Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Perfect Asymmetry

After my previous post, this interesting RadioLab was brought to my attention (thank you, Leah):  http://www.radiolab.org/2011/apr/18/

In this episode, the hosts are exploring different aspects of symmetry, including Aristophanes' theory of symmetry in love.  He, through Plato's Symposium, told the story of our original forms, before Zeus split us all into two, and fated us to spend our lives looking for our other half.  If you read my previous post, you can see why Leah would have brought this episode to my attention.  I have been, after all, trying to understand why we feel so immediately attached to some people, while others pass through our lives almost unnoticed. 

But for every philosophical explanation there is also a scientific one, which the RadioLab hosts go on to explore.  They briefly discuss the possibility that our connection to others comes from similar brain patterns, but this neurological theory is too new, and too unexamined to provide many answers.  And so, they decide (naturally) to go all the way back to the beginning to try to find the roots of symmetry. 

What they find is that all life, indeed all matter, is purely asymmetrical.  In fact, without asymmetry we would all cease to exist.  And that is just about the coolest thing ever as far as I am concerned. 

Immediately after the Big Bang, the energy (a whole incredible lot of it) in the universe was so hot that it basically flew apart in two directions: particles and antiparticles.  (For a more scientific explanation, see my source: http://www.slac.stanford.edu/pubs/beamline/26/1/26-1-sather.pdf)  Now, if the universe was perfectly symmetrical, each particle would have an antiparticle.  As the universe cooled and these two halves came back together, they canceled each other out.  "Poof!" So, here you can already see where symmetry is actually a problem.  If the universe, immediately following the Big Bang, had actually been symmetrical then it would have ceased to exist; all the particles that could have become matter would have been annihilated by their symmetrical, antimatter counterparts. 

But we're here, and so is the Earth, all the stars, trees and birds and oceans and Dunkin Donuts.  It is all here because the universe and the very particles that make up matter as we know it are asymmetrical.  When those early bundles of energy split into matter and antimatter, they didn't split evenly.  For each 1 billion antiparticles, there were 1 billion + 1 particles. 

Okay, just stop and think about that for a second.  Think about EVERYTHING that is out there, made of matter (again, that is everything) and then be awestruck by the theory that it was all created from 1 extra particle of matter out of every billion that was destroyed by its antiparticle twin.  If you are really thinking about this, your brain should be doing something every similar to what the universe did at the moment of its birth: exploding. 

Since that moment, all living things have continued to be profoundly asymmetrical.  You should listen to the podcast for a better explanation, but essentially all living things are made up of matter that favors the left.  (Yes, even Republicans.)  Example: smile.  The left side of your face smiles more than your right side.  All naturally occurring molecules are built towards the left.  When scientists monkey with them and engineer molecules that are built towards the right, they are fundamentally different life forms that develop.  Caraway seeds (this is the example in the podcast, under the section "Mirror, Mirror") that are engineered to be right-sided taste like spearmint, not rye.  And that is just one example.  Several other harmless plants and compounds become poisonous when reversed.  All of this just points to the unexpected realization that symmetry is not ideal, but is in fact likely to destroy us. 

So, going back to Aristophanes.  If life--to begin and to continue--must be asymmetrical, why are we always searching for symmetry?  Theories of human attraction state that our brain favors faces that are highly symmetrical.  Look around at architecture, landscaping, and the way you have things set up on your desk: your brain likes balance and symmetry.  Things that have those qualities are aesthetically appealing to us, while asymmetrical buildings just look, well, weird.  (Think about some of the buildings that MIT has built on Vassar Street.)  Even the two hemispheres of our brains are not true mirror images, and there is some neurological evidence that we each favor one side more than the other (although this is open to debate at any time; email me).  So why are we always trying to create the balance that would, on a cosmic level at least, be our undoing? 

And more importantly, how does any of this rambling attempt at understand quantum physics get us any closer to understanding why we "click" with some people and not with others?  Obviously, it can't be as simply as symmetry.  In fact, it would seem that the more symmetrical of a relationship we have, the more likely it is to implode and take both people with it.  (Hey--we have all been there.)  Maybe the answer to the "click" lies in the asymmetry of the relationship.  The universe began with a very specific ratio, 1billion:1billion+1.  So, maybe that is what we are all really looking for, not just our other half, but also our extra particle.  The person out there who has everything we have, plus that extra little bit of energy that makes us, well, matter.  

1 comment:

  1. I think you are forgetting Freud, KK, as well as senior project Love and Death drives are closely related. The premise of an asymmetrical universe and then our desire to seek symmetry (the very thing that could destroy us) makes sense: we enjoy living dangerously. We sort of can't help ourselves. Besides, from a psychological perspective, in a world of asymmetry, finding our closest match, perceived or not, would lend a certain perspective of ourselves which we may not otherwise have without the antithesis.

    But that was a very cute literary stitch you used at the end of your post to tie everything together. Applause! :::: clapping ::::



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