Why 'Change without Change' Is One of the Fundamental Principles of the Universe

Symmetry is about way more than splitting circles: It's change without change, and it has applications throughout mathematics, physics, and nature.

Frank Wilczek: Symmetry in common usage is a kind of vague term like most terms in common usage. We use it flexibly. The idea of symmetry that has turned out to be extremely fruitful in mathematics and physics and in the fundamental description of nature is a precise distillation of some aspects of the common usage. So it’s not unnatural to call it symmetry, but it’s something very precise that we can describe.

When I say what it is it’ll sound kind of mystical, but it’s actually — I’ll spell it out and you’ll see what I mean. So symmetry in the sense that’s turned out to be fruitful in mathematics and physics and fundamental investigations is change without change. Now you might be puzzled. What does that have to do with symmetry? Well consider a circle. A circle is a very symmetric object. You can rotate it around its center by any angle and although every point on the circle may move, the circle as a whole doesn’t change. And that’s what makes it symmetric in the intuitive sense. You can change it. You can make changes on it which might have changed it, but although they transformed each part of it, don’t transform the thing as a whole. So that’s what makes a circle a symmetric object.

An equilateral triangle, for instance, you can’t rotate through any angle and get the same thing. It’ll change. If you rotate it one-third of the way around though by 120 degrees, it goes over into itself. If you rotate around the center by 120 degrees, it’s the same equilateral triangle. Whereas if you take some lopsided triangle, it’ll never go back to itself until you come all the way back to a trivial transformation. That doesn’t change anything. So change — so a triangle has less symmetry than a circle according to this concept, but some symmetry.

And so you start to see how this concept of change without change matches the intuitive notion of symmetry. The great advantage of that definition is that you can apply it in very broad context not only to describing the symmetry of objects, but to describing the symmetry of physical laws or the symmetry of equations. So, for instance, the theory of relativity is a statement of symmetry that if you change the way the world looks by moving past it at a constant velocity, you change the appearance of everything that’s happening. But the underlying laws are still valid. That’s the assumption of the theory of relativity that drives it and makes it powerful.

The idea that the laws of physics don’t change as a function of time is also a symmetry because it means you can change when you start your clocks and although the time stamps you’ll give to each event look different, the underlying equations will be the same. That’s the way of staying, that the laws of physics don’t change. And similarly with that the fact that the same physical laws apply at different places is a symmetry because you can change your position without changing the way the laws work. So symmetry is a very powerful constraint on our description of the world that nature seems to respect in many ways. Now the kind of symmetry that leads to quantum chromodynamics or general relativity or quantum electrodynamics is, mathematically, considerably more complex but it’s the same idea.

So there are transformations of the equations that change the different terms in them. So they might change an electric field into a magnetic field or a magnetic field into a combination of electric and magnetic that change the way the equations look, but don’t change their consequences. So the equations look quite different — some parts have moved over to the left and some parts have moved over to the right and some things have been multiplied in funny ways. But their consequences, their content is exactly the same. That’s the kind of equations that are like the circles among equations — are ones that have this symmetry property and those are the kinds of equations that turn out to be the ones that appear most prominently in our fundamental description of nature. It’s an extraordinary thing — but that’s not only true, but that’s how we got to the equations in the first place.

In his new book A Beautiful Question, theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek marries the age-old human quest for beauty and the age-old human quest for truth into a thrilling synthesis: The universe wants to be beautiful. In this video interview, Wilczek delves deep into the fundamental idea of symmetry. Did you know symmetry is much more complex than what we were taught in school? The possible and plausible abstractions of symmetry throughout physics and nature are plenty. The world is full of instances of change without changing.

Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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