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The Science of Symmetry and Why We’re Drawn To It

Why do we set up cubicles the way we do? Why do we build buildings with equidistant pillars that rise from the ground? Why is physical beauty tied to symmetry?

In an essay called The Symmetrical Universe, Alan Lightman, American physicist, writer, and author of The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew, explores why we as humans are drawn to symmetry, and more importantly, how we can understand this pattern in our lives by first studying nature.

Lightman begins with a theory of why there is so much symmetry in the natural world:

Symmetry leads to economy, and nature, like human beings, seem to prefer economy. If we think of nature as a vast ongoing experiment, constantly trying out different possibilities of design, then those designs that cost the least energy or that require the fewest different parts to come together at the right time will take precedence, just as the principle of natural selection says that organisms with the best ability to survive will dominate over time.

For example, why do bees build hives made of hexagons instead of another, more “organic,” shape? Lightman states that there’s a mathematical truth for geometrical figures: equilateral triangles, squares, and hexagons are the only geometrical shapes that can lie on a flat surface and have no gaps. As the bees build their honey-filled, symmetrical hexagons, there is no wasted space between the compartments. “Gaps would defeat the principle of economy,” said Lightman. And the principle of economy hinges on efficiency and order—if there were gaps, it would be more difficult for the bees to do diligent work.

This is also why our brain creates habits—to expend less energy and run on autopilot. It’s why our minds are hardwired for biases, stereotypes, and self-delusions—quick judgments based on our memories allow for easier decisions versus sitting there and contemplating the pros and cons.

Connecting the complexities and similarities of the natural world and human nature can be difficult to grasp, but a useful starting point is in understanding the impact it has on our minds as humans.

Photo cred: The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/01/an-mit-physicist-makes-god-the-main-character-of-his-novel/251938/

Photo cred: The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/01/an-mit-physicist-makes-god-the-main-character-of-his-novel/251938/

Lightman expounds [emphasis mine]:

 Why do we human beings delight in seeing perfectly round planets through the lens of a telescope and six-sided snowflakes on a cold winter day? The answer must be partly psychological. I would claim that symmetry represents order, and we crave order in this strange universe we find ourselves in. The search for symmetry, and the emotional pleasure we derive when we find it, must help us make sense of the world around us, just as we find satisfaction in the repetition of the seasons and the reliability of friendships. Symmetry is also economy. Symmetry is simplicity. Symmetry is elegance.

This makes sense when considering the fact that our nervous system—and ultimately our nature—is hardwired to organize chaos into order. We humans are storytellers because stories are a way for us to find meaning in seemingly meaningless things.

Perhaps our love for symmetry and how it appeals to our senses is no mystery at all, but the fact that we make it a mystery is rooted in our inability to connect the evolution of our species to the evolution of the universe.

Perhaps we are all the same stuff. After all, our minds are made of the same atoms and molecules as everything else in nature. The neurons in our brains obey the same physical laws as planets and snowflakes. Most important, our brains developed out of nature, out of hundreds of millions of years of sensory response to sunlight and sound and tactile connection to the world around our bodies. And the architecture of our brains was born from the same trial and error, the same energy principles, the same pure mathematics that happens in flowers and jellyfish and Higgs particles. Viewed in this way, our human aesthetic is necessarily the aesthetic of nature.

The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew is a deeply enriching read on the questions, both philosophical and emotional, that arise out of recent scientific discoveries. Lightman shares the various theories of how our universe came to be and how this molded the human species. He does it with grace and humility, arriving at a point that is existentially difficult to accept: what we understand of the world is perhaps a mere fraction of what is seemingly an unfathomable, yet beautiful, accident.