Yin-ed but not quite Yang-ed or is it vice versa?

The Left Hand of the Electron


I received a letter yesterday which criticized my writing style. It complained, 'you avoid the poetic to the extent that when a cryptic, glowing, "charged" phrase occurs to you, I'd be willing to bet that you deliberately put it aside and opt for a clearer but more pedestrian one.'

All I can say to that is that you bet your sweet life I do. As all who read my volumes of science essays must surely be aware, I have a dislike for the mystical approach to the universe, whether in the name of science, philosophy, or religion. I also have a dislike for the mystical approach to literature.

I dare say it is possible to evoke an emotional reaction through a 'cryptic, glowing, "charged" phrase' but you show me a cryptic phrase and I'll show you any number of readers who, not knowing what it means but afraid to admit their ignorance, will say, 'My, isn't that poetic and emotionally effective.'

Maybe it is, and maybe it isn't; but a vast number of literary incompetents get by on the intellectual insecurity of their readers, and a vast number of hacks write a vast quantity of bad 'poetry' and make a living at it.

For myself, I manage to retain a certain amount of intellectual security. When I read a book that is intended (presumably) for the general public and find that I can make neither head nor tail of it, it never occurs to me that this is because I am lacking in intelligence. Rather, I reach the calmly assured opinion that the author is either a poor writer, a confused thinker, or, most likely, both.

Holding these views, it is not surprising that I 'opt for a clearer but more pedestrian' style in my own writing. For one thing, my business and my passion (even in my fiction writing) is to explain. Partly it is the missionary instinct that makes me yearn to make my readers see and understand the universe as I see and understand it, so that they may enjoy it as I do. Partly, also, I do it because the effort to put things on paper clearly enough to make the reader understand, makes it possible for me to understand, too.

I try to teach because whether or not I succeed in teaching others, I invariably succeed in teaching myself.
Yet I must admit that sometimes this self-imposed task of mine is harder than other times. Continuing the exposition on parity and related topics begun in Chapter 1 is one of the harder times, but then no one ever promised me a rose garden, so let's continue.

The conservation laws are the basic generalizations of physics and of the physics aspects of all other sciences. In general, a conservation law says that some particular overall measured property of a closed system (one that is not interacting with any other part of the universe) remains constant regardless of any changes taking place within the system. For instance, the total quantity of energy within a closed system is always the same regardless of changes within the system and this is called 'the law of conservation of energy'.

The law of conservation of energy is a great convenience to physicists and is probably the most important single conservation law, and therefore the most important single law of any kind in all of science. Yet it does not seem to carry a note of overwhelming necessity about it.

Why should energy be conserved? Why shouldn't the energy of a closed system increase now and then, or decrease?
Actually, we can't think of a reason, if we think of energy only. We simply have to accept the law as fitting observation. The conservation laws, however, seem to be connected with symmetries in the universe. It can be shown, for instance, that if one assumes time to be symmetrical, one must expect energy to be conserved. That time is symmetrical means that any portion of it is like any other and that the laws of nature therefore display 'invariance with time' and are the same at any time.

In a rough and ready way, this has always been assumed by mankind - for closed systems. If a certain procedure lights a fire or smelts copper ore or raises bread dough on one day, the same procedure should also work the next day or the next year under similar conditions. If it doesn't, the assumption is that you no longer have a closed system. There may be interference from the outside in the form (mystics would say) of a malicious witch or an evil spirit, or in the form (rationalists would say) of unexpected moisture in the wood, impurities in the ore, or coolness in the oven.

If we avoid complications by considering the simplest possible forms of matter - subatomic particles moving in response to the various fields produced by themselves and their neighbors - we readily assume that they will obey the same laws at any moment in time. If a system of subatomic particles were to be transferred by some time machine to a point in time a century ago or a million years ago, or a million years in the future, the change in time could not be detected by studying the behaviour of the subatomic particles only. And if that is true, the law of conservation of energy is true.

Of course, invariance with time is just as much an assumption as the conservation of energy is, and assumptions may not square with observation. Thus, some theoretical physicists have speculated that the gravitational interaction may be weakening in intensity very slowly with time. In that case, you could tell an abrupt change in time by noting (in theory) an abrupt change in the strength of the gravitational field produced by the particles being studied. Such a change in gravitational intensity with time has not yet been actually demonstrated, but if it existed, the law of conservation of energy would be not quite true.

Putting that possibility to one side, we end with two equivalent assumptions:
(1) energy is conserved in a closed system, and
(2) the laws of nature are invariant with time.
Either both statements are correct or both are incorrect, but it is the second, it seems to me, that seems more intuitively necessary to us. We might not be bothered by having a little energy created or destroyed now and then, but we would somehow feel very uncomfortable with a universe in which the laws of nature changed from day to day.

