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 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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