TED Conversations

Saidi Ngutu

Water, Sanitation and Environmental Engineer, Netwas International

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Why are man-made creations so symmetrical?

Why is this world so symmetrical, have you ever thought about it? Nature and all man-made things have to be symmetrical. Did 'God' have an obsession with symmetry which has translated to everything we create? Is it because our minds, symmetrical in nature, can only understand objects in symmetry?

This idea has troubled and puzzles me everywhere I turn. As i write this, my laptop, my phone the plate next to me, the bottle of coke on my table all this objects are so symmetrical yet each unique in its own way serving a different purpose. Maybe something beyond us created this universe of things so symmetrical that's why we are obsessed with perfection, thrive in order, and relate to the normal of symmetry.

I am quite new at TED and was wondering if anyone has ever explored this peculiar existence that cuts through nature and the man-made objects.

Topics: philosophy
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    Oct 19 2012: I dunno, maybe you should ask M. Mandelbrot. (What you think is symmetry isn't)
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    Oct 15 2012: Saidi,
    I believe that it is natural for humans to seek balance, so I do not agree that symmetry "cuts through nature".

    Definition of symmetrical: "having corresponding points whose connecting lines are bisected by a given point..."
    Definition of symmetry: "balanced proportions: beauty of form arising from balanced proportions".

    If we look at art, for example, we may see and experience balance (symmetry), even though the art may not be technically symmetrical. The gardens I create have NO straight lines, nor are they EVER symmetrical. They are balanced with color, shape, size and form, but never symmetrical. I create gardens to reflect nature. I don't think we ever see symmetrical lines in nature, and we DO see a great deal of symmetry/balance. You are an engineer, so surely, you understand why some man made things need to be more or less symmetrical for practical reasons?

    Because you brought "God" and "something beyond us created this universe" into this discussion, I suggest that the "idea", which " has troubled and puzzles" you everywhere you turn, is more about god and the creation of the universe, rather than the question of symmetrical.
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      Oct 15 2012: yeah you make a good point ,balance of emotion .balance of different things to do ,right ?

      i always live a life of balance , when i spend too much today ,tomorrow i will reduce it .and when i talk too much today .i will reduce my words tomorrow ,many things we need balance ,and i think life itself is a balance ,

      haha .
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        Oct 15 2012: Thanks Chen...you make a good point too!

        I think balance is good in every aspect of the life adventure. Can you think of any situation where balance is NOT useful?
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          Oct 16 2012: many many people are addicted to drugs .or someone addicted to game or else .many people in order to achieve their career ,they give up their life ,i think it is a not a balance

          we should balance all the aspects in our life ,
    • Oct 16 2012: Well your point is very clear. But I do not think it is good ida to see and seek for balance.
      I believe successful people like both symmetry and assymetry only whn they are togeather.

      For your question Can you think of any situation where balance is NOT useful?
      Yes I do. I believe many successful people do not accept that balance is useful. Because of unbalances and
      failures people learnt about real success and how to achiece it. So i think balance is not always useful.
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    Oct 20 2012: Symmetry is mans attempt to tame an otherwise chaotic Universe.
  • Oct 18 2012: In the strictest sense of symmetry, the only things which are truly symmetrical are mathematical abstractions. Real objects are made of molecules which are constantly undergoing changes in bond orientation, so the next question becomes why are we convinced of symmetry in real objects as a phenomenon.

    A common theme in psychology is that our brain employs shortcuts (heuristics) to solve problems. One of the problems that our brain has is how to represent a three dimensional reality out of sounds, light, and proprioception (the ability to sense where your body parts are without looking at them). Visual data is especially important in reaching judgments in discriminating between objects or in analyzing the features of an object, but our brain can only process a very small point of the entire visual field at any given moment, so the eyes are constantly darting here and there taking in little bits while the brain generates the perception of a whole/intact outside world.

    Perfect geometrical objects have fewer irregularities that the brain needs to process in order to form a theoretical object, so it seems plausible to me that the human tendency to create pseudo-symmetry is related to how it allows an object whose goal is aesthetic or functional to fade into the mental background more quickly than something irregularly shaped. Checking my intuitions it seems that I would notice a fallen tree in the forest more quickly than I would notice an intact tree amongst many. This can be tested, of course.

    In summary, the perception of symmetry might be an illusion derived from the brains tendency to create shortcuts and the visual simplicity of regular geometric solids results in their being less attention grabbing.
    • Oct 21 2012: I agree with your thoughts, but I'm afraid it simply begs the question. Yes, things in the universe are not really symmetrical. However, they very often are approximately symmetrical. A circle exhibits perfect symmetry, but a sinkhole does not. However, a great many sinkholes are approximately circular, so though not symmetrical, they approach symmetry fairly closely. This brings back the original author's question, why? Why should so many sinkholes be nearly circular? Why are so many animals more or less symmetrical? Why doesn't a dolphin have a wide, flat left side and a narrow, rounded right side? I don't know the answer, but I think it's a great question!

