I Believe In Symmetry

Why are we attracted to things that have perfect symmetry, that match up on either side? It might have something to do with the way our brains are wired.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: The internet is full of dumb debates (as we all know), but a recent iPhone/Android argument took the cake for a lot of people. This week, iMore editor-in-chief Rene Ritchie made the argument that Samsung's Galaxy S6 phone was a worse phone than the iPhone because, unlike Apple's device, the alignment of its ports was off. No, really. He suggested that it was a sign of shoddy craftsmanship. "Because once you know the back of the fence wasn't painted, not only can you never un-know it, you can never stop wondering what else wasn't given that same care and consideration," Ritchie argued in is post. But does he have a point? Today, we talk symmetry. Things are about to align. — Ernie @ Tedium

Marcus du Sautoy

According to this guy, the world runs on symmetry

Marcus du Sautoy has made a career out of highlighting just how awesome math, and more specifically symmetry, is.

In 2009, the Oxford University mathematician and professor did a TED talk on the reach symmetry truly has. It was the extension of his book on the topic, and it was a conversation that struck a chord for many.

"Now, symmetry is almost nature's language," he exclaimed during the talk. "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."

Over the years, he's extended this to to discuss topics like making education exciting, why music sounds appealing to our ears, and how science works. Ultimately, his point is that symmetry builds the logic on which the world is built around, even if it's not immediately obvious.

"It's a language that embodies much of science," du Sautoy toldHaaretz in 2010. "Symmetry deals with order and possesses logic, so we are programmed to be attracted to symmetry. It's a language that transmits a message and therefore has an important role in mathematics and science. For example, in the CERN particle accelerator we can look at the particles like butterflies, but that will not help us to understand other particles."

If there wasn't a sense of order to the world, a sense of alignment, so many things would be much more difficult to do. And while we don't really think about it too much, we notice when things are askew.


The amount that Marcus du Sautoy has raised for the charity Common Hope by getting people to pay £10 each for the right to name a symmetrical mathematical object. The number isn't particularly symmetrical at this juncture, but perhaps we can change that by getting more people to donate more money to the cause.

"Graphic design, which evokes the symmetria of Vituvius, the dynamic symmetry of Hambidge, the asymmetry of Mondrian; which is a good gestalt, generated by intuition or by computer, by invention or by a system of coordinates, is not good design if it does not communicate."

— Paul Rand, apparently Tedium's favorite person, discussing the role of symmetry in graphic design in his book A Designer's Art. In his book Thoughts on Design, Rand notes that asymmetry holds important value as well. "Bilateral symmetry offers the spectator too simple and too obvious a statement. it offers him little or no intellectual pleasure, no challenge," he's quoted as writing in that book.

Brad Pitt's perfect face

Are symmetric faces really more attractive?

It's a unusual debate that's been going on in the academic community for decades: Does a face that looks the same on both sides signify someone who's a truly attractive person?

Marcus du Sautoy (yeah yeah yeah, that guy again) certainly thinks so.

"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," he said in his TED talk.

But looking beyond a buzzy TED talk, this question has been debated among researchers for years. Obviously it's a hugely important issue. Rather than getting plastic surgery to prevent aging, what if we could focus on becoming more symmetrical? It could be freaking huge or something.

One of the experts most interested in this topic is Randy Thornhill, an evolutionary biologist at the University of New Mexico. He's been studying this topic for years, and he says that we're attracted to symmetrical partners, because it improves our chances of reproductive health.

"It makes sense to use symmetry variation in mate choice," Thornhill told Livescience in 2006. "If you choose a perfectly symmetrical partner and reproduce with them, your offspring will have a better chance of being symmetric and able to deal with perturbations."

There's a reason why Brad Pitt is so dreamy, after all.


The increase in intelligence that children with more symmetric faces have, according to a 2014 study on the topic by London's Brunel University. The study,The Economist notes, shoots a hole through some of the existing theories on attractiveness and symmetry in youth.

The world is slowly coming into alignment. The proof? The existence of the International Symmetry Association, a group formed in 2003 with the goal of bringing together the worlds of art and science on a topic that fits together swimmingly for the both of them.

Symmetry even has an academic home—an institute called the Symmetrion, located in Budapest, Hungary. And the association puts on events—most recently with the 2013 edition of the Symmetry Festival. (Symmetry, clearly, loves company.)

Could you imagine being really deep into the culture of symmetry? Just, you know, obsessed with the way things line up to the point that you would attend a conference with people equally obsessed with the topic? Maybe it sounds super bizarre, but there's a reason why Marcus du Sautoy is a prominent author and TED speaker and you're not.

Who knows? The stars might eventually align.

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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