This post is in response to Emergence research: Just how did matter become mattering? by Jeremy E Sherman

The bittersweet sad intense pain of missing a place, a person, a crew, a time.

What's with that? How does that happen? Here's a take on it you probably haven't heard before.

I'll start way back with the big bang.  If everything was all concentrated and homogeneous at the origin, how did our universe ever get so lumpy, with separate things like stars and planets, you and me? The 2008 Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to scientists who identified the source as broken symmetry. A first pass explanation of their idea is simple. 

You know how you can easily balance a broomstick on the palm of your hand? If it's centered, symmetrically upright, it tends to stay there. But if it tips asymmetrically toward one direction, then it becomes increasingly difficult to balance. The symmetry was broken. The tipped get tippier.

The butterfly effect is the most familiar version of this.  Remember it? Conceivably a butterfly's wings flapping could lead to major shifts in weather patterns.  People latched onto that idea as evidence of uncertainty and the potential for miracles. We like ideas that suggest that life has chutes-and-ladder-like qualities, so it's not just stepwise plodding. It gives us hope of rag-to-riches leverage but also allows that if we don't end up fulfilling our ambitions we have an explanation that makes it not our fault: "I tried, but life has surprising shoots and I fell down one." 

Shoots and ladders aside, the butterfly effect is really about broken symmetry, how a little thing can start a big thing.  How just as a slight tip can cause the broomstick to fall or how a shout can cause an avalanche. Think of it also as the way a meteorite passing the earth could fall under our gravitational influence, being taken off course. The closer it gets to the earth, the stronger the earth's gravitational pull.  That's broken symmetry too.

With the big bang everything flew apart. It would have flown apart evenly but the tiniest little micro-variation got things tipping. Not falling over as like the broomstick but comparable. The universe got lumpy by the same basic process that made our moon. The moon formed when a meteor hit the earth kicking up an enormous dust cloud. Imagine that the dust started out almost evenly distributed, but little variations caused the gravitational pull in some regions to be greater than in others.  The dense grew denser. And now most of that dust is concentrated in that great lump of green cheese. A little difference in distribution causes a big difference in concentrations. Broken symmetry explains seperateness and difference.

There's broken symmetry in thought and culture too. You meet someone, fall under their gravitational influence, start hanging out, fall further.  For good or ill--it could be the love of your life or a heroin dealer.  Either way a little tipping becomes a lot. And these days we're rarely tipped in just one direction. In ancient tribal days, you could be born into a tribe that tipped you strongly into its ways there, in the tribe you would stay for all your days. Now, we're under diverse influences.  You move a thousand miles to be with your new partner, but miss your old town and people. You design your whole life around a job you love and then they lay you off and you have to find a new place to orbit.

Broken symmetry implies something really fundamental about the universe but also about your life.  If the universe is lumpy, then this notion that we are all one and that everything is connected needs to be refined.  We are all one but some of us are more one than others of us.  Everything is connected but not equally.  There are plenty of people who have negligible influence on you.  They are off in their own lumpy region under their own influences.  They're not part of your tribe and therefore are different from you.  But then you happen to meet. You've been on independent pages a long time so you start out on different pages. But vive la difference, you like each other.  Being with each other you start to influence each other.  But lumpy life that it is, you're not just under their influence.  You've got other influences operating on you from before and they still tug.  So you miss what you had even while your drawn into what you're having.  We are all planets under changing influences falling in with some and tearing away from others.  Something like that.

There's more to this story of course.  In particular I'll want to say more about influence. How does influence happen?  For that we get into another one of these new scientific concepts:  Constraint propagation.

Click here for free subscription to Jeremy's e-newsletter or podcast

Be sure to read the following responses to this post by our bloggers:

You are reading

Ambigamy

Why Do People Cherry-Pick Which Science They Accept?

It’s not just the science-denier's fault. It’s also science’s Achilles’ heel.

The Happy Healthy Pornosexual

My friend Dave and his alternative lifestyle

The High Cost of Receptivity

As if any of us can afford an easy-open mind.