Consider, next, the law of conservation of momentum. The total momentum (mass times velocity) of a closed system does not vary with changes within the system. It is the conservation of momentum that allows billiard sharps to work with mathematical precision. There is also an independent law of conservation of angular momentum, where circular movement about some point or line is considered.)

Both conservation laws, that of momentum and that of angular momentum, depend on the fact that the laws of nature are invariant with position in space. In other words, if a group of subatomic particles is instantaneously shifted from here to the neighborhood of Mars, or of a distant galaxy, you could not tell by observing the subatomic particles alone that such a shift had taken place. (Actually, the gravitational intensity due to neighboring masses of matter would very likely be different, but we are dealing with the ideal situation of fields originating only with the particles within the closed system, so we ignore outside gravitation.)

Again, the necessity of invariance with space is more easily accepted than the necessity of the conservation of momentum or of angular momentum. Most other conservation laws also involve invariances of this sort, but not of anything that can be reduced to such easily intuitive concepts as the symmetry of space and time. -Parity is an exception.

In 1927, the Hungarian physicist Eugene P. Wigner showed that conservation of parity is equivalent to right-left symmetry.
This means that for parity to be conserved there must be no reason to prefer the right direction to the left or vice versa in considering the laws of nature. If one billiard ball hits another to the right of center and bounces off to the right, it will bounce off to the left in just the same way if it hits the other ball to the left of center.

If a ball bouncing off to the right is reflected in a mirror that is held parallel to the original line of travel, the moving ball in the mirror seems to bounce off to the left. If you were shown diagrams of the movement of the real ball and of the movement of the mirror-mage ball, you could not tell from the diagrams alone, which was real and which the image. Both would be following the laws of nature perfectly well.

If a billiard ball is itself perfectly spherical and unmarked it would show left-right symmetry. That is, its image would also be perfectly spherical and unmarked, and if you were shown a photograph of both the ball itself and the image, you couldn't tell which was which from the appearance alone. Of course, if the billiard ball had some asymmetric marking on it, like the number 7, you could tell which was real and which was the image, because the number 7 would be 'backward' on the image.

The trickiness of the mirror-image business is confused because we ourselves are asymmetric. Not only are certain inner organs (the liver, stomach, spleen, and pancreas) to one side or the other of the central plane, but some perfectly visible parts (the part in the hair, as an example, or certain skin markings) are also. This means we can easily tell whether a picture of ourselves (or some other familiar individual) is of us as we are or of a mirror image by noting that the part in the hair is on the 'wrong side', for instance.

This gives us the illusion that telling left from right is an easy thing, when actually it isn't. Suppose you had to identify left and right to some stranger where the human body could not be used as reference, to a Martian who couldn't see you, for instance. You might do it by reference to the Earth itself if the Martian could make out its surface, for the continental configurations are asymmetric, but what if you were talking with someone far out near Alpha Centauri.

The situation is more straightforward if we consider sub- atomic particles and assume them (barring information to the contrary) to be left-right symmetric, like perfecfly spherical unmarked billiard balls. In that case if you took a photograph of the particle and of its mirror image, you could not tell from the appearance alone which was particle and which mirror image.

If the particle were doing something toward our left, then the mirror image would be doing the equivalent toward our right. If, however, both the leftward act and the rightward act were equally possible by the laws of nature, you still couldn't tell which was particle and which was mirror image. -And that is precisely the situation that prevails when the law of conservation of parity holds true.

But what if the law of conservation of parity is not true under certain conditions. Under those conditions, then, the particle is asymmetric or is working asymmetrically; that is, doing something leftward which can't be done rightward, or vice versa. In that case, you can say, 'This is the particle and this is the image. I can tell because the image is backward (or because the image is doing something which is impossible).'

This is equivalent to recognizing that a representation of a friend of ours is actually a mirror image because his hair part is on the wrong side or because he seems to be writing fluently with his left hand when you know he is actually right-handed.

When Lee and Yang (see Chapter 1) suggested that the law of conservation of parity didn't hold in weak nuclear interactions, that meant one ought to be able to differentiate between a weak nuclear event and its mirror image.
-And one common weak nuclear event is the emission of an electron by an atomic nucleus.

The atomic nucleus can be considered as a spinning particle, which is symmetrical east and west and also north and south just as the Earth is). If we take the mirror image of the particle (the 'image-particle'), it seems to be spinning in the 'wrong direction', but are you sure? If you turn the image-particle upside down, it is then spinning in the right direction and it still looks just like the particle. You can't differentiate between the particle and the image-particle by the direction of its spin because you can't tell whether the particle or the image-particle is right side up or upside down. As far as spin is concerned, an upside-down image-particle looks just like a right-side-up particle.

