Because there has been some talk of symmetry on this blog lately I thought that I would give an explanation of symmetry for those who really don't know (or want to know) what a Lie Group is. So this is an explanation of symmetry for the reasonably well informed, yet still baffled.
First let's start with a basic definition of symmetry. Symmetry implies a "sense of harmonious or aesthetically pleasing proportionality and balance". The key here is proportionality and balance. In other words, if you have two opposites then the amount of stuff on each side is equal. This also implies that if you turn the system around 180 degrees and look at it from the opposite side then it will still look the same.If you look at the "tree" on the left you can see that it is symmetric and if you look at it from the opposite side then it will still look the same. The other tree is asymmetric and has a definite and discernible left and right side to it. In this case we say that symmetry is broken. Again the key here in understanding symmetry is that there should be NO preference for one side over the other.
If we think of a coin toss, a "fair" coin would be perfectly symmetric and several tosses with that coin would produce even numbers of heads and tails. But with an "unfair" coin or a weighted coin, it would produce asymmetric results of heads and tails. So if we look at a large number of randomly chosen events and we detect an asymmetry then we can say that the system was predetermined to produce more of a certain result, and we claim that symmetry is broken.
So now how does this all relate to fundamental particle physics? Well, in the standard model there are three basic symmetries that determine a lot of the physics that we see. They are Charge symmetry (C-symmetry), Parity (P-symmetry) and Time symmetry (T-symmetry). I will attempt to give a simple (and comprehensible) explanation of these three symmetries.
First C-symmetry deals with the way electric charge fundamentally works. You might say that it is the basis for why opposite charges attract each other and why atoms are structured the way they are (it's actually much more complex than that but for our purposes it is adequate). The key here is that if the positive and negative charges are swapped (protons are now negatively charged and electrons are positively charged) then we would still have the same universe. That is, everything would still work the same and we would still have the same laws of physics.
But with C-symmetry there is a catch, it would seem that at some point C-symmetry must have been broken. If everything was truly symmetric for charge in our universe then why is it that, at least for 99.9999999999999999999% of known matter, the negative charge is associated with a light (not very massive) point like particle and the positive charge is associated with heavy particle of measurable size? From the looks of it, when the universe was being formed there were two possibilities for how charge could be associated with matter, and as it turned out the current configuration won out over the other. If you remember the coin toss analogy, this would seem to indicate a predisposition to one particular configuration. Which means that somehow, fundamentally, the negative charge prefers a particle like the electron and the positive charge prefers a particle like the proton. That realization can be both puzzling and insightful at the same time. Unfortunately the state of modern physics is more puzzled by it than enlightened.
The second symmetry, Parity, is also steeped in mathematical and theoretical complexities, but it too can be reduced to a simple concept. Parity is the basis for the law of conservation (i.e. conservation of energy, momentum, charge, baryon number, lepton number etc.) This particular symmetry demands that if a particle is created (such as a proton) then there must be a corresponding opposite particle with all the opposite properties (charge, spin etc.). (Note: it says more than this and there is much, much more to parity than I am describing here) But again like what happened with C-symmetry, P-symmetry also has some problems when we consider the early universe. If we look at the type of matter present in the universe we see predominately one type of matter, which would indicate that when the universe was created P-symmetry was broken.
It is interesting to note that one way to fix a break in the symmetry of P or C is to have a corresponding break in the symmetry of C or P (i.e. if we observe a break in C-symmetry then there must be a corresponding break in P-symmetry to compensate). What this means is that even if there is a C or P symmetry violation then the opposite violation of P or C preserves symmetry and thus over all CP-symmetry is preserved.
This is all fine and dandy until we find that in all cases CP-symmetry is not preserved, and this brings us to the third symmetry in the standard model, T-symmetry. T-symmetry stands for time symmetry. What T-symmetry implies is that if you reverse the flow of time then you will still have the same physics (and hence results). This symmetry shows up in two major places. First as a way of "fixing" CP-symmetry violations, much in the same way that CP-symmetry was supposed to fix C and P violations, which results in CPT-symmetry. Thus even if individual symmetries are broken, they are preserved overall through CPT-symmetry.
The second place we see a break in T-symmetry is the flow of time in our universe. On a small scale this symmetry is preserved as it makes no difference which direction time is flowing the physics is still the same (things may move "backwards" but everything still works). The problem is that on a large scale (i.e. where the number of particles is large, >10^23) then things start looking different. We find that on large scales there is a specific direction to time and it does matter if time is going forward or backwards, and the physics is different. This symmetry breaking is the source of entropy (or it may be argued that entropy is the source of the symmetry breaking).
The purpose of large scale collider experiments is to probe the high energies similar to those that were present in the early universe to observe the symmetry breakings, and to find out their origin and effect on us now. At these scales some physicists assume that there is no symmetry, others assume that there is more symmetry (supersymmetry), or that it is impossible to observe the symmetry breakings that occured in the early universe (i.e. something about our universe prevents us from probing that high of energies).
In the end what particle physicists (and theoretical physicists) are attempting to do is to figure out why our universe is the way it is, and why is it that we observe perfect symmetry for most physical processes, but when we get to extreme or special cases symmetry is broken. By answering these questions we can figure out why the universe is and works the way it does.