system has the symmetry of a square, for instance, then you can get away with calculating only an eighth of it.”

“You mean a quarter, right, you turn a square four ways.”

“No, eight. It’s done with mirrors. Sy showed me.”

“I’m sure he did, Anne. But Sy, what if it’s not a perfect square? How about if one corner’s pulled out to a kite shape?”

“That’s called a broken symmetry, no surprise. Physicists and engineers handle systems like that with a toolkit of approximations that the mathematicians don’t like. Basically, the idea is to start with some nice neat symmetrical solution then add adjustments, called perturbations, to tweak the solution to something closer to reality. If the kite shape’s not too far away from squareness the adjusted solution can give you some insight onto how the actual thing works.”

“How about if it’s too far?”

“You go looking for a kite‑shaped solution.”

~~ Rich Olcott