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Physics > Symmetry

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Symmetry is a characteristic of geometrical shapes, equations and other objects; we say that such an object is symmetric with respect to a given operation if this operation, when applied to the object, does not appear to change it. The three main symmetrical operations are reflection, rotation and translation. A reflection "flips" an object over a line, inverting it as if in a mirror. A rotation rotates an object using a point as its center. A translation "slides" an object from one area to another by a vector. Even more complex operations on a geometric object, like shrinking or shape warping, can be reduced to the operation of translation of every point within the object. Symmetry occurs in geometry, mathematics, physics, biology, art, literature (palindromes), etc.

Although two objects with great similarity appear the same, they must logically be different. For example, if one rotates an equilateral triangle around its center 120 degrees, it will appear the same as it was before the rotation to an observer. In theoretical euclidean geometry, such a rotation would be unrecognizable from its previous form. In reality however, each corner of any equilateral triangle composed of matter must be composed of separate molecules in separate locations. Symmetry therefore, is a matter of similarity instead of sameness. The difficulty for an intelligence to differentiate such a seemingly exact similarity might be responsible for the mild altered state of consciousness one gets by observing intricate patterns based on symmetry.

Symmetry in physics

The generalisation of symmetry in physics to mean invariance under any kind of transformation has become one of the most powerful tools of theoretical physics. See Noether's theorem for more details. This has led to group theory being one of the areas of mathematics most studied by physicists.

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