Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Symmetry in and of nature

In part three of "What on earth has Teake been doing for the last four years?" I'll talk a little on how symmetry appears in nature. When considering this subject, it seems natural to think of symmetric things that appear in nature. Snowflakes, like the one above, are good examples, but also flowers, the wings of butterflies, and sea stars (to name a few) all show some form of symmetry. They fall into the category "things in nature that look kind of symmetric", but in fact have little or nothing to do with the physicist's concept of the symmetry of nature.

One definition of symmetry in physics is as follows: the symmetries of nature are those transformations that do not change the laws of physics. To illustrate this concept, have a look at the following four clocks:

The first clock obviously satisfies the laws of physics. We now apply two different transformations, namely a mirror operation and a time reversal operation. Both give a clock that is distinct from the original one -- you can see the dial moving in the opposite direction. So the clock is not invariant under these transformations, and thus they are not symmetries of the clock. However, there's nothing physically wrong with a clock running in the opposite direction, apart from the fact that it's broken. Therefore parity (a fancy word for a mirror operation) and time reversal are symmetries of the laws of physics of this particular system. In general parity and time reversal are broken, but that's another story.

As a side note, you can see that the combined actions of parity (C) and time reversal (T) do leave the clock invariant, so CT is a symmetry of the clock.

This concept of symmetry is quite powerful. For instance, Special Relativity can be derived by demanding that the laws of physics are invariant under translations, rotations, and boosts (which together make the Poincaré group). Modern physics is to a large extent build on similar considerations of symmetry. So the study of group theory is not just a nice mathematical exercise; it actually has some useful applications throughout the field of physics. In the upcoming blogposts on "What on earth has Teake been doing for the last four years?" I'll try to explain how I applied some fancy group theory to even fancier things like supergravity. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Band rebus

Can you guess what bands the images below are supposed to represent? The answers can be found after the break!

In case you're wondering, I made these images for a popquiz I held with some friends. It was pretty fun, not in the least because of the Lego album covers we also put in.
Anyway, the answers are ... :

Saturday, October 17, 2009

More symmetry: continuous groups

In my previous post on "What on earth has Teake been doing for the last four years?" I tried to explain the concepts of symmetry and groups. Today we're going on step beyond, and see how they are related to algebras. Hold tight! It's going to be a bumpy ride ...

Let's first start of with the triangle. As we saw in the previous post it only had six distinct symmetries, and these symmetries formed a group. It's a discrete group because there are only a finite number of symmetries, and thus a finite number of elements in that group.
If you want objects with bigger symmetry, all you have to is increase the number of sides of your polygon. Here's for example the pentagon:

From now on we ignore the reflection symmetries and focus only on the rotational ones. It's easy to see the pentagon has six symmetries: rotations over 0˚, 72˚, 144˚, 216˚, and 288˚ all leave it invariant.

When we move up to the hendecagon (the 11-sided regular polygon), it will come as no surprise that the thing has 12 distinct rotational symmetries. But what happens if we crank the number of sides up to infinity? Then our polygon become a circle:

You can rotate it over any angle, and it remains the same. This means it has an infinite amount of symmetry! The mathematical object that describes these symmetries is still a group, but no longer a discrete (finite) one. The symmetry group of the circle is continuous. The reason why we call it continuous is because you can smoothly get from one rotation to another one by continuously applying infinitessimal (i.e. very small) rotations. Another way of phrasing this is to say that every angle between e.g. 72˚ and 144˚ corresponds to a symmetry. This was not so for the pentagon: in that case there are 'gaps' between the rotations. That's why that kind of symmetry is called discrete.

Continuous groups are known as Lie groups (pronounced as "lee"; they're named after Sophus Lie). They contain an infinite amount of elements. But because they're continuous we can parametrize the elements in one or more parameters. For the circle we can write any rotation over an angle θ as R(θ) as

This is just the rotation matrix in two dimensions. If R(θ) is still a group element, it should satisfy the group multiplication rule: R(θ1) • R(θ2) = R(θ1 + θ2). Or in plain English: the result of two succesive rotations over angles θ1 and θ2 should give a new rotation over an angle θ1 + θ2. Sure enough, if we brush up on our linear algebra and trigonometry, we find that

So group multiplication is indeed satisfied.
The above parametrization makes for easier bookkeeping of the infinite amount of group elements. But things can be simplified even further! Because the parametrization is continuous, we can take the derivative of R(θ) with respect to θ:

The magic happens when you consider the value of dR(θ)/dθ at zero angle, θ = 0 :

which we call T, for short. This thing is independent of the angle θ. What's more, you can recover all the rotations by simply exponentiating T:

We say that T generates the symmetry group of the circle. In proper mathematical lingo, it is called a generator. This single object captures all the important properties of the infinite symmetry group (well, almost all, but we'll not go into that right now). The bookkeeping now becomes very simply: we can just focus on the generator T, instead of the infinite amount of group elements.

You can show that for more complicated groups (e.g. the symmetry group of the sphere) the above simplification also holds. All the group elements can be led back to a finite number of generators (in the generic case there is more than one generator). These generators no longer are elements of a group. Instead, they form what is known as Lie algebra. But more on that in one of the upcoming episodes of "What on earth has Teake been doing for the last four years?"!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Quarterly music round-up

September is behind us, and so are August and July. Time for a quarter-annual update on the stuff I listen to! Luckily Last.FM is not only useful for keeping track of concerts (as I wrote about earlier), but it also keeps track of your listening habits. The graph above is for example a visualization of my listening history over the last three months, made with the tool LastGraph. Last.FM itself produces plain text lists, like the top albums you've listened to. Here are mine:
  1. The Maccabees - Wall of arms
  2. Throw me the statue - Creaturesque
  3. Sunset Rubdown - Dragonslayer
  4. Bill Callahan - Sometimes I wish we were an eagle
  5. The Dodos - Time to die
  6. Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
  7. Dan Auerbach - Keep it hid
  8. The National - Boxer
  9. The Maccabees - Colour it in
  10. Jay Reatard - Watch me fall
Almost all are of this year (save no. 8 & 9), so there's a reasonable chance they will make it to my end-of-the-year list. But for that we'll have to wait another three months.