Swings and roundabouts – a question of balance

The nature of precision

The nature of precision (Photo credit: Sergei Golyshev)

People are urged to strive for a “work/life balance”. This apparently implies that they are spending too much time working and not enough time going sky-diving, spear-fishing or taking the kids to the zoo. I doubt that it is ever phrased in this way to someone who is arriving at work at 8:45am and leaving at 4:45pm, having had a two hour lunch break.

Work-Life Balance

Work-Life Balance (Photo credit: Tanja FÖHR)

It is good advice in an era when a person may officially work 40 hours per week, but may actually work many more than that. In these days of smartphones and tablets it is often hard to keep work and home lives separate, and in many detective dramas on TV it is frequently made into a joke – the detective comes home, chats to his wife, his cellphone rings and he has to go and investigate a dead body. His wife is shown feeding his meal to the dog.

Of course some people, particularly high flyers, I think, thrive on the sort of life where they are never off duty. As Dogbert explains in his master class to the Pointy Haired Boss and the CEO, famous leaders work 16 hours a day and use their spare time reading about their industry. The PHB and CEO don’t like this so Dogbert asserts that famous leaders eat a lot of cake. Presumably the spouses of high flyers are the sort of people who are happy with the situation where their partners are never off duty.

The LEXUS LS600hL - Offical Vehicle of Chief E...

The LEXUS LS600hL – Offical Vehicle of Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In general balance is taken to be a good thing and something to be strived for. We are exhorted to maintain a life balance, to ensure that the balance of nature is not disturbed and so on. (Balance my life? I can’t even balance my chequebook!) On closer inspection however, it can be seen that a balance is an unnatural state of affairs and is basically unstable, and that in many cases the imagined state of balance just does not exist.

Everyone knows the piece of playground equipment  called a teeter-totter or see-saw. In physical terms the see-saw is a lever and fulcrum system. It only really works for playing on if the two children on the two ends are pretty much the same weight. If one of the kids is significantly heavier than the other the see-saw fails to function and rests in a stable state with the heavier kid rooted to the ground and the lighter one high in the air. If the heavier kid hops off the see-saw rapidly moves to another stable state, with the lighter child on the ground and the empty end in the air. No doubt tears ensue.

A Golden Retriever going over a teeter-totter ...

A Golden Retriever going over a teeter-totter at an agility competition. Edited (cropped) by Pharaoh Hound (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If the kids are the about the same size there is still no single balance point. In physics terms, any position of the see-saw is now a stable point, but any displacement results in the see-saw swinging to one extreme or the other. Without an extension to the model physics can’t say what happens then!

A balance point in physics is unstable, as a small displacement to either side result in the system getting further and further from the balance point. It’s like a snowball balanced on a mountain top – a small shove and it keeps rolling faster and faster. True there is a point in the valley below where the snowball comes to rest and where a small displacement results in the snowball returning to the bottom, but this is not what I would call a balance point. To a physicist both are “equilibrium points” and what I have called a “balance point” is an unstable equilibrium point, while the bottom of the valley is a stable equilibrium point. To a physicist the “balanced” see-saw would actually be a “neutral equilibrium”.

Česky: Příklad vratké rovnovážné polohy.

Česky: Příklad vratké rovnovážné polohy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what sort of equilibrium is a “work/life balance”? It’s not a stable equilibrium since that would imply that the “work/life balance” would return to the starting point after a small displacement. That’s not the point of a work/life balance – we would hope that things would change for the better. Neither is it a neutral equilibrium since that would imply no effective change. Like a change of job but no change in life or work practises. If it were an unstable equilibrium that would imply that a small change would lead to more and more change and that would not be what was desired. Consequently I would not categorise a “work/life balance” as any sort of equilibrium, but I am playing with words a bit here!

Equilibrio instabile

Equilibrio instabile (Photo credit: uomoelettrico)

But most people are not physicists and it is obvious what is meant by the phrase – work less, play more, separate work from home, and so on. All good advice. I have a bigger issue with things like “the balance of nature”. Is there any such thing?

Well, “balance” implies stability and nature is not stable. It is a dynamic system, and because of that, any state is unlikely to be long-term. For instance, a mutation or environmental change may lead to a species rising to prominence. A later mutation or environmental change may result in yet another species displacing the latest dominant species and becoming prominent. The same applies to groups of species and the dinosaurs would be the most obvious example.

Dinosaur track

Dinosaur track (Photo credit: mcdlttx)

Also, the idea of balance implies some sort of reversibility. If a system strays from the balance point it should, in theory, be able to return to that balance point. In the case of “nature” or rather, what might be loosely called “systems of nature” there is no balance point to return to as any change, say the decimation of a species, allows other species to expand and maybe dominate the system. If the decimated species were to rebound, it would have to displace the newer species that have taken its niche. That said, there have been cases where a group of species have been reintroduced into an area and the ecology has “regenerated” and the result looks much like what was originally in the area.

regenerating kanuka

regenerating kanuka (Photo credit: Mollivan Jon)

Some, maybe most, of these regenerated areas are fragile and need constant tending by enthusiasts or they will change away from the regenerated state, maybe by invasions of plants and animals from elsewhere. That is not a reason to not bother with conservation – it’s merely a recognition that a regenerated state is not usually natural and that a lot of work is required to maintain the regenerated state.

Male Bellbird, Zealandia wildlife sanctuary. W...

Male Bellbird, Zealandia wildlife sanctuary. Wellington, New Zealand. Māori: Korimako (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One example of a regenerated area is Zealandia, a reserve in Wellington, New Zealand, of which I am a supporter. The reserve is only maintained in its regenerated state by an army of volunteers and a predator-proof fence. Nevertheless Zealandia is a wonderful place to visit where it is possible to see many species of animals and plants which are rare outside the reserve.

English: Lower Karori Reservior, looking North...

English: Lower Karori Reservior, looking North-East. Taken by Neil Leslie, Waitiangi Day 2006. Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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