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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English: Quake epicenters. Română: Epicentre a...
English: Quake epicenters. Română: Epicentre ale cutremurelor produse în intervalul de ani 1963–1998. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week’s subject pretty much suggested itself. There I was, sitting at my desk, and suddenly I felt this rolling, shaking sensation. Well, I feel it every time a truck goes past, but this time the shaking continued and it became apparent that this was an earthquake. It measured 6.6 on the earthquake scale and was the biggest one I can remember for a long time. Fortunately we were not at the epicentre and no one was killed. Those living close to the epicentre had a rougher time than we did and many houses were damaged, though only one appears to have been severely damaged.

(Note: Images in this post are not from the Wellington earthquakes that I am talking about in this post).

Since we are prone to earthquakes here the children in school are drilled in what to do when an earthquake strikes. I particularly like the idea expressed by one child that “earthquakes cause salamis”. (See the second video on the page that is linked to above.)

Earthquake Drill
Earthquake Drill (Photo credit: Benjamin Chun)

The previous earthquake happened when I was at home. Instinctively my wife ran for the door. I equally instinctively rushed to stop the TV from toppling! It’s funny what you do in an emergency.

Luckily no one was seriously hurt in the earthquakes though people in lifts (elevators) and at the top of high buildings were shaken about a bit. Apparently lifts (elevators) are designed to stop moving if there is a big quake.

In the city nothing much was damaged, although a lift (elevator) shaft which was damaged in an earlier quake is scheduled to be removed and one ‘lane’ (pedestrian access between buildings) in the city centre was taped off by authorities. Last time there was a certain amount of damage but nothing significant, though people were sent home so that the buildings could be checked. A rugby test match between New Zealand and Australia may be cancelled. That’s classified as a Big Thing round here.

Footbridge over Avon river following both Sept...
Footbridge over Avon river following both September and February earthquakes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All in all, people have taken the earthquake in their stride, though news pictures showed some people who appeared to be in shock. The one injury that I heard of was one woman who tried to dive under her desk and missed cracking her head against it. I saw a picture of two girls hiding under a desk with a bottle of wine. That’s apparently what they had been doing all afternoon. One guy texted from the airport and said that he would be glad to get up into the air. (As it happens the airport stopped flights in and out for a while, but they soon caught up with the backlog).

Naturally people wanted to go home to be with their families and to check that their houses had not been damaged. This led to the roads out of and around the city becoming gridlocked. I didn’t want to get caught up in that so I hung around until just before the time that rush hour usually happens  and my trip home was in fact easier than usual. I did wonder what would happen if a significant earthquake or after shock happened while I was travelling at 100kph on the motorway! Also, there is a part of my route that lies under a motorway bridge, and there was a chance that I’d get stuck at the traffic lights. Fortunately they were showing green so I did not have to stop under the heavy concrete spans of the motorway. That would have been scary.

Footbridge over Avon river following both Sept...
Footbridge over Avon river following both September and February earthquakes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The thing about earthquakes is that you don’t know how powerful they are going to be. You don’t know if it is going to be a jiggle and a roll or whether it is going to rip the building apart underneath you. I find them scary and exhilarating. After one is over people are often more relaxed than before it, and gather to exchange news and ‘war stories’. At least, that is so in the earthquakes that I have so far experienced. But they have been relatively benign.

Unfortunately this was not true nearer the epicentre where almost all the houses had some damage, though no serious injuries have been suffered and no fatalities have happened.

Wellington office after earthquake.