Saturday, September 2, 2017

Golden Asymmetry

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A hundred years before I was born, Louis Pasteur wrote that the difference on Earth between things that have life and things that don’t is like the difference between a static photograph and a dynamic one:

“Most natural organic products, the essential products of life, are asymmetric and possess such asymmetry that they are not superimposable on their image,” he wrote. “This establishes perhaps the only well-marked line of demarcation that can at present be drawn between the chemistry of dead matter and the chemistry of living matter.”

When you compose an image on your screen or in your viewfinder, you notice that simply moving the center of interest away from the center turns a static (dead) scene into a dynamic (living) one. We think about, or maybe intuit, the “rule of thirds” when making a composition, but a more useful concept might be the “golden ratio” which does not draw a perfect circle, a perfect symmetry that ends where it begins, but a dynamic spiral with endless possibilities. 

As science has learned only recently, the universe itself exists due to an asymmetry between the matter and antimatter that were created together at the beginning of time. In those first moments of creation, matter and antimatter could have annihilated each other, but for some still-unknown reason they didn’t. Instead, about one in a billion particles of matter escaped to become the world we know and love.

Instead of going out in the crazy heat to shoot pictures I've been reading The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean. That's where I learned that life itself also depends on asymmetry, or what chemists call chirality. Kean led me to the Louis Pasteur quotation above, which in turn led me to wonder if science has figured out yet how life got started in the first place. Apparently it has not.

“If you think about the physical world, it is not at all obvious why you don’t just make more dead stuff. Why does a planet have the capability to sustain life? Why does life even occur? The dynamics of evolution should be able to address that question. Remarkably, we don’t have an idea even in principle of how to address that question….” – Physicist Nigel Goldenfeld in Quantamagazine.

It’s kind of fascinating to draw a line from a universe where matter got a foothold due to asymmetry, to a planet where life got a foothold due to asymmetry, to a time when human beings would roam the earth and find beauty in asymmetry, in a golden ratio that perhaps reflects an archetype of consciousness that’s as deep as Creation itself.

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