Symmetry, reality's riddle

On the 30th of May, 1832, a gunshot was heard ringing out across the 13th arrondissement in Paris. (Gunshot) A peasant, who was walking to market that morning, ran towards where the gunshot had come from, and found a young man writhing in agony on the floor, clearly shot by a dueling wound. The young man's name was Evariste Galois. He was a well-known revolutionary in Paris at the time. Galois was taken to the local hospital where he died the next day in the arms of his brother. And the last words he said to his brother were, "Don't cry for me, Alfred. I need all the courage I can muster to die at the age of 20." It wasn't, in fact, revolutionary politics for which Galois was famous. But a few years earlier, while still at school, he'd actually cracked one of the big mathematical problems at the time.And he wrote to the academicians in Paris, trying to explain his theory. But the academicians couldn't understand anything that he wrote. (Laughter) This is how he wrote most of his mathematics. So, the night before that duel, he realized this possibly is his last chance to try and explain his great breakthrough. So he stayed up the whole night, writing away, trying to explain his ideas. And as the dawn came up and he went to meet his destiny, he left this pile of papers on the table for the next generation. Maybe the fact that he stayed up all night doing mathematics was the fact that he was such a bad shot that morning and got killed. But contained inside those documents was a new language, a language to understand one of the most fundamental concepts of science -- namely symmetry. Now, symmetry is almost nature's language. It helps us to understand so many different bits of the scientific world. For example, molecular structure. What crystals are possible, we can understand through the mathematics of symmetry. In microbiology you really don't want to get a symmetrical object, because they are generally rather nasty. The swine flu virus, at the moment, is a symmetrical object. And it uses the efficiency of symmetry to be able to propagate itself so well. But on a larger scale of biology, actually symmetry is very important, because it actually communicates genetic information. I've taken two pictures here and I've made them artificially symmetrical. And if I ask you which of these you find more beautiful, you're probably drawn to the lower two. Because it is hard to make symmetry. And if you can make yourself symmetrical, you're sending out a sign that you've got good genes, you've got a good upbringing and therefore you'll make a good mate. So symmetry is a language which can help to communicate genetic information. Symmetry can also help us to explain what's happening in the Large Hadron Collider in CERN. Or what's not happening in the Large Hadron Collider in CERN. To be able to make predictions about the fundamental particles we might see there, it seems that they are all facets of some strange symmetrical shape in a higher dimensional space. And I think Galileo summed up, very nicely, the power of mathematics to understand the scientific world around us. He wrote, "The universe cannot be read until we have learnt the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles and other geometric figures,without which means it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word." But it's not just scientists who are interested in symmetry. Artists too love to play around with symmetry. They also have a slightly more ambiguous relationship with it. Here is Thomas Mann talking about symmetry in "The Magic Mountain." He has a character describing the snowflake, and he says he "shuddered at its perfect precision, found it deathly, the very marrow of death." But what artists like to do is to set up expectations of symmetry and then break them. And a beautiful example of this I found, actually, when I visited a colleague of mine in Japan, Professor Kurokawa. And he took me up to the temples in Nikko. And just after this photo was taken we walked up the stairs. And the gateway you see behind has eight columns, with beautiful symmetrical designs on them. Seven of them are exactly the same, and the eighth one is turned upside down. And I said to Professor Kurokawa, "Wow, the architects must have really been kicking themselves when they realized that they'd made a mistake and put this one upside down."And he said, "No, no, no. It was a very deliberate act." And he referred me to this lovely quote from the Japanese "Essays in Idleness" from the 14th century, in which the essayist wrote, "In everything, uniformity is undesirable. Leaving something incomplete

How many symmetries does a Rubik's Cube have? How many things can I do to this object and put it down so it still looks like a cube? Okay? So I want you to think about that problem as we go on. So. But if I had to choose one building in the world to be cast out on a desert island. But I wanted to try and enrich him. You see it already. which my family love. And the power of mathematics is often to change one thing into another. This is my son Tamer. But let's go back down to symmetries that I got for these two objects. What can you do to a symmetrical object. Immediately you go in. do they have the same symmetries? Can we say whether they discovered all of the symmetries in the Alhambra? And it was Galois who produced a language to be able to answer some of these questions. put it back down again. And this is the same idea. move it in some way. So here is a little question for you. So. It looks like it did before it started. Recently I took my family -. And there will be a prize for the person who gets closest at the end. pick it up. and put it down again. and fix them at the yellow place. And if you open your eyes again. the reflective symmetry in the water. What can I do to the starfish which makes it look the same? Well. It seems mad to talk about nothing. I can rotate by a third of a turn clockwise or a third of a turn anticlockwise. What Galois realized: it isn't just the individual symmetries. for Galois. so it looks the same as before you moved it? I like to describe it as the magic trick moves.D. but how they interact with each other which really characterizes the