Of course, a spinning particle has two poles, a north pole and a south pole, and to all appearances we can tell which is which. By lining the particle up with a strong magnetic field we can compare the direction of the particle's axis of rotation with that of the Earth and identify the north and south pole. In that way we could tell whether the particle was right side up or upside down.

Ah, but we are using the Earth as a reference here and the Earth is asymmetric thanks to the position and shape of the continents. If we didn't use the Earth as reference (and we shouldn't because we ought to be able to work out the behavior of subatomic particles in deep space far from the Earth) there would be no way of telling north pole from south pole. Whether we considered spin or poles, we couldn't tell a symmetrical particle from its mirror image.

But suppose the particle gives off an electron. Such an electron tends to fly off from one of the poles, but from which? Suppose it could fly off from either pole with equal ease. In that case, if we were dealing with a trillion nuclei giving off a trillion electrons, half would fly off one pole and half off the other. We could not distinguish one pole from the other and we still couldn't distinguish the particle from the image-particle.

On the other hand, if the electrons tended to come off from one pole more often than from the other, we would have a marker for one of the poles. We could say, 'Viewing the particle from a point above the pole that gives off the electrons, it rotates counter-clockwise. That means that this other particle is actually an image-particle, because viewed in that manner it rotates clockwise.'

This is exactly what should be true if the law of conservation of parity does not hold in the case of electron emission by nuclei.
But is it true? When atomic nuclei (trillions of them) are shooting off electrons, the electrons come off in every direction equally - but that is only because the nuclear poles are facing in every direction, in which case electrons would shoot off in all ways alike whether they were coming from one pole only or from both poles equally.

In order to check whether the electrons are coming from both poles or from one pole only, the nuclei must be lined up so that all the north poles are pointing in the same direction. To do this, the nuclei must be lined up by a powerful magnetic field and must be cooled to nearly absolute zero so that they have no energy that will vibrate them out of line.

After Lee and Yang made their suggestion, Madame Chien-Shiung Wu, a fellow physics professor at Columbia University, performed exactly this experiment. Cobalt-60 nuclei, lined up appropriately, shot electrons off the south pole, not the north pole.

In this way, it was proven that the law of conservation of parity did not hold for weak nuclear interactions. This meant one could distinguish between left and right in such cases, and the electron, when involved in weak nuclear interactions, tended to act leftward rather than rightward, so that it can be said to be 'left-handed'.

The electron, which carries a unit negative electric charge, has another kind of 'image'. There is a particle exactly like the electron, but with a unit positive electric charge. It is the 'positron'.
Indeed every charged particle has a twin with an opposite charge, an 'antiparticle'. There is a mathematical operation which converts the expression that describes a particle into one that describes the equivalent antiparticle (or vice versa). This operation is called 'charge conjugation'.

As it happens, if a particle is left-handed, its antiparticle is right-handed, and vice versa.

Observe then, that if an electron is doing something left-handedly, its mirror image would seem to be an electron doing it right-handedly, which is impossible - and the impossibility would serve to distinguish the image from the particle.

On the other hand, if you employed the charge conjugation operation, you would change a left-handed electron into a left-handed positron. The latter is also impossible and this impossibility would serve to distinguish the image from the particle.

In weak nuclear interactions, then, not only does the law of conservation of parity break down, but also the law of conservation of charge conjugation.*

* Both conservation laws are true in strong nuclear interactions, however. In strong nuclear interactions, not only are leftward and rightward equally natural at all times, but anything a charged particle can do, the oppositely charged antiparticle can also do.

However, suppose you not only alter the right-left of the electron by imagining its mirror image, but also imagine that at the same time you have altered the charge from negative to positive. You have effected both a parity change and a charge conjugation change. The result of this double shift would be the conversion of a left-handed electron into a right-handed positron. Since left-handed electrons and right-handed positrons are both possible, you cannot tell by simply looking at a diagram of each, which is the original particle and which the image.

In other words, although neither parity nor charge conjugation is conserved in weak nuclear interactions, the combination of the two is conserved. Using abbreviations we say that there is neither P conservation nor C conservation in weak nuclear interactions, but there is, however, CP conservation.

It may not be clear to you how it is possible for two items to be individually not conserved, yet to be conserved together. Or (to put it in equivalent fashion) you may not see how two objects, each easily distinguishable from its mirror image, are no longer so distinguishable if taken together.

Well, then, consider-
The letter b, reflected in the mirror is d. The letter d, reflected in the mirror is b. Thus, both b and d are easily distinguished from their mirror images.
On the other hand, if the combination bd is reflected in a mirror, the image is also bd. Both b and d are individually inverted and the order in which they occur is inverted, too. All the inversions cancel and the net result is that although b and d are altered by reflection, the combination bd is not. (Try it yourself with printed lower-case letters and a mirror.)

