Friday, May 6, 2011

Internal and external space(s)

I have repeatedly discussed symmetries, and often made examples where one imagines some object, and how it looks from different perspectives. It seems surprising at first that something like a symmetry, which is looking like something belonging to the deepest properties of a system, should be so readily visible as an ordinary object. How so?

The reason for this is rather mundane, though far from obvious: There is not such a big difference between symmetries and the world around us. As a physicist, I refer to this fact as an internal and an external space.

An external space is just the world around us - length, width, height, time. It is the arena, in which physics takes place. At the same time, it exhibits symmetries. You can rotate things, and if they are symmetric, they look the same. You can choose a coordinate system, and describe things, but what happens is independent of the coordinate system. That is also a kind of symmetry: Physics is independent of the coordinate system, looking from any coordinate system everything happens in the same way. This is called a space-time symmetry. Physicists have also a more complicated name for it: They call it a diffeomorphism invariance.

Now, how is all of this related to the symmetry, say, of electromagnetism? Well, go back to the four numbers describing electromagnetism, and forget for a while that they change at different places. Then the four numbers can also be taken to describe four directions, four new coordinates, with which I can describe things. Since these coordinates are not the usual ones, it is said that these coordinates describe an internal space. Now, in these new coordinates, we can also choose a coordinate system, and physics is again the same, irrespective of our choice of coordinates. However, with this coordinate system we do not measure lengths or times, but we measure electromagnetism.

If you then combine the internal and external space, you have the total space. Each point is now characterized by eight numbers: The four conventional coordinates, and the four internal coordinates of the photon field.

The fact that we can change the internal coordinate system freely is the reason why we have four numbers, though physics only depends on two numbers: The symmetry permits to make a coordinate system choice, and this does not matter. If there would be no symmetry, there would be just one coordinate system permitted, and we could not change it.

However, even if there is a symmetry, we are not permitted to make any coordinate system choice. For example, we could in the real world, the external space, not make a choice of coordinates such that time were finite, or would make a loop. Similarly, in the internal space, one cannot make always an arbitrary choice. In fact, in the internal space of electromagnetism only coordinate systems where all coordinates do make a loop are permitted. That is one of the big differences between space and time and electromagnetism. Indeed, all the symmetries of the standard model have symmetries, which have only coordinate systems, which have loops. In fact, how one can choose a coordinate system is very hard to understand for the strong and weak force, and we actually only know for sure how to make a choice close to the point where we look at at some instance. How to make a descent choice far away from where we are right now looking is a complicated problem, and actually one of my research topics.

However, for this tourist guide, the most important point to remember is that symmetries and coordinate systems are closely related, and that the coordinate systems of the internal spaces are not so much different from that of the external space.