Skip to content →

Broken Symmetries in Physics and Politics

Symmetry is supposed to be aesthetically beautiful, in newborn babies and in beautiful people, though sometimes a slight asymmetry is charming and attractive.

In physics one used to look always to find the greatest symmetry between different forces in the universe. Electricity and magnetism was made symmetric by Maxwell, electrons and positrons, and positive and negative energy, by Dirac

In the late 1960s physicists discovered that underlying symmetries in forces can be hidden by the fact that some part of the world they operate in — the vacuum in physicist lingo — is stable only in an asymmetric configuration, and that this asymmetry then conceals the underlying beauty. Thus, weak and electromagnetic interactions are roughly cognate, their equivalence masked by the asymmetry of the vacuum and revealed only at high enough energies. Maybe this isn’t the end of the story and is more of a workaround than the truth, but it seems to work.

Human beings have a deep antipathy to moral asymmetry. Even monkeys refuse treats they would normally like when they see other monkeys getting better treats.

Today’s New York Times articles and columnists refer to many issues that are characterized by asymmetries that are large and not charming or attractive at all.

Among them:

* The asymmetry between the treatment of China and (say) Cuba — one of them has money and has to be treated with respect — despite their political correspondences. As Thomas Friedman nicely says, never cede a century to someone who censors Google.

* The asymmetry between the treatment of investment banks’ bad risks and the treatment of individual investors’ bad risks. No amount of talk can conceal the link between connection, power and treatment.

* The asymmetry slowly becoming apparent between Obama’s speeches and his capacity to turn them into action.

Total symmetry is boring — everyone likes a bit of variation — but it has to be limited. The nice thing about broken symmetry in physics is that the underlying symmetry is still visible when you look hard enough. That’s not the case in the political arena, where the harder you look the more asymmetry you see.

Published in blog