Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Exploiting Symmetry


Physics students would be familiar with the phrase “assume a spherical cow“. In many problem sets for my electromagnetic class, one had to assume symmetry in the environment to be able to use some calculus trick or to have some hairy terms cancel each other out. If I were already having a bad day, having to assume symmetry yet again made me think, “what am I doing this for?” because the world is rarely symmetric, and pure symmetry didn’t seem to agree with my aesthetic.

I learned later on that my love of asymmetry (from lopsided haircut to composition of my photos) was rooted in my culture. Japanese paintings apparently influenced the European artists where after the World Exposition in Paris, there was a boom of asymmetric layouts of portraits and landscapes.

Yet research shows that people find beauty in symmetry, where scientists and philosophers used symmetry to guide their search for the truth, while people found mates with more symmetric features to be desirable. My own hero(ine), Emmy Noether discovered the connection between symmetries and conservation laws, which laid the foundations for modern physics (supersymmetry and the Grand Unified Theories).

What if we assumed symmetry existed not only in our physical world but in our behaviors and actions? We clap at the beginning of a concert and we clap at the end. Japanese people bow at the beginning of a meeting then end it with another bow. There is some beauty in an action that marks a beginning and then an ending.

Could we improve our lives if we established symmetry where none/little existed? I like the fact that there is a protocol to begin and end a meal in Japan: slight bow with hands together with the phrase “itadakimasu” (literally, I shall receive) before eating, our version of bon appetit, and “gochisousamadeshita” (read this post for the deeper meaning of this phrase) at the end of the meal. There is no set phrase for the ending of the meal in the U.S. In Denmark, the phrase “tak for mad” (thank you for the food) is expected at the end of the meal.

When the teacher walked in the room, we stood up and greeted the teacher; when the teacher left the room at the end of class, we stood up and thanked the teacher. (Yes, I went to a strict high school…I realize this is not a symmetry observed in most schools.) We push a button to turn on something, we push it again to turn it off. My grandmother used to say, you open a drawer with your right hand, you close it with your left (a metaphor for needing to close open loops and the need to establishing symmetry). They say cooling down is just as important as warming up when exercising.

We begin the day with an alarm clock. Would our lives be better if we had an alarm clock to signal our end of the day? Gretchen Rubin, who writes about keys to happiness, thinks so.

Are there more symmetries we can be installing!?  I’m not sure saying bon repas (good meal) at the end of the meal when you start it with bon appetit would stick, but that’s a natural symmetry we can codify (as other cultures have been practicing). Our business culture expects a lengthy orientation or on-boarding process with our employees. Would having a respectful termination process make sense?

Wedding party-divorce party? Ok, some things are better left asymmetric. But I now realize that my appreciation of asymmetry comes from the fact that many things are naturally symmetric and it’s my way of thinking outside the box (because if there were no box, you can’t think outside it). So, in looking for symmetries where they don’t seem to exist, is some sense my way of celebrating asymmetry.






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This entry was posted on April 14, 2016 by in Art, Culture, Denmark, Japan, Science and tagged , , , .
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