Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Last time we have defined coordinate systems. We also made the statement that for two people to agree about something measured with the coordinate system, they had to agree where to position the origin, and how to orient the coordinate system. The latter could e.g. be done by making one of its axis point north and the other point east and the third perpendicular in the heavens. An interesting question is now why we had to agree about orientation and origin. Obviously, a player on the field will not care about how we locate him and how we discuss about his location (I neglect here the possibility of markers on the field for the purpose of playing a game. Just assume that they are not necessary and the rules of the game do not need them). She will just keep on playing, no matter how often we change our agreement or how extreme our conventions are.

With this, we have a first example of a feature which is very central to our understanding of how we can describe physics. This is the concept of invariance. It means essentially that nature is not caring about how we describe it, and whatever we do, we have to respect this. In particular, nothing can depend on us. We are just observers. That seems to be an innocent enough statement, and moreover a pretty obvious one. It is actually not.

First, nothing dictates nature to be that way. There is no reason that nature should not depend on who it observes how. Though this would quite ruin our current understanding of how nature works, it is just an empirical fact, and one which we can not (yet) explain. It is a law of nature, so far.

The second is that as innocent as the statement looks, it has become one of our most powerful tools to devise a description of nature. Lets get back to the players on the field. Given the just said, the numbers which with we describe the position of a player on the field are not of importance. The player is not even aware of them. Things start to change when we add a second player. Also she is not aware of which numbers we assign to her to keep track of her position. What both players are very much aware of, however, is where the other one is, and how far she is away. That is something we can also quantify with our coordinate systems. If the first player is at the origin, say, and the second player is at the next grid point at the first tick in the direction of one axis, their distance is the distance of the tick marks, say one meter. Hence, their distance is one meter.

What happens now if we change our coordinate system? Well, lets flip it somehow, and move the origin to the sun. But this does not change the distance of the two players, it is still one meter. Hence, their distance is (so-called) invariant under a change of the coordinate system! That is a first example of how actually an invariance pops up. Hence, if we try to describe how the two players behave, the numbers of the coordinate system will not matter, but their distance will. So, we know now that a theory describing the players (e.g. to determine the rules of the game) will not make use of the coordinate system, but only of the distance of the two players. Thus, invariance has given us a first tool how to describe the behavior of the players.

This could also be formulated differently (and very popular). The players do not care about the coordinate system we put on the field, despite this having a universe-wide particular point of reference, its origin. They only care about the distance with respect to each other. That is, the absolute frame given by the coordinate system does not matter. Only the relative position of the two players matters. Thus, it is only relative quantities which do matter. The popular phrase made from this fact is that "everything is relative". Here, we have seen that this phrase embodies the principle of invariance under a change of description.

Is the coordinate system now of complete uselessness after we have introduced and bargained about it so much? No, it is still very useful. We can still use it to describe the two players on the field. This makes life much simpler. However, we know now that of the numbers associated with each player only the ones giving their distance will enter the rules of the game, the description of nature, and the remaining ones only serve us to provide a clear picture. It is this possibility to have a clear picture to the human mind, which lets us keep the additional coordinate system when we describe something in most cases.