symmetry of an object. I think one of the problems about school mathematics is it doesn't look at how mathematics is embedded in the world we live everything has symmetry. But it's the motion that really characterizes the symmetry inside the Alhambra.the combination is a third magic trick move. Now. So I'm going to take you through. symmetry was all about motion. I wanted to open his eyes up to how much symmetry is running through the Alhambra. this object has six symmetries. This is a palace celebrating symmetry. And here we see Galois starting to develop a . Can anybody think what else I could do to this which would leave it like I did before I started? I can't flip it because I've put a little twist on it. seventh century A. or the line through Z. And what about the triangle? Well. What is symmetry? When [there] are two of these walls. Actually.I can take all of these tiles. you wouldn't know that they'd moved.. So. So. and count how many symmetries there are. The Rubik's Cube. haven't I? It's got no reflective symmetry. or put it back down on its image. This is a symmetrical . for example. I would probably choose the Alhambra in Granada.unlike for Thomas Mann. I'm a great believer that mathematics is not a spectator sport. which enables us to capture what is symmetry.push you a little bit to understand how this language works. the walls in the Alhambra -.makes it interesting. and you have to do some mathematicsin order to really understand brace yourselves -. or a half a turn. And a fifth symmetry. Five symmetries and then of course the zeroth symmetry where I just pick it up and leave it where it is.For Galois. where you just leave it where it is. But now this has some reflectional symmetry. there I rotated it by a sixth of a turn. The Moorish artists were denied the possibility to draw things with souls. Now." Even when building the Imperial Palace. I can reflect it in the line through X. let's take these two symmetrical objects here. But it's on the walls where all the exciting things are happening. And I'm going to give a prize at the end of my talk for the person who gets closest to the answer. I can rotate it by five sixths of a turn. they always leave one place unfinished. I do something. Let's take the twisted six-pointed starfish.we do these rather kind of nerdy mathematical trips. And so what is symmetry? The Alhambra somehow asks all of these questions. And for Galois this was like the zeroth symmetry. So they explored a more geometric art. What can you do to something? You close your eyes. If I do one magic trick move followed by another. which was something still and deathly --for Galois. So both of these objects have six symmetries.I could rotate it by a third of a turn. or two thirds of a turn. perhaps push you a little bit mathematically -. to live the rest of my life. to change geometry into language. and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth. But what I could do is just leave it where it is. the invention of the number zero was a very modern concept. being an addict of symmetry. put them all back down again and they fit perfectly down there. And those are things that I can do to the symmetrical object that make it look like it did before I started. or the line through Y. by the Indians. symmetry -. rotate them by 90 degrees. and still it looks like it did before I started. there was actually a sixth symmetry. You can see he's really enjoying our mathematical trip to the Alhambra. But it's also about producing a language to describe this.

there are actually only 17different symmetries that you can do in the walls in the Alhambra. It's almost like little Sudoku tables. the triangle ends up somewhere completely different. there was a sixth of a turn. and reflect in the line through X. are the names for the rotations. The people and the chairs are very different. Here are two very different walls. the answer is it's rotation D. And it's a symmetry we call 6-3-2.So rotate along halfway along the edge. later on. Now. Now. They all look very different. And the half a turn is halfway between the six pointed stars. You can prove. Well. followed by the rotation by a third of a turn anticlockwise. and one by half a turn. let's take this beautiful wall with the triangles with a little twist on them. it doesn't make any difference. I think this is an amazing development. B. We're not matching up the colors. we can understand that the underlying abstract symmetries of these things are actually the same.language to see the substance of the things symmetries interact. the combined effect is as if I had just rotated it by half a turn in one go. So what if I do B. This is a wall. let's move to the very different-looking wall in the Alhambra. It's almost like the concept of number being developed for symmetry. What I if I did it in the other order? Would it make any difference? Let's see. Galois has produced a language to say that in fact the symmetries underlying these are exactly the same. and the same interaction. Let's do the third of the turn first. followed by a third of a turn. two. Let's see what happens if we do two symmetries with the triangle. which we call 4-4-2. I've got one. and the picture will be facing in the opposite direction.The combined effect. Take a beer mat and rotate it by a quarter of a turn. he was able to say that there are in fact only two objects with six symmetries. and they all match up. or the symmetries of the six-pointed starfish. Now. So the little table here records how the algebra of these symmetries work. then flip it. And although these walls look very different. And all the tiles match up again. a ceiling. and then a third of a turn? So I've given names. using those rules. but because of the fact that there are two places where you can rotate by a quarter of a turn. F. And there is some symmetry here in the way the symmetries interact with each other. And you can try this when you go down to the pub. and a floor. And then do it in the other order. the sort of abstract idea of the symmetry underlying this physical object. A. this power of the language is even more. You don't see any symmetry twice in any row or column. E.And. what if I turn the starfish by a sixth of a turn. one after the