Let's point out one more thing about left-right reflection. Suppose the solar system were reflected in a mirror. If we observed the image, we would see that all the planets were circling the Sun the 'wrong way' and that the Moon was circling the Earth the 'wrong way', and that the Sun and all the planets were rotating on their axes the 'wrong way'.

If you ignored the asymmetry of the surface structure of the planets, and just considered each world in the solar system to be a featureless sphere, then you could not tell the image from the real thing from their motions alone. The fact that everything was turning the 'wrong way' means nothing, for if you observe the image while standing on your head, then everything is turning the 'right way' again, and in outer space there is no way of distinguishing between standing 'upright' and standing 'on your head'.

And certainly the gravitational interaction, which is the predominant factor in the solar system's working, is unaffected by the reversal of right and left. If all the revolutions and rotations in the solar system were suddenly reversed, gravitational interactions would account for the reversed motions as adequately and as neatly as for the originals.

But consider this-
Suppose that we didn't use a mirror at all. Imagine, instead, that the direction of time reversed itself. The result would be like that of running a movie film backward. With time reversed, the Earth would seem to be going 'backward' about the Sun. All the planets would seem to be going 'backward' about the Sun, and the Moon to be going 'backward' about the Earth. All the bodies of the solar system would be spinning 'backward' about their axis.

But notice that the 'backward' that takes place on reversing time, is just the same as the 'wrong way' that takes place in the mirror image. Reversing the direction of time flow and mirror-imaging space produce the same effect. And there is no way of telling from observing the motions of the solar system alone whether time is flowing forward or backward. This inability to tell the direction of time flow is also true in the case of subatomic reactions (T conservation).*

* We can tell the direction of time flow under ordinary conditions easily enough because of entropy-change effects. This produces the equivalent of an asymmetry in time. Where entropy change is zero, however, as in planetary motions and subatomic events, T is conserved.

Or consider this-
An electron moving through a magnetic field pointing in a particular direction will veer to the right. The positron, with an opposite charge, would, when moving in the same direction through the same magnetic field, veer to the left. The two motions are mirror images, so that in this case the shift from a charge to its opposite also produces the same effect as a left-right shift.

Or suppose we reverse the direction of time flow. An electron moving through a magnetic field may veer to its right, but if a picture is taken of the motion and the film is reversed and projected, the electron will seem to be moving backward and, in doing so, will veer to its left. Again, time flow and left-right symmetry are connected.

It would seem then that charge conjugation (C), parity (P), and time reversal (T) are all rather closely related and all somehow connected with left-right symmetry. If, then, left- right symmetry breaks down in weak nuclear interaction with respect to one of these, the symmetry can be restored with one or both others.

If a particle is doing something leftward, and its image is doing something rightward, which is impossible (so that the image can be spotted through a breakdown in P con- servation), you can reverse the charge on the image-particle and convert the action into a possibility. If the action is impossible even with the reversed charge (so that the image can be spotted through a breakdown in CP conservation), you can reverse the direction of time flow, and then you will find the action is possible. In other words, there is 'CPT conservation' in the weak nuclear interaction.*

* Actually, there was some indication in recent years that CPT is not invariably conserved in weak nuclear interactions and physicists have been examining the possible consequences in rather perturbed fashion. However, all the returns don't seem to be in here and we'll have to wait and see.

The result is that the universe is symmetrical, as it has always been thought to be, with respect to strong nuclear interactions, electromagnetic interactions and gravitational interactions.
Only weak nuclear interactions have been in question and there the failure of the law of conservation of parity seemed to introduce a basic asymmetry to the universe. The broadening of the concept to CPT conservation restored the symmetry - but only in theory.

Does CPT conservation actually present us with a symmetrical universe in practice? As far as P (parity) is concerned, there is an equal supply of rightness and leftness in the universe. As far as T (time reversal) is concerned, there is also an equal supply of pastness and futureness. But where C (charge conjugation) is concerned, symmetry in practice breaks down.

The most common subatomic particles to be involved in weak nuclear interactions are the electron and the neutrino. For symmetry to exist in practice, then, there should be equal supplies of electrons and positrons and equal supplies of neutrinos and antineutrinos. This, however, is not so.

Certainly on Earth, almost certainly throughout our Galaxy, and, for anything we know to the contrary, throughout the entire universe, there are vast numbers of electrons and neutrinos, and hardly any positrons and anti- neutrinos.

The universe then - at least our universe - or at the very least our section of our universe is electronically left-handed and that may have had an interesting effect on the development of life.

In order to explain that, I must change the subject radically, however, and make a new start. That I will do in the next chapter.

The Left Hand of the Electron





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The Left Hand of the Electron File Info: Created 14/8/2001 Updated 13/1/2014 Page Address: http://leebor2.100webspace.net/Zymic/l-hand2.html