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.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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