other. for example. three people sitting on one. A third of a turn where the Z pieces meet.we've now got a language to distinguish why these symmetries are fundamentally different. Nothing to do with football. and everything matches up. I do one followed by another. So why shouldn't we saythey have the same symmetries? But the way the symmetries interact enable us -. using Galois' language. where I can rotate by 180 degrees. For example. B. two. It's as if it was reflected in the line through Y. Here is another example in the Alhambra. And we find the same symmetries here. which is a third of a turn? Well let's do that. rotates the little yellow dot to the B on the starfish. And this enables us to distinguish why the symmetries of these objects -. In the front here. And we can see this now: we go back to the walls in the Alhambra. A sixth of a turn. But this language allows us to say that they are representations of the same symmetrical abstract object. But this is completely different to the symmetries of the triangle. Let's do a rotation by a third of a turn anticlockwise. let's do it in a different order. Now it matters what order you do the operations in. but the number. the abstract idea of the number. followed by C. if you try to produce a different wall with this 18th one. But the shapes match up if I rotate by a sixth of a turn around the point where all the triangles meet. And then there is an interesting place halfway along an edge. And so on. What about the center of a triangle? I can rotate by a third of a turn around the center of the triangle. Galois produced some laws for how these tables -. So. Now. But.For example. . "Did the Moorish artists discover all of the possible symmetries on the walls in the Alhambra?" And it turns out they almost did. And they. because Galois can say. It still ends up at half a turn. C.they both have six symmetries. And they'll be the same as the symmetries of the triangle. The capital letters. very different geometric pictures. is the same. it will have to have the same symmetries as one of these 17. the combined effect is as if I had just done the reflection in the line through Z to start with. D. You can rotate them by a sixth of a turn if you ignore the colors. using the language of Galois. three chairs. and then the sixth of a turn.Let's do the reflection in X first. Of course. which is a sixth of a turn. half a turn.

spell it for me. I want you to count how many digits there are in that number.It's all the unanswered questions which make mathematics a living subject. okay? If you think you've got an estimate for how many digits. And I will always come back to this quote from the Japanese "Essays in Idleness": "In everything. Great. If I could have my board at the side here. So you can't have that one. there we go. I have a project raising money for a charity in Guatemala.but this mathematical object will live forever. you've got to sit down. Five or less digits. like Galois. SO2 has already been used. Okay. But here is the language which describes how the symmetries interact. because you've underestimated. Well. And this thing -.we've already got one competitor here. how many digits do you have in your number? (Laughs) 21. up again. all the way through to the four. for a donation to this charity to help kids get into education in Guatemala. which the power of mathematical language allows you to create. Unfortunately.or five. So now I need to name this object. Now. beyond the twodimensional. in the mathematical language. So I'm going to give you the chance to get your name on a new symmetrical object which hasn't been named before. Okay? If I told you 20 or less. So. Rather than you all shouting out. You've overestimated. So it goes to this lady here.But these are things that we can see. In order to win this symmetrical object. who sat down during the 20. I create mathematical objects.or infinite-dimensional space. And that's where I work. That should get us going. Excellent. Because this one. 20 digits or less. Okay. I think there were a few here. Here we are. (Applause) . Okay? If you've got it as a factorial. and I've got a picture of it here. I want you to stand up." Thank you. Anybody with five or less digits. are those things which are not seen. I can't show you a picture of this symmetrical object. That's your new symmetrical object. as a mathematician. And the power of Galois' mathematical language is it also allows us to create symmetrical objects in the unseen world. G-H-E-Z No. five. actually.the number of symmetries in the Rubik's cube has 25 digits. It actually has -. great. (Laughter) Let's have the other ones. in very high dimensional spaces. sit down. this new symmetrical object does not have a name yet. So Ghez. How many symmetries does a Rubik's Cube have? Okay. you've got to sit down. the things that we haven't discovered. on craters on the moon or new species of animals. right -. So. you've got to expand the factorials. If you all stay down he wins it automatically. Now.species die away. How many do you have in yours? 18. uniformity is undesirable. what is your name? I need your surname. And I think what drives me. stand up. So. So I think it's a great example of things unseen. using Galois' language. and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth. It will make you immortal. six. where I will stay up all night and devise an object for you. How many digits are there in your number? Two? So you should have sat down earlier. 21 is the closest. I'm going to sort you out. Excellent. people like getting their names on things. Okay good. and moons kind of get hit by meteors and explode -. So we've got four here. The people who just last sat down. Okay. excellent. Symmetrical objects generally -. I stayed up all last night creating a new mathematical symmetrical object for you. what you have to do is to answer the question I asked you at the beginning. now if you want to play. You are now immortal. symmetrical objects. (Applause) And if you'd like your own symmetrical object. unfortunately it isn't really a picture. All right. if you're in the tens of thousands you've got to sit down. three-dimensional. 60 digits or more. Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting.