Why symmetry is so fundamental to our understanding of the universe

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The symmetries of matter are deeper and alien than they first appear, and they person driven galore of nan biggest breakthroughs successful particle physics. But person we exhausted their usefulness?

By Michael Brooks


Shutterstock/Mariia Tagirova

YOU mightiness retrieve learning astir symmetry astatine school. Maybe a coach showed you a snowflake’s six-fold symmetry and you marvelled astatine really it looked nan aforesaid nary matter really you rotated it. Well, it turns retired that nan wonders of symmetry spell a full batch deeper – arsenic immoderate mathematician who has studied it will show you.

“Instead of being thing visual, which is what I responded to arsenic a child, it became thing overmuch much absurd and linguistic successful nature,” says Marcus du Sautoy, a mathematician astatine nan University of Oxford. “The knowing of symmetry I person now is truthful overmuch deeper and stranger, and it gives maine entree to symmetries that are truthful overmuch much exotic than thing you tin spot pinch your eyes.”

For mathematicians, a symmetry is simply a type of invariance – erstwhile thing remains unchanged nether immoderate benignant of transformation, specified arsenic flipping it aliases rotating it. That sounds elemental enough, but, arsenic du Sautoy suggests, astir symmetries spell beyond what is evident to a casual observer.

Consider antimatter, which is what you get erstwhile positively charged particles go antagonistic and vice versa. If nary important effects occur, past nan strategy progressive has complaint symmetry. The laws of physics arsenic we understand them propose that the very early beingness should person had adjacent amounts of matter and antimatter and past instantly annihilated itself. The truth that this didn’t hap intends location was nary complaint symmetry successful nan newborn beingness – knowing why is 1 of nan biggest tasks successful physics.

Matter’s symmetries aren’t conscionable a laundry database of things that are invariant nether immoderate change, however. They tin subordinate to each different successful ways …