Throughout our readings, the concept of beauty has emerged as a universal concept. Spanning human history, significant resources have been spent to immortalize it in art. From the days of the Egyptians with their stunning hieroglyphics to the immortal statues of ancient Greece, universal standards of beauty have long been established that have stood the test of time. We also find consistent commonalities in art. For example, over the millennia, many sculptures were created with consistent mathematical patterns such as the waist-hip ratio (WHR). The WHR testifies to certain foundational standards that have been constant through time (Swami, Grant, Furnham, & Mcmanus, 2007; Fletcher, Simpson, Campbell, & Overall, 2013). Another universal standard is the concept of symmetry, which, across the ages, exists as a common theme. Architectural classics such as the Pyramids of Egypt or the Taj Mahal of India illustrate a beauty and balance which transcends time. We are starting to find out the importance of symmetry in biological systems too, as recent research has indicated the preference for facial symmetry in mate selection (Scheib, Gangestad, & Thornhill, 1999). It has been demonstrated that human beings have an innate way of detecting which potential mates may have superior genes. In order to protect the future of the species, these traits help offspring to be resistant to toxins, parasites, and disease (Scheib et al., 1999), but how do we account for our desire for certain standards of beauty? Is it just an arbitrary evolutionary accident that worked? Or is it that same power that draws us toward a masterpiece of architecture or a breathtaking sunset? Is some innate force at work that binds humankind together in a timeless desire for the perfect? Is our desire for symmetry merely a weak reflection of the very forces that bind our universe together? In this paper I plan to examine the universality of symmetry as it expresses itself in the macro-universe, the micro-universe, and the metaphysical.
Early man was fascinated with the heavens. Glancing up at the sky on a starry night evokes a feeling of awe and wonder. Many religions believe that the stars and planets were placed in the heavens and divinely inspired for “signs and seasons” (Genesis 1:14, English Standard Version). Throughout the world, the heavens were incorporated into religious activities and used for keeping track of the seasons (“Mayan scientific achievements,” 2010). Early humans observed the sun and the moon as spheres, perfectly symmetrical. It is noted that planets are not “perfect” spheres, which has a religious connotation associated with it, but they are still symmetrical (Lederman & Hill, 2004).
We now know that during the formation of the sun and planets, massive clouds of dust collapsed into symmetric protoplanetary discs. This collapse of dust is referred to as accretion, and during this process, the symmetry of the system increases till the planetary structure forms (Williams, 2010). The symmetry of the universe is not the product of millions of years of an evolutionary process, but a natural result of the innate physical and molecular forces of nature (“HubbleSite – How Do Planets Form?,” n.d.).
These planetary forces are governed by the laws of physics, and mathematics is the language of physics (Cullerne & Machacek, 2008). Perhaps one of the greatest mathematicians to ever live, and perhaps the least recognized, was Emmy Noether (Lederman & Hill, 2004). She formulated, what is now called the Noether Theorem, was eloquently described by Lederman and Hill (2004):
The theorem cleanly and clearly unites symmetry with the complex dynamics of physics and forms a basis for human thought to make forays into the inner world of matter at the most extreme energies and distances (p. 23).
In basic language, “the theorem provides us with a connection between continuous symmetries of the laws of physics and the existence of corresponding conservation laws” (Lederman & Hill, 2004, p. 97). In even simpler terms her theorem is the basis for our modern understanding of the laws of matter. All of the conserved quantities deep within all matter as we know it, “comes from a continuous symmetry lurking deep within the structure of the laws of nature” (Lederman & Hill, 2004, p. 98). Finally, Lederman and Hill (2004) state that the very “laws of physics themselves are essentially defined by symmetry principles” (p. 98). In perhaps the most simple terms, symmetry, as we know it, springs up from deep within the very fabric of matter and expresses itself within all systems. All systems. Everything from deep within the nucleus of an atom, to a sun in a galaxy on the other side of the universe.
These laws must, by definition, include us, as we are composed of remnants from an intergalactic explosion. The atoms that we are constructed of were forged in the crucible of the furnace of a star, which was subject to all the laws of physics and math. We are merely stardust. Symmetry is ever present, it permeates the entire universe, and exists as a constant theme throughout every aspect of the very structure of matter itself. I contend that even in humans, it bubbles up from deep within us to gently, innately and instinctively guide us in making life decisions in regards to mate choices. We cannot divorce ourselves from the very material we are made of. Lederman and Hill (2004) state “even the big bang even of cosmology, as far as we know, was governed by the same laws of physics that govern the formation of a raindrop over a cornfield in Kansas” (p. 65).
When we look at a face, we innately and unconsciously determine a level of beauty by a carefully crafted series of formulas based on mathematical ratios that we observe (Pallett, Link, & Lee, 2010). Other research has been done to suggest face averageness is achieved over time and is considered more beautiful (Rubenstein, Kalaknis, & Langlois, 1999). Pallett et al. (2010) suggest that these theories can coexist and work together:
We suggest that while the two theories provide different levels of explanation, they may work together to account for our preferences for the optimal length and width ratios for facial beauty. The evolutionary process predisposes us to find average length and width ratios attractive; the cognitive process prescribes what the average length and width ratios are by averaging the ratios of individual faces we have encountered to date (p. 7)
While these two theories can explain human preferences for beauty based on averageness and ratios, it doesn’t answer all of the questions. Still, exists the ultimate question of “why.” Is the why based on the very foundations of matter as we know it?
As humans, we must accept the fact that we are limited in our understanding of the universe around us. Even with all our technological advances, in the last hundred years, we do not know what eighty-five percent of the universe is made of (“Dark Energy, Dark Matter,” n.d.). With every new advance in science, we are only able to see, albeit just a little bit clearer, the shadowy images cast upon the wall of Plato’s cave (Plato, 1941). Even if we were able to free ourselves from our chains and peer upon the light outside, it is too brilliant and way beyond our limited ability to comprehend it. We are not the makers of all that is, but merely an end product and result of untold millennia of chance, chemical interactions, and of physics. As such, we are bound by the natural laws that govern all these. Our behavior in the realm of attraction and mate selection is perhaps predicated on basic laws that transcend our relatively short time on this planet. With every question answered we raise ten more unanswered ones. Perhaps the answer we will find one day is more than we have hoped for, but we continue to press on. We have demonstrated the spirit to inch slowly toward the answers, but as the physicist Stephen Hawking noted, “If we find the answer to that [why the universe is], it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God” (Hawking, 1998, p. 191).
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Mayan scientific achievements. (2010). Retrieved July 9, 2016, from http://www.history.com/topics/mayan-scientific-achievements
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