According to Nobel laureate Phil Anderson, “It is only slightly overstating the case to say that physics is the study of symmetry.” The word “symmetry” comes from the Greek, synnetria, meaning “Agreement in dimensions, due proportion, arrangement.”
I’ve chosen this theme for contemplation because, somewhere along the line, having gotten into the habit of noticing symmetries and associating them with the aesthetic sensibilities of harmony, proportion, and balance—touchstones in my everyday thinking and doing. Symmetry sightings have been increasing over the past several days, so I thought I would put in writing—and share—some of my experiences with to them.
Whenever I’m made aware of something symmetrical, whether in a garden or grocery store, on a digital clock or distant highway, I experience a little A-ha!, a twinge of harmony. I’ve come to think of it as a sort of attunement to the fundamental patterning of the universe. The experience seems to say to me, “What you’re thinking or doing in this moment is in harmony with your purpose—and all is well.” I reached this conclusion because, over the course of many years, the feeling that “all is well” occurred consistently in association with sightings of symmetry. These subtle experiences are rarely talked about, yet imagination and pattern recognition are among the features that distinguish us from other members of the animal kingdom.
This is not to say that symmetry is the only or even primary arrangement of the universe. It’s not. Asymmetry, for instance in many trees and the solar system, is the other side of the coin—and just as significant.
To show the pervasiveness of symmetry and help us know where to look, I offer the following domains.
Accounting: (Balance sheets)
Aesthetics: (Symmetry in faces has been shown to be physically attractive)
Architecture: (Every civilization. Cathedrals, temples, mosques, pyramids, White House)
Art: (Pottery, jewelry, quilts, sand-paintings, carpets, furniture, masks)
Biology: (The DNA spiral. Bilateral animals: humans, plants, starfish, sea urchins)
Chemistry: (Symmetry underlies all specific interactions between molecules in nature)
Communities: (Certain suburbs, streets, city grids)
Consciousness: (Yin/Yang. Logic: If Paul is as tall as Karen, Karen is as tall as Paul)
Food: (Fruits and vegetables cut in half are all symmetrical)
Games: (Chess, Chinese Checkers, Playing Cards, Hop-Scotch, Jump-Rope)
Geometry: (Drawings and transformations, scaling, reflection, rotation)
Language: (The words—“Mom” “Dad” “Pop” “Nun”)
Mathematics: (Algebraic equations. Even and odd functions in calculus)
Music: (Canons, permutations, invariance, pitch, scales)
Nature: (Rainbows, raindrops, leaves, sand dunes. beehives, bird, birds, insects, reptiles)
Physics: (The symmetries of the laws of physics determine the properties of particles)
Roads: (Right & left lanes, cloverleafs, tunnels, overpasses)
Social Interaction: (Reciprocity, empathy, dialog, respect, justice, revenge)
Spatial relationships: (Vertical or horizontal. The photograph of the above train tressel)
Time: (Expressed in numbers: 9:09am , 10:10pm, 6:36pm, 1:41am, 3:33pm)
Transportation: (Cars, trucks, trains, airplanes)
It is the harmony of the diverse parts, their symmetry, their happy balance; in a word it is all that introduces order, all that gives unity, that permits us to see clearly and to comprehend at once both the ensemble and the details.
About This Image
Whenever I examine a contact sheet made from negatives and come across an image that has strong lines of light, I explore the possibility of making a symmetrical image. The original negative of this photograph, obviously made by available light at night, only contains half the image that you see. Cover the right half of the photograph and that’s what the original, un-manipulated photograph looked like.
To make this new image, I exposed the same negative to one piece of paper twice. The first exposure had the tressel on the left. With this piece of paper tucked away in a lightproof box, I removed the negative from the enlarger carrier and turned it over. Then I drew the brightest lines of the tressel onto a piece of scrap paper in the easel. With this, I could align the image so together, the lines would be symmetrical. Getting the alignment and exposures correct required several trials, but finally, it turned out the way I wanted. The location was 3rd Street in Cincinnati, Ohio.
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