      Here's another question that may be closely related: why do so many natural objects display Fibonacci sequences? Though not symmetrical, they represent highly structured and often repeated patterns that occur for no reason that is obvious to a casual observer. Why does nature like them so much?
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        Oct 21 2012: In terms of Fibonacci, that the number of some attribute would be the sum of the two previous layers seems reasonable rather than bizarre.
  • Oct 17 2012: First off symmetry is a matter of perspective. Change the axis, no more symmetry.

    Certain things have symmetrical patterns and designs in them because they're typically more efficient to produce, put together, take apart, instruct on usage, etc.

    When it comes to things that aren't mass produced, symmetry usually takes a back seat. Art, for example, is often not symmetrical at all. There's no need for art to be more efficient, but there is a need to build houses efficiently. Artistic houses on the other hand... that's why you pay the big bucks for it.
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    Oct 16 2012: From an engineering perspective, symmetry is easier to deal with. Asymmetry - at least as it pertains to structures - is always a little more difficult and more time consuming to address.

    If you think about objects from the perspective of stability, the most stable objects / structures are symmetrical. Think of the fact that the planets are (basically) spheres. If you have ever seen salt in its natural state, its structure is cubic. Cubes, spheres, cylinders, pyramids - all stable structures.
    • Oct 16 2012: If from an engineering perspective easier to deal with, why most people do not like symmetrical objects?
      For example, houses, shopping malls etc. If something is only symmetrical why many people say it is ordinary? But when there is an assymetrical objecs with symmetrical objects people like them?
      Is it possible to say that mauntains are also called stable? What do you mean by perspectiv of stability?
      Then, how about rocks?
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        Oct 17 2012: With regard to you first question, I can only speculate. I was not aware that MOST people don't like symmetrical objects.

        I suppose asymmetry can be more interesting. And, with regard to buildings, engineering is only 1 factor. Other things come into play like architechture, aesthetics, "curb appeal", the ability to sell something interesting, etc.
        Asymmetry can be dealt with in Engineering, it's just a bit more difficult.

        I suppose mountains are stable. Roughly speaking, you might think of them like pyramids (as I mentioned above).

        By stability, I meant that natural forces are not tending to re-shape or reform the objects into another shape. For example, the planets are going to remain approximately spherical.
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    Oct 15 2012: Saidi,

    This is not unknown to artist, engineers, musicians, etc ... What you seek is Phi .. the golden ratio. Look it up and I think you will have a better appreciation for the symmetry in nature and all about you.

    I wish you 1.61803 in your life.

    All the best. Bob.
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    Oct 15 2012: Symmetry is one of the building blocks of order.
  • Oct 15 2012: In nature, efficiency is key. Maximal design, least amount of stress.
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      Oct 15 2012: Hmmmmm....efficiency, maximal design, least amount of stress....feels like balance to me:>)
      • Oct 15 2012: Yes, that is definitely another way to put it :)
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    Oct 15 2012: Many people in a variety of disciplines study symmetry. Do you think everything around you that may appear symmetric on first glance is precisely symmetric?

    Many objects are a combination of some symmetric aspects and some asymetric.

    As you asked specifically about research, research into highly creative people shows that highly creative people tend to have an aesthetic preference for asymmetric things and less creative people for more symmetric things.

    I am thinking of the great works of art I have seen in my life. Almost none of them is composed to present a symmetric image.
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    Oct 14 2012: Symmetry is in the laws of nature. It would take completely different laws of nature to change all of this natural symmetry in the universe.
    • Oct 16 2012: Your statement is very clever one. However maybe it is only science and we human beings think that symmetry is in the laws of nature. I am very sceptic about our furthest science development, because I do not think we have understood nature fully. How would you describe the development of science and human capabilities to understand Nature as symmetry? What if everything in microworld is assymetry but in macroworld we see the as symmetry ?
      With deep regards,
      Andrey
  • Oct 21 2012: The Fibonacci sequence is a particular set of numbers derived from the Fibonacci polynomial. This polynomial is a differential equation. Differential equations are used in biology to model dynamic systems (those whose rate of function changes as the function proceeds). Interestingly, the physical constraints which dictates how the rate of a biological function changes is related to the process of diffusion. All living things are composed of cells and all cells carry out internal processes which largely depend on passive diffusion (though there are internal "shuttles" for some substances).

    In summation the apparent symmetry and mathematical regularity of our natural world is due to the particular set of physical rules that our universe seems to exhibit.
  • Oct 21 2012: I think I see what you're getting at. I was focused on her examples which were artifices in which case human nature has a larger explanatory role. In calculus we have the concept of maximization and minimization to help us explain this phenomenon of natural systems approaching symmetry.

    A perfect sphere minimizes volume while maximizing surface area. This mathematical phenomenon has relevance to the observable world when we look at the shape of a bacterial cell and cells in general (I'm a microbiologist, so this was an example that came easy). Exposed surface area is important because all of the cell's metabolic processes are powered by a difference in electrical potential generated at the cell surface. Most of the chemical processes going on inside of the cell rely on diffusion. The greater the volume of a system the more potential paths there are for a single particle to travel. Therefore, greater volume means that the rate of diffusion is lessened. Minimizing volume means the cell can carry out its metabolism efficiently. Maximizing surface area means the most amount of space is dedicated to energy production. Constraints imposed by the nature of the physical universe and the tendency for perfect geometrical shapes to either maximize or minimize values would explain the abundance of near symmetrical objects.

    For multicellular organisms sphere comes into play again. Most organisms we think of are bilaterally symmetrical. This is a consequence of the nature of embryological development and the various physical constraints. Diffusion and spheres come into play again as cells communicate with and coordinate their development into an organism. Based on the passive diffusion of chemical signals to one another the blank stem cells form into the various cells of tissues. Since diffusion is three dimensional the signals go left and right from a central population of cells. The result is that the organism ends up with mirroring left and right sides.
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    Oct 21 2012: I can think of several reasons, depending on what the object is. For example, I would expand symmetry to include parallel. If you see parallel lines in perspective you can easily see the symmetry axis (think railroad tracks).

    From there we can expand to rhyme. Rhyme is the repetition of key elements (e.g. ending) of sequential lines (of poems), but given some rhythm and the rhyme, they become parallel and symmetrical. Look at how this has been ritualized in typesetting for poetry.

    We are symmetrical to a greater degree, and we enjoy symmetrical faces, so there is some cognitive bias on that.

    Finally, suppose you are designing a thing, say a chest. Balance has been repeated often in previous commentaries, symmetry guarantees balance above any other construct. But let's assume you are the designer. You have designed the left part and proven it is useful and safe. Then you copy-paste + flip-horizontally + match corresponding edges, and erase the shared wall. Your finished work is beautiful, fast, proven, and balanced. How else could you attain those attributes for the finished product without symmetry?

    As for assymmetry, that can be beautiful too. We humans love surprises, especially humorous ones !
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    Oct 18 2012: Would you associate symmetry with rational thought and something amorphous or abstract with emotional thought?

    I'm reading a book on Aspergers/Autism, and these guys tend to be highly logical and tend to be fascinated by symmetry and things that resemble clockworks (like windmills).
  • Oct 17 2012: symmetry tends to speed up process. asymmetry tends to slow down process. cheers to balance.
  • Oct 16 2012: I think te answer deeply tied with how our bodies work and its anatomical structue also to keep balance in nature..
    You said that even your laptop is symmetrical, I think it is because of what our eyes are accostumed to. Say in your lapop was assymetrical, and the screen is assymetrical in that case your eyes cannot persieve right imag to send information to your brain.
    Your said the bottle of coke is also symmetrcal. Well now look to your palm, and ask next question. IF the bottle of coke had say was bumpy, and odd???
  • Oct 16 2012: In nature symmetries exist in systems with lots of energy, so we are hardwired to take interest in them.
    Symmetrical systems have very low entropy, which implies a considerable amount of stored energy. what we call beauty or balance is just the rhetoric the nervous system has created to help us deal with these complex systems.
    In terms of man made design, putting aside all the cases where symmetry is necessary for function, symmetry is simply used as a way to get our brain to pay attention.
    • Oct 16 2012: Great answer.
      But I have a question? So you are saying that everything we like is because of energy in things we like? Does that mean that what I like is not the actual thing, but the structer of energy stored in an object?
      I would appriciate your answer lopo.
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    Oct 15 2012: because we human beings are symmetrical . and we all like to build someting similar to ourselves .

    and .now we have build something different .and we have The imperfect beauty.and ther forms .so i think with our concept development ,we will build more different ,
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    Oct 15 2012: Hi Saidi.
    Things that we manufacture are mostly symmetrical because they are cheaper & easier to make that way. The more we delve into the nano machinery of biology, the more we see similar engineering. Could be that the 'Master Engineer' found the same benefits in symmetry that we are finding today.
    That said, not everything is symmetrical. Trees, clouds, mountains, rivers etc appear to be produced somewhat differently.
    Funny how in our bodies we have two of most things, but there is still a symmetry about the parts we only have one of.

    :-)
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    Oct 15 2012: Esthetics. Over all generations for millions of years we've learned to appreciate characteristics within nature that predict health with food or life. It has to be symmetrical, without spics or spots unless they form regular patterns and shows no distortions or broken parts. The colors we appreciate reflect the same way nature displays to us in its blooming state and not so as it decays.
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    Oct 15 2012: It's cheaper. Nature is cheap.
    • Oct 15 2012: I would use the word; efficient. Nature is efficient. Maximal design, least amount of stress.
      • Oct 21 2012: Actually, nature (I assume you are referring to evolution), does not adhere to any principles of maximal design. Evolution follows the fitting or design of an organism by whatever meets the minimum requirements of a threshold. It doesn't design based on what could or should be feasibly seen as 'optimal'. Just